House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
Previous PageNext Page

Historical Perspective

British Precedents

Committees of the British Parliament have existed in some form since the fourteenth century. [1]  The precursors to the first parliamentary committees were the individuals selected as Triers and Examiners of petitions, [2] and the earliest duty of committees, as we know them, was to draw up legislation to carry into effect those prayers of petitions to which the Crown had acceded. By the middle of the sixteenth century, committees formed part of the regular machinery of parliament, modifying or “improving” legislation to which the House of Commons had agreed in principle. Committees had their own meeting room in the palace of Westminster and committee practice had acquired many of its modern characteristics, including the more relaxed rules governing debate, the right to appoint sub-committees and the right to summon witnesses. However, the House was always careful to exercise control over, and responsibility for, those matters it referred to committee.

At that time, there were two sorts of committees: large committees of 30 to 40 members, and small committees of up to 15 members. The large committees, often composed of different classes of members (professional, regional, functional), were struck to consider substantive matters. In the beginning, they were always classified as “special” committees, that is, bodies created for a particular purpose and disbanded as soon as that purpose was discharged. Over time, some of these large committees were given sessional orders of reference (or mandates) which remained in effect for the duration of a session. As “standing” committees, they were charged with an area of responsibility, such as the consideration of a class of bills or a particular department of House business. [3]  By the middle of the seventeenth century, a fairly elaborate system of standing committees was in place, and that system remained virtually unchanged over the next two centuries. [4] 

The smaller committees, composed of only those members who had been specifically named by the House, became known as “select” committees. While any Member could attend select committee proceedings, only those specifically named to the committee by the House could participate in the deliberations. [5] 

By contrast, it became common in the large committees to allow whoever attended to participate in the discussion. As the practice of allowing any Member to speak in a large committee evolved, they came to be known as the “general” or “grand” committees. Ultimately, the membership of these committees equalled that of the House itself and they were referred to as Committees of the Whole. [6]  Grand committees became the preferred forum for the consideration of “bills of great concernment, and chiefly in bills to impose a tax, or raise money from the people… to the end there may be opportunity for fuller debates, for that at a committee the members have liberty to speak as often as they shall see cause, to one question…” [7] 

Britain’s revolutionary Long Parliament (1640-60), [8]  which assumed all the powers of administration and government on behalf of the Commonwealth, effectively did away with grand committees and ruled by means of small committees. Committees of the Whole were seen to be “highly inconvenient”, affording as they did equal debating rights to the opposition. [9] 

With the Restoration, [10]  Parliament, in 1661, once again reverted to grand committees to consider its most significant orders of business and, by 1700, it had become common to examine bills in Committees of the Whole House following second reading. [11]  Over the years, various committees on reform continued to suggest that legislation again be referred to the small committees; however, the House continued to prefer the greater openness available in the larger forum.

Pre-Confederation Procedure in Committees

Contrary to the United Kingdom practice in the nineteenth century, where the majority of committee work was carried out in Committees of the Whole, the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada regularly referred bills to select committees for consideration. [12]  In fact, the standing committee system in the two Canadas, as it evolved, more closely resembled the committee structure of the American colonial legislatures and the United States Congress than that of the British Parliament. [13]  A fairly sophisticated system of committees emerged over the 1830s.

In 1831, Lower Canada began appointing a number of standing committees (i.e., committees having an on-going mandate) at the beginning of every session. Somewhat later, in 1836, the Assembly of Upper Canada appointed 12 select standing committees, touching virtually all matters of government business, a departure from its usual practice of nominating ad hoc or special committees as the need arose. [14] 

Committees afforded Members of the Legislative Assemblies a degree of independence from the Executive and reflected their desire to involve themselves more directly in government affairs. For this reason, the Executive Council of Upper Canada discontinued the practice of appointing standing committees following the 1837 rebellion. [15]  Similarly, the government of the United Province of Canada (1841-66) refused initially to institute a system of standing committees, contending this would compromise the principle of responsible government. [16] 

Development of the Rules Respecting Committees of the Canadian House of Commons

The rules respecting committees of the House of Commons in the new Dominion of Canada were inherited from the Province of Canada, and were essentially the same as those used in the legislature of Lower Canada prior to the Union Act, 1840[17]  Efforts at reform, both before and since Confederation, have continued to reflect either the desire to improve the efficiency of the legislature, or the perpetual struggle to alter the balance of power between the legislature and the Executive.

Of the original Standing Orders adopted in 1867, few were directly concerned with standing or special committees. The rules did not list which committees should be struck, nor specify their powers, procedures or the authority of the Chair. They did, however, deny committee membership to any individual who had declared against the matter under consideration. [18]  A feature of British parliamentary practice since at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, this rule was not rescinded in Canada until 1955. [19] 

From 1867 to 1906, the list of House standing committees [20]  was established by way of a motion adopted during each session of each Parliament, usually in the first days following the Speech from the Throne. [21]  In 1906, the House included in the Standing Orders, for the first time, a list of “standing” committees which the House had decided should be appointed in every session, although even these committees were active only when the House specifically ordered them to consider a particular matter. [22] Special and joint committees, whose number and mandate varied from one year to the next, were also established during the course of each session. Also in 1906, the House instituted a committee of selection charged with nominating the standing committee membership. [23] 

Due to the considerable size of most committees in the early years of Confederation (some had over one hundred members), and the rule that a majority of the membership was needed for a quorum, the larger standing committees experienced considerable difficulty gathering together enough members, on a regular basis, to meet and transact business. [24]  Consequently, over the years, the size of standing committees declined, falling as low as 15 members during the Twenty-Sixth Parliament (1963-65) and rising again to 16-18 members in the Thirty-Sixth Parliament. [25]  On the other hand, the number of House standing committees grew from 10 in 1867 to 25 in 1986, falling back to 17 in the Thirty-Sixth Parliament (1997- ). [26] 

Despite the fact that a standing committee structure was established at Confederation, for the first hundred years, most of the committees did not actually meet from one session to another and most House business was transacted on the floor of the Chamber, often in a Committee of the Whole. [27]  The House repeatedly considered enhancing the role of standing committees, particularly in relation to the study of Estimates. On several occasions, Members expressed concern over the lack of detailed scrutiny the Estimates received in the House and suggested they could be studied more effectively by first referring them to standing and select committees for consideration. A proposal to this effect was referred to a special committee in February 1925. [28]  Although the proposal was not endorsed by the committee, the issue continued to be raised in the House. In July 1955, the House agreed to a motion providing for the withdrawal of the Estimates from the Committee of Supply and referring them to standing or special committees. [29]  In 1958, the House added a Standing Committee on Estimates. [30]  In 1964, a Special Committee on Procedure and Organization further proposed that the Main Estimates be referred automatically after tabling to the standing committees. [31] 

In 1965, the Standing Orders were modified, on a provisional basis, permitting standing committees to examine the Estimates. [32]  However, it was not until 1968 that the House agreed to a permanent restructuring and reorientation of the committee system. Under the new rules, the Main Estimates would be tabled and referred to the standing committees by March 1 of each year, to be reported back (or deemed reported back) to the House by May 31. As well, provision was made for standing committee consideration of all bills (other than those based on Supply, and Ways and Means motions) after second reading. [33] 

In 1982, the House again appointed a special committee to review the Standing Orders [34]  and proceeded to implement several of its recommendations on a provisional basis. Among the most significant changes were those automatically referring the annual reports of departments, agencies and Crown corporations to standing committees and empowering the committees to initiate their own studies or investigations based on the information in those reports. [35]  Early in the subsequent Parliament (1984-88), the House agreed to retain the provisional changes [36]  and struck yet another special committee to inquire into the efficacy of all aspects of House procedure and administration. [37]  This committee made recommendations to enlarge the scope of committee mandates to give standing committees “broad authority” to look into and report to the House on any matter which was relevant to the departments for which they were responsible; to create a committee structure which reflected, as much as practicable, the organization of government; [38]  and to establish a Liaison Committee, consisting of the Chairs of all standing committees and appropriate Chairs or Vice-Chairs of joint committees, charged with the allocation of committee budgets. [39]  Provisional changes to the Standing Orders in 1986 incorporated the majority of the Committee’s recommendations relating to committees; these changes were made permanent the following year. [40]  The House’s standing committee structure was readjusted in 1991 and 1994, reflecting changes in government organization. [41] 

Apart from these reorganizations of the committee system, there have been two other significant changes to committee practice since the McGrath Committee reforms, both aimed principally at enhancing the profile and effectiveness of committees and backbenchers. In April 1991, the House agreed to allow committees to broadcast their proceedings within guidelines established by the Standing Committee on House Management; [42]  in 1994, [43]  the rules were again amended to permit the House to appoint and/or instruct a committee to bring in a bill, and to refer bills to a committee before second reading. [44]  The intent of these changes was to give ordinary Members an opportunity to participate in policy development before the government had committed itself to a particular legislative initiative. [45] 

Top of documentPrevious PageNext Page