Experience has shown that smaller and more flexible committees, when entrusted with interesting matters, can have a very positive impact on the development of our parliamentary system, upgrade the role of Members of Parliament, sharpen their interest and ultimately enable this institution to produce much more enlightened measures that better meet the wishes of the Canadian people.
YVON PINARD, President of the Privy Council
(Debates, November 29, 1982, p. 21071)
As with many other legislative bodies, the House of Commons has a committee system. A parliamentary committee is a small group of Members created and empowered by the House to perform one or more specific tasks.1 There are a number of different types of committees and they are formed on a temporary or permanent basis. They usually consist of Members drawn from all recognized parties in the House. Committee work, in fact, represents a substantial portion of the parliamentary activity of a Member of Parliament in Ottawa.2 To enable them to perform their work effectively, the House generally delegates to its committees its powers of inquiry and the authority to compel the appearance of witnesses and the production of documents.3
A deliberative assembly derives a number of advantages from the use of parliamentary committees. It is more efficient to perform in small groups work that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish in an assembly of more than 330 members. In essence, the responsibilities of parliamentary committees are to review in detail and improve bills and existing legislation, and to monitor the activities of the machinery of government and its executive branch by conducting reviews of and inquiries into government programs and policies, reviews of past and planned expenditures, and reviews of non-judicial appointments.
Parliamentary committees also offer a more informal setting in which Members have the opportunity to develop close working relations with their colleagues. Moreover, if they remain members of the same committees for a sufficient length of time, they are able to develop or strengthen their expertise in specific fields. Through the public consultations they conduct, parliamentary committees represent an important avenue for Members of Parliament to enter into a direct dialogue with those in civil society, such as individual citizens, non-governmental experts, and representatives from the private sector and labour organizations. Through their work, committees can draw attention and raise the awareness of the government and the general public to specific issues.4
The process followed in the work of a parliamentary committee is essentially the same for all of them. It begins with the task entrusted to it by the House. The committee draws up a work plan and begins its study or inquiry. It may then hear witnesses and seek opinions. It concludes its study by recording its observations and making recommendations in the form of a report it presents to the House. In some cases, the committee may request that the government respond to its recommendations.
This chapter describes the procedure and practice of committees of the House of Commons. After a brief historical survey of the development of the committee system, the types of committees, their mandates, lifespan, powers and the types of studies they conduct are examined. This is followed by a discussion of their membership, leadership and staff, and their deliberations, the procedure that regulates them, how they are organized, the physical framework in which they do their work, how they are funded, and how their work is reported.