Parliamentary committees are the nexus in which almost all activities of a parliament meet. Committees provide a venue for parliamentarians and parliamentary groups review in detail draft laws, government activities and to engage citizens. Through the work of committees, MPs develop expertise in a specific policy area, and conduct thorough examinations of proposed legislation, executive actions and policies. As key organs of parliaments, committees require highly qualified staff with knowledge of specific topics (i.e. - finance, education, health), parliamentary procedures, law, and legal drafting.
The lawmaking process generally benefits from a comprehensive use of the committee system, as it is in the committee stage that the details of the draft law can be discussed and citizens can provide inputs and comments on the proposed law. Whether the committee stage is prior to their consideration in the plenary or between plenary sessions, draft law, MPs representing parliamentary groups are afforded the opportunity to discuss and amend legislation before voting upon it. Committees also provide an important venue for public input on proposed legislation, as citizen groups and other interested parties are often called to testify.
Committees are also a primary setting for conducting the function of oversight. Whether on its own initiative or as instructed by the parliament, a committee usually has the authority to review in detail the activities of the government. These government activities can include how effectively the government is implementing laws passed by the parliament, the implementation of policies that have derived from such laws or the allocation and expenditure of funds approved as part of the state budget. Committees have several tools to support their role of oversight. They hold Public Consultations which may include field visits or holding hearings in constituencies that may have particular views or experiences related to a legislative subject or conduct onsite assessments of an issue under consideration. Committees may also seek the testimony of government officials, including Ministers, in relation to specific policies or issues. For more information on committee public consultations, please click here.
In many political systems, budget and public accounts committees have become important symbols of parliamentary strength, as they are often vested with the power of holding executives accountable for their budgetary discretion or lack thereof. Budget committees have proven to be valuable in helping remove key institutional and political obstacles to effective oversight. Active and effective public accounts committees and legislative audit bodies improve government fiscal accountability and increase the ‘value for money’ of government expenditures. Such powers ensured committees are important mechanisms for moving parliamentary oversight out of party structures and into multi-party settings.
Key determinants in the effectiveness of a committee include the relative strength of the parliamentary groups, if the executive is chosen from the parliament (i.e. - Westminister system) and if one political party holds a majority of the seats in parliament. Where an electoral system results in majority governments formed by one political party or a strong coalition, committees are often less effective. Under these circumstances, parliamentary groups in the majority will also form a majority on the committee and will use this majority to limit investigations and public hearings that are not in the interest of the government.
As key organs of parliament, committees require a diverse and highly capable Committee Secretariat. This team must include individuals with expertise in budget analysis, public policy analysis, parliamentary procedures, law, and legal drafting. Committee staff must also be able and willing to work closely with the committee leadership and MPs in a non-partisan fashion. For more information on this subject, please click here.