House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

18 - Parliamentary committees

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Types of committees and terminology

Parliamentary committees

Committees appointed by the House, or by both Houses, can be categorised as follows (a particular committee may fall into more than one category):

Standing committees are committees created for the life of a Parliament and are usually re-established in successive Parliaments. They have a continuing role.

General purpose standing committees are a specific type of standing committee. They are investigatory or scrutiny committees, established by the House at the commencement of each Parliament to inquire into and report upon any matters referred to them, including legislation. These committees specialise by subject area, between them covering most areas of federal government activity (see page 642).

Select committees are created as the need arises, for a specific purpose, and thus have a more limited life which is normally specified in the resolution of appointment. Once a select committee has carried out its investigation and presented its final report, it ceases to exist.

Joint committees draw their membership from, and report to, both Houses of Parliament, enabling Members and Senators to work together (see page 901).

Statutory committees are those established by Act of Parliament, that is, by statute. All existing statutory committees are joint committees (see page 902).

Domestic or internal committees are those whose functions are concerned with the powers and procedures of the House or the administration of Parliament (see page 896).

The Federation Chamber (until 2012 named the Main Committee[4]) is a committee of the House established to be an alternative venue to the Chamber for debate of a restricted range of business—principally the second reading and consideration in detail stages of bills, and resumption of debate on motions moved in the House (generally relating to committee and delegation reports and documents). It is not an investigatory committee and cannot hear witnesses or take evidence.[5] (See Chapters on ‘Motions’ and ‘Legislation’ for more detail on Federation Chamber procedures.)

Different terminology used for House of Commons committees

In the United Kingdom, until recently the distinguishing feature of a standing committee was that it proceeded by debate, as opposed to a select committee, which proceeded by taking evidence, deliberation and report.[6] Since 2006 the former House of Commons standing committees have been known as general committees.[7] These committees (public bills committees and other general committees) ‘proceed in the same way as the House by debating and deciding upon questions’.[8] The House of Representatives does not have committees which ‘proceed by debate’ (other than the Federation Chamber), but has used them in the past for the detail stages of legislation—that is, legislation committees and estimates committees between 1978 and 1981 (see first edition).

Federation Chamber—functions and status as a committee

While the United Kingdom House of Commons sittings in Westminster Hall[9] were inspired by the model provided by the House of Representatives Main Committee,[10] as the Federation Chamber was then named, there are essential differences between the functions of the two parallel chambers. Westminster Hall is for debate (debates on topics proposed by private Members[11] and debates on committee reports) rather than for the transaction of substantive business.[12] In contrast, in the House of Representatives the Main Committee’s major function was that of a legislation committee, in which stages of bills could be taken.

Westminster Hall was designed as a parallel chamber, to be ‘seen not as a committee of the House but as the House itself, sitting in another location’.[13] House of Commons standing orders state that any order or resolution made in Westminster Hall is deemed to be an order or resolution of the House.[14] The Federation Chamber, although also providing a parallel chamber for debate, is a subordinate body expressly established as a committee of the House.[15] Any substantive decision it makes must be confirmed by the House.

Unofficial committees

In addition to the parliamentary committees described above there are further categories of committees consisting of Members and Senators which operate within the Parliament. However, although their members are Members of Parliament, these committees are not appointed by either House. They are therefore not committees of the Parliament, and do not enjoy the special powers and privileges of such committees, nor do they necessarily operate in accordance with parliamentary procedures and practice.

In earlier years unofficial committees consisting of Members and Senators were appointed by the Government of the day.[16] Membership included members of the Opposition. The committees’ reports were submitted to the Government and subsequently presented to one or both Houses. The practice of appointing such committees has not been continued.

Informal committees consisting of Members and Senators have been established to advise the Presiding Officers in respect of accommodation matters in the provisional Parliament House and, in more recent years, in respect of the information systems needs of Members and Senators and in respect of the Parliamentary Education Office. In the 36th and 37th Parliaments a group of Members and Senators, including the Presiding Officers, formed a working group to consider issues relating to standards of conduct for Members of Parliament, including Ministers (see Chapter on ‘Members’).

The chairs and deputy chairs of the investigatory committees supported by the Department of the House of Representatives meet together as an informal Liaison Committee of Committee Chairs and Deputy Chairs to discuss matters of mutual concern and advise the Speaker on matters affecting committees. The Deputy Speaker chairs the group.

The government and opposition parties each have committees of private Members to assist them in the consideration of legislative proposals and other issues of political significance allied to each committee’s function. These party committees are referred to in the Chapter on ‘House, Government and Opposition’.

4. The Main Committee was renamed the Federation Chamber from 27 February 2012 (VP 2010–12/1179). The change had been recommended by the Procedure Committee in its June 2004 report Renaming the Main Committee—Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Main Committee. The committee’s concern about the name reflected the possible confusion with the Parliament House main committee room, use of which is shared by the Senate and the House. The name of the House of Representatives Main Committee originated in the term ‘Main Legislation Committee’. This became ‘Main Committee (Legislation)’ in the October 1993 Procedure Committee report About time: bills, questions and working hours, which recommended the concept of parallel legislative streams. ‘Legislation’ was dropped from the name before the Main Committee’s establishment in 1994, when committee and delegation reports and motions to take note of papers were included as matters that could be referred.
5. The Federation Chamber is conceptually a committee of the whole House, that is, a committee in which all Members may participate. Other than this, committees of the whole no longer feature in the House of Representatives. Until 1994 the detail stage of bills (then referred to as the committee stage) was taken in a committee of the whole, and until 1963 the Committee of Supply and the Committee of Ways and Means, also committees of the whole, were used to consider financial proposals. The innovation of the Main Committee (now Federation Chamber) in 1994 was that it met outside the Chamber of the House and at the same time as the House, thereby enabling parallel rather than consecutive proceedings.
6. May, 23rd edn, p. 794.
7. For history of the use of the term ‘standing committee’ in the House of Commons, and recommendation that it be discontinued, see Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, First report: The legislative process, HC 1097 (2005–06), paras 63–6.
8. May, 24th edn, p. 859.
9. In the Grand Committee Room off Westminster Hall, rather than in the Hall itself. Another committee room has been used when the Grand Committee Room has been unavailable.
10. See Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, First report: The parliamentary calendar: initial proposals, HC 60 (1998–99), ‘Part II: The establishment of a “Main Committee” ’; and Second report: Sittings of the House in Westminster Hall, HC 194 (1998–99).
11. On the question ‘That the sitting be now adjourned’.
12. May, 24th edn, 2011, ‘Sittings in Westminster Hall’, pp 322–5. Business may also include questions for oral answer, but this had not occurred since 2003–04.
13. Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Second report, HC 194 (1998–99), para 17.
14. House of Commons S.O. 10.
15. S.O. 183.
16. E.g. VP 1905/73; PP 36 (1906).