Subcommittees may be appointed to:
undertake ad hoc tasks such as taking evidence or conducting inspections on a particular day;
investigate and report on a specified aspect of a broader inquiry; or
conduct a full scale inquiry.
A committee cannot delegate any of its powers or functions to a subcommittee unless so authorised by the House. Without this authority committees may only appoint subcommittees for purposes which do not constitute a delegation of authority, such as the drafting of reports. Standing authorisation for committees of the House to appoint subcommittees is given by standing order 234, which provides that a committee may appoint subcommittees of three or more of its members and may refer to a subcommittee any matter which the committee may examine. It is considered that a committee is responsible for the activities of its subcommittee(s) and that a subcommittee is accountable to its committee.
The chair of a subcommittee is appointed by its parent committee, and has a casting vote only. If the chair of a subcommittee is not present at a meeting of the subcommittee the members of the subcommittee present elect another member of the subcommittee to act as chair at that meeting. The quorum of a subcommittee is two members of the subcommittee. Members of the committee who are not members of a subcommittee may participate in the public proceedings of the subcommittee but may not vote, move any motion or be counted for the purpose of a quorum.
The following powers and authorisations granted to committees by the standing orders are also expressly granted to subcommittees:
to call witnesses and require that documents be produced (S.O. 236);
to consider and make use of the evidence and records of similar committees appointed during previous Parliaments (S.O. 237);
to authorise publication of any evidence given before it or any document presented to it (S.O. 242(a));
to conduct proceedings using approved means (S.O. 235(a));
to conduct proceedings at any time or place as it sees fit, and whether or not the House is sitting (S.O. 235(c)).
Section 3 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act provides that, in the Act, a reference to a ‘committee’ includes a subcommittee.
A subcommittee is required to keep minutes of each meeting and submit them with its report to the committee by which it was appointed. A subcommittee may not report directly to the House but only to its parent committee which in turn reports to the House in terms of its reference. This requirement applies to matters which may arise in the course of an inquiry—for example, unauthorised disclosure of evidence or possible intimidation of a witness—as well as to reports.
In general practice reports by subcommittees are prepared and considered in the same manner as committee reports. The chair of the subcommittee presents the report and minutes of the subcommittee to the full committee. If the report is for presentation in the House, the committee then considers the report, makes any amendments it requires and resolves that the report, as amended, be the report of the committee.
There is no provision for a protest or dissenting report to be added to a subcommittee report. Committee practice is that formal protest or dissent is recorded only at the committee consideration stage. A member of a subcommittee, or any other committee member, can disagree to a subcommittee report or portions of it when the committee is considering the matter and this will be recorded in the committee’s minutes of proceedings.
In 1975 the Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System presented a lengthy report of its subcommittee, in effect as an appendix to the committee’s two-page report, without expressing any view on the subcommittee’s conclusions and recommendations. The purpose was to seek comment on the report for the consideration of the full committee. A member of the committee presented a dissenting report in which he stated:
It is my opinion, and I suspect that it is the opinion shared by many members of the Committee, that when a subcommittee is sent to perform a task it should not be obliged to report as an isolated unit; rather it should present its findings to its parent body, have them ratified and then present them to the Parliament.
On other occasions, when inquiries have not been reported on at the dissolution of the House, in the new Parliament the opportunity has sometimes been taken for the new committee, or another appropriate committee, to have the inquiry completed by use of a subcommittee. It has been pointed out that while, for the purpose of enabling a report to go forward, a committee may adopt a subcommittee’s report in such circumstances, the report does not necessarily convey the views of committee members who did not serve on the subcommittee.