the Committee System
What are Parliamentary Committees?
Parliamentary committees are appointed by the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia to undertake business on behalf of the Assembly. Committees are comprised of small groups of Private Members who have been appointed by the Legislative Assembly. Committees derive their powers from the House and must report their findings back to the House.
Committees consider only those matters that are referred to them by the Legislative Assembly. Within their terms of reference, committees are afforded total independence in their deliberations.
The committee system allows for a more detailed examination of policy and other matters than is possible in the larger House. At times, the committee system also provides members of the public with the opportunity to have direct input into the parliamentary process by making written or electronic submissions and attending public hearings. Parliamentary committees may travel within British Columbia to obtain evidence.
Select Standing Committees are established by the Legislative Assembly
at the commencement of each session. During the 2nd session, 38th
Parliament, Standing Order
68(1) was amended thereby establishing the following nine Select
- Aboriginal Affairs
- Children and Youth
- Crown Corporations
- Finance and Government Services
- Legislative Initiatives
- Parliamentary Reform, Ethical Conduct, Standing Orders and Private Bills
- Public Accounts
At the commencement of each Session, a Committee of Selection is appointed to prepare and report lists of Members to compose the nine Select Standing Committees of the House.
In addition, special committees may be created by the Legislative Assembly to examine a single, specific issue. A special committee ceases to exist after it has completed its investigation and presented its final report to the House. A common type of special committee is one which recommends the appointment of statutory officers of the Legislature, such as the Auditor General or the Ombudsperson.
Functions of Committees
The use of parliamentary committees allows for a more detailed examination of matters than would be possible in the larger, more formal environment of the House.
In recent years, committees have investigated a wide variety of topics including: sustainable aquaculture, the use of cosmetic pesticides, and the provincial mid-term timber supply.
Select Standing committees may also be referred the subject-matter of a bill (Standing
Order 78A) or a vote within the Estimates (Standing
Order 60A). But in practice these referrals rarely occur. However, private bills are automatically referred to the Select Standing Committee on Parliamentary Reform, Ethical Conduct, Standing Orders and Private Bills after first reading in the House.
At its first meeting, a committee elects a chairperson and a deputy
chairperson, reviews its terms of reference, and embarks on drafting
a business plan.
At the beginning of each legislative session, a Committee of Selection is automatically authorized to determine the membership of all parliamentary committees. The Committee of Selection usually appoints between ten and twelve members to each committee.
Committees are "creatures of the House" and are, by nature, subordinate to the Legislative Assembly. Committees must generally observe the Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly, and they must report back to the Legislative Assembly once their work is complete. Committees of the Legislative Assembly do not have the authority to initiate their own work. They must have a matter referred to them by the House.
Typically, a parliamentary committee is empowered by a motion tabled in the Legislative Assembly by a government minister. The motion calls for a committee to investigate a particular matter, and the Legislative Assembly votes on that motion. The substance of the motion becomes the committee's terms of reference.
The terms of reference outline the tasks given to a committee and also permit the committee to meet, to call witnesses and to retain personnel as required. The terms of reference may also specify that the committee must report back to the House within a given time period. Beyond these typical specifications, the committee is free to interpret the scope of its mandate.
Parliamentary committees vary in size but typically comprise Private Members of the Legislative Assembly from all parties, in proportion to their representation in the House.
Members of the Legislative Assembly who have a particular interest in the work of a committee, but have not been appointed to that committee, may choose to attend meetings as observers. With the permission of the committee, these Members may participate in committee debate, but they are not permitted to vote.
Role of Committee Chair
The Committee Chair is responsible for maintaining order and decorum during meetings, deciding questions of procedure, and generally ensuring that the committee work proceeds smoothly in conjunction with the committee's business plan.
The key responsibilities of the Chair include:
- Ruling on all procedural matters
- Calling committee meetings, subject to authorization of the committee
- Signing committee reports and presenting them to the House
- Directing the administration of the committee by the Clerk to the Committee
Committee members elect a Chair and a Deputy Chair at their first committee meeting.
Reporting to the Legislative Assembly
At the end of its deliberations, a parliamentary committee must report its observations and recommendations to the Legislative Assembly. The observations contained in a report often refer to evidence collected during the public hearing process.
Committee reports contain recommendations for action by government or by the Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary committees in British Columbia do not have the authority to directly alter legislation or cause the government to take any specific action. Similarly, the government is not required to respond to committee reports.
The Committee Chair makes a committee report public by presenting it in the House. If the Legislature is not in session, the Chair may choose to make the report public by depositing a copy of the report with the Office of the Clerk. The contents of committee reports are privileged, and therefore they are kept confidential until the report is made public.