House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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Structure and Mandate of Committees

Leaving aside Committees of the Whole, which are discussed in detail in Chapter 19, there are several distinct types of committees: standing, legislative, special, joint and sub-committees. All are “select” committees, that is, the House has chosen a limited number of members for each committee from among all the Members of the House. [52] Standing committees are provided for in the Standing Orders; permanent changes to the list of these committees can only be made by amending the Standing Orders. Legislative and special committees are appointed by motion on an ad hoc basis to carry out specific tasks and cease to exist when they have tabled their final reports. Joint committees are composed of members from both the House and Senate; they may be either standing or special. Sub-committees are committees struck by committees themselves for various purposes. They may exist for the entire duration of the main committee or may cease to exist when their specific purpose has been accomplished.

Standing Committees

Standing committees are permanent committees established by Standing Order. [53]  They are mandated by the House to oversee a government department or departments, to review particular areas of federal policy or to exercise procedural and administrative responsibilities related to Parliament. Some committees may have both departmental and policy-area responsibilities. As well as the permanent mandates provided to standing committees by the Standing Orders, other matters are routinely referred to them by the House for examination: bills, [54]  Estimates, [55]  Order-in-Council appointments, [56]  documents tabled in the House pursuant to statute, [57]  and specific matters which the House wishes to have studied. [58]  The House refers specific studies to committees by adopting a motion to that effect. The motion, once adopted, becomes an order of the House to a committee, known as an order of reference. In addition to the subject matter of the study, the order of reference may also contain conditions that the committee must comply with in carrying out the study or additional powers which it may require for that purpose.

The majority of standing committees are established to oversee a government department or departments. [59]  These committees are charged with the review of the relevant statute law, departmental operations and expenditures, and the effectiveness of the policies and programs of the department. [60]  The House adjusts the number and responsibilities of departmental standing committees to reflect changes in the structure of government administration.

The Standing Orders provide for a number of committees to have either particular policy responsibilities which have application throughout the federal administration [61]  or responsibility for matters pertaining to the procedures and the administration of the House and its committees. [62]  These committees may be responsible for overseeing a specific government department as well. The mandates currently are as follows:

  • The mandate of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage includes the monitoring of federal multicultural policy throughout the Government of Canada to aid in preserving and enhancing Canada’s multicultural heritage and to encourage government departments and agencies to reflect that heritage. [63] 
  • The mandate of the Standing Committee on Finance includes the consideration of and report on proposals regarding the budgetary policy of the government. [64] 
  • The mandate of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities includes the proposing, promoting, monitoring and assessing of initiatives directed at the social integration of persons with disabilities. [65] 
  • The mandate of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights includes the review of the reports of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. [66] 
  • The mandate of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs [67]  includes the review of House administration and the services and facilities provided to Members, as well as those services under the joint administration of the two Houses. It also deals with the review of the Standing Orders, the procedures and practices of the House, all matters relating to the election of Members of the House of Commons, the broadcasting of proceedings and the selection of votable items of Private Members’ Business. [68]  It is to this Committee that the House ordinarily refers matters relating to parliamentary privilege. The Committee is responsible for nominating the members of House committees and the House membership of standing joint committees, as well as preparing lists of associate members. [69]  The Committee is also specifically charged with establishing priority of use of committee meeting rooms. [70] 
  • The mandate of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts includes the review of and report on the Public Accounts of Canada and all reports of the Auditor General of Canada. [71] 


The Standing Orders formerly contained no provisions with respect to the powers of standing committees. Powers were provided in the motion establishing a given committee [72]  or, following the inclusion of a list of standing committees in the Standing Orders, by separate motion. The powers given usually included the power to examine and enquire into all such things as the House might refer, the power to report from time to time and the power to send for persons, papers and records. [73]  In 1965, the Standing Orders were amended to give powers to standing committees on a permanent basis. In addition to those listed above, the power to print from day to day such papers and evidence as the committee might order was included at that time. [74]  Subsequently, this list was extended to include the power to sit when the House is sitting or when it stands adjourned, to delegate powers to sub-committees (except the power to report directly to the House), [75]  to sit jointly with other committees of the House, and to append supplementary or dissenting opinions to reports. [76]  In addition, standing committees are empowered to broadcast their proceedings in accordance with guidelines prepared by the Procedure and House Affairs Committee. [77]  They may retain the services of expert, professional, technical and clerical staff. [78]  They are accorded an interim spending authority by the Board of Internal Economy. [79]  Finally, standing committees are empowered to meet without a quorum for the purpose of hearing evidence and to publish that evidence. At such meetings, no vote, resolution or other decision may be taken. [80] 

Should a standing committee require additional powers to carry out a particular study, the additional powers may be conferred by the House either by concurring in a report of the committee which contains a request for powers [81]  or by simply adopting a motion to confer the desired power. [82]  It is left to each standing committee to decide the extent to which it will exercise the powers granted to it by the House.

Liaison Committee

The Liaison Committee is a permanent committee, established pursuant to the Standing Orders, but is not a standing committee. It is made up ex officio of the Chairs of all the standing committees and the House Chairs of the standing joint committees. The Liaison Committee is responsible for apportioning funds to standing committees from the money allocated for that purpose by the Board of Internal Economy. [83]  It meets in camera to deliberate on administrative matters relating to the standing committee system and has a quorum of seven members. [84]  It is empowered to report to the House from time to time and has also carried out studies on the effectiveness of the committees of the House. [85] 

The Liaison Committee Chair is empowered to request that a list of associate members for the Liaison Committee be prepared and reported to the House by the Procedure and House Affairs Committee. [86]  These associate members are deemed to be Liaison Committee members for the purpose of forming sub-committees. [87]  Associate members of the Liaison Committee are not committee chairs and may include members from all parties. [88]  The Liaison Committee usually establishes a Budget Sub-committee charged with apportioning the funds provided by the Board of Internal Economy to the various standing committees.

Legislative Committees

Legislative committees are a distinct type of committee intended expressly to undertake the consideration of legislation. They were created by amendment to the Standing Orders in 1985 in response to recommendations of the Lefebvre and McGrath Committees. [89]  It was felt at the time that standing committees, with an expanded mandate to initiate studies without a specific reference from the House, would not also be able to readily deal with legislation. The solution proposed to this difficulty was the creation of legislative committees appointed solely to deal with bills. [90] They are appointed by the House on an ad hoc basis [91]  to deal with particular bills and cease to exist upon the presentation of their report to the House.

A legislative committee is required to be struck once second reading debate has begun on a bill which is to be referred to such a committee, or once debate has begun on a motion to appoint a legislative committee. The Procedure and House Affairs Committee must present a report containing a list of members within five sitting days of the beginning of the debate. [92]  The report is deemed adopted the moment it is presented in the House. The Speaker then appoints a Chair for the committee from the Panel of Chairmen. [93]  The legislative committee meets for the purpose of organization once the bill has been referred to it by the House. The organization meeting must take place within two days of the naming of the Chair and the adoption of the motion referring the bill to committee or appointing the committee. [94] 


A legislative committee is empowered to examine and enquire into the bill [95]  referred to it and to report the same with or without amendments. It is not empowered to present a report containing substantive recommendations concerning the bill. [96]  A legislative committee may also be created to prepare and to bring in a bill. [97]  In its examination, the committee may send for officials of government departments, agencies and Crown corporations and competent technical witnesses. [98]  It may send for papers and records, sit while the House is sitting, [99]  sit while the House stands adjourned, [100]  and print papers and evidence. [101]  A legislative committee may also delegate to a sub-committee on agenda and procedure the power to schedule meetings, send for witnesses, papers and records subject to approval by the full committee. [102]  The Board of Internal Economy may accord spending authority [103]  to legislative committees and a legislative committee may retain such expert, professional, technical and clerical staff as it deems necessary. [104] 

Should a legislative committee require additional powers, they can only be obtained by having the House adopt a motion to that effect. [105] 

Special Committees

Special committees are appointed by the House to carry out specific inquiries, studies or other tasks which the House judges of special importance. [106]  Each special committee is created by means of a motion agreed to by the House (in the case of special joint committees, by both Houses [107] ). This motion defines the committee’s mandate and usually enumerates other provisions: its powers, its membership and the deadline for submitting its final report. The actual terms of the motion vary from case to case, to suit the specific task for which the committee is being established by the House.

Special committees cease to exist with the presentation of their final report. [108]  Where a special committee has not completed its work by the end of a session, it ceases on prorogation, but it may be revived in a subsequent session. [109] 


Special committees possess only those powers that are provided to them by the House in the order of reference which establishes them [110]  or by subsequent motion. Depending on whether its mandate concerns a particular subject matter or consideration of a bill, a special committee may be given the powers of a standing [111]  or legislative [112]  committee. The House may provide special committees with additional powers such as the power to travel, [113]  special broadcasting powers [114]  or any other exceptional powers it deems necessary. [115]  The Board of Internal Economy may accord special committees spending authority. [116]  When a special committee requires additional powers to complete a study, it may, where it has been given the power to report from time to time, make a request for those powers in a report to the House. The House confers the requested powers by concurring in the committee’s report. [117]  Alternatively, the House may simply adopt a motion to confer the powers which the committee requires. [118] 

Joint Committees

Joint committees are composed of members of both the House of Commons and the Senate, and may be standing or special. Standing joint committees are permanent committees established pursuant to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons and the Rules of the Senate. [119]  They deal either with administrative matters related to both Houses or with matters having application throughout the federal sphere.

Special joint committees are established by motion of both Houses to deal with matters of great public importance. The House which wishes to initiate a special joint committee first adopts a motion to establish it and includes a provision inviting the other Chamber to participate in the proposed committee’s work. [120]  In addition to the subject of the study, the motion also includes any directions which the originating House may choose to give to the committee and the list of powers which are being delegated to it. The motion may also appoint the members of the committee or indicate how the membership will be established. Decisions of one House concerning the membership, mandate and powers of a proposed joint committee are communicated to the other House by message. While each House retains control of its own members on the committee, both Houses must be in agreement about the mandate and powers of the committee in order for it to be able to undertake its work. Once a request to participate in a joint committee is received, the other House, if it so desires, adopts a motion to establish such a committee and includes a provision to be returned, stating that it agrees to the request. Once the originating House has been informed of the agreement of the other Chamber, the committee can be organized. A special joint committee ceases to exist when it has presented its final report to both Houses, or at prorogation.


Standing Joint Committees

The Standing Orders provide for three standing joint committees: Library of Parliament, Official Languages and Scrutiny of Regulations. [121]  The Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament is charged with the review of the effectiveness, management and operation of the Library of Parliament, which serves both the House of Commons and the Senate. [122]  The mandate of this committee arises from a statutory provision giving direction and control of the Library to the Speakers of the House and Senate, with the provision that they are to be assisted by a joint committee. [123] 

The Standing Joint Committee on Official Languages is responsible for reviewing and reporting on official languages policies and programs including the reports of the Commissioner of Official Languages, which are deemed permanently referred to the Committee once they are tabled in the House. [124]  The mandate of this Committee arises from a statutory provision requiring that the administration of the Official Languages Act and reports made under the Act be permanently reviewed by a committee of one or both Houses. [125] 

The Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations [126] is mandated to review and scrutinize statutory instruments. [127]  The Committee’s mandate is set out in part in the Standing Orders [128]  and in part in the Statute Revision Act and the Statutory Instruments Act[129]  At the beginning of each session, the Committee presents a report relating to its review of the regulatory process, proposing a more detailed mandate. When the report is concurred in, this proposed mandate then becomes an order of reference to the Committee for the remainder of the session. [130] 

Special Joint Committees

The mandate of a special joint committee is contained in the order of reference which establishes the committee. In recent years, special joint committees have been appointed to deal with such subjects as child custody, [131]  defence [132]  and foreign policy, [133]  a code of conduct for Members and Senators [134]  and Senate reform. [135]  Constitutional matters have often been dealt with by special joint committees. [136]  Special joint committees have also been appointed to deal with legislation, either by being empowered to prepare a bill, [137]  or to study a bill following second reading. [138] 


Because a joint committee exists only by order of both Houses, the powers provided to a joint committee by the House of Commons can be exercised by the committee only if a similar empowerment is provided by the Senate. [139]  Each House provides certain powers to its committees through the rules which it has adopted; additional powers, where required, must be provided for by special order. The motions conferring powers on a joint committee may vary in their terms as a result of differences in the rules of the two Houses, but in order for a power to be exercised by a joint committee, it must receive the power through orders from both Houses. Notably, Senate Rules prohibit committees from meeting during sittings of the Senate. [140]  In order for a joint committee to sit at any time (as it is permitted to do by the House), a special order must be adopted by the Senate. [141] 

Standing Joint Committees

The powers accorded to standing joint committees by the House are the same as those accorded to other standing committees of the House:

  • to examine and enquire into all such matters as the House may refer to them;
  • to report from time to time;
  • to send for persons, papers and records;
  • to sit when the House is sitting and to sit when the House stands adjourned;
  • to sit jointly with other committees of the House;
  • to print papers and evidence;
  • to delegate to sub-committees all of the other powers except the power to report directly to the House. [142] 

In addition, the Standing Orders provide standing joint committees with limited spending authority, [143]  and the power to broadcast, [144]  to hire expert, professional, technical and clerical staff, [145]  to establish a reduced quorum [146]  for the purpose of hearing testimony [147]  and to request a comprehensive response from the government to any report presented to the House. [148] 

Special Joint Committees

Special joint committees have only those powers which are set out in the order of reference which establishes each committee. The powers granted to special joint committees vary, depending on the mandate given to them. They may be granted powers similar to those granted to standing joint committees by the Standing Orders. [149]  They are often granted additional powers with respect to travel [150]  and the broadcasting of their proceedings. [151] 


Sub-committees are to committees what committees are to the House; the parent body is relieved of a portion of its workload by delegating some part of its mandate or a particular task to a smaller group. Committees may establish sub-committees only if they have been empowered to do so. The House has, on occasion, established a sub-committee directly or ordered that a particular study be carried out by a sub-committee. [152]  Proceedings in sub-committees are of an informal, collegial nature. Their membership is often not proportional to the party representation on the main committee and members other than government members have been selected to chair sub-committees.

Standing committees (including, so far as the House is concerned, standing joint committees) are empowered to establish sub-committees. [153]  In forming sub-committees, standing committees may draw not only on the members of the main committee but also on its associate members. [154]  Special committees may establish sub-committees only if empowered to do so by the orders of reference which established them. The Liaison Committee, despite its limited mandate, is empowered to create sub-committees, drawing their membership both from the main committee and from the list of associate members. [155] 

A legislative committee is only permitted to establish a sub-committee on agenda and procedure, to which it may delegate the power to schedule meetings, to call for government officials and technical witnesses and to send for papers and records, subject to the approval of the main committee. [156]  As legislative committees have a very specific mandate (i.e., consideration of a bill), they do not require sub-committees for other than planning purposes. Depending on their workload, legislative committees have not always found it necessary to establish a sub-committee.

Most standing and special committees also find it convenient to establish a sub-committee on agenda and procedure, also called the steering committee, for planning purposes. [157]  Decisions reached by the sub-committee on agenda and procedure are subject to ratification by the full committee. This is done by means of concurrence in a report from the sub-committee, containing its recommendations on the organization of the committee’s work. [158] 


Sub-committees receive their mandate in the order of reference adopted by the main committee. By practice, certain sub-committees are struck in every session and continue in operation until the end of the session: for example, the sub-committee on agenda and procedure [159]  and sub-committees charged with the responsibility for a specific aspect of the committee’s overall mandate. [160]  Sub-committees may also be formed to carry out a specific study; [161]  such sub-committees cease to exist once they have made their final report to the main committee. If their work is interrupted by prorogation, the main committee may decide to revive the sub-committee in the subsequent session. [162] 


Sub-committees possess only those powers which are conferred on them by the main committee. Sub-committees to which part of a committee’s permanent mandate is delegated, or those undertaking special studies, are usually given the full powers of the main committee. [163]  Where the House accords additional powers to a standing committee by special order, these powers may be accorded to sub-committees by the main committee. Special committees may delegate to a sub-committee any of the powers granted to them in the order of reference, including the power to travel or special broadcasting powers. [164]  However, sub-committees are restricted from reporting directly to the House. [165] 

Depending on the purpose for which it is established, a sub-committee may be given a more restricted list of powers than that possessed by the main committee. [166]  Sub-committees on agenda and procedure, as their function is only to plan the work of the main committee, are not ordinarily given powers with respect to the summoning of witnesses or sending for documents.

Where a sub-committee requires additional powers, it may put its request in the form of a report to the main committee. If the powers sought are beyond those that the main committee can delegate, the main committee may request them in a report to the House, or the House may adopt a motion granting them directly. [167] 

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