How committees work

Although in this section we have a departmental committee particularly in mind, most of it applies to most select committees.

Orders of reference and powers

A committee’s task is set out in its orders of reference, which also define its powers and specify how many members it shall have. In the case of permanent committees, these orders of reference will be in the House’s standing orders; but the House can set up a committee for as long or short a time as it sees fit and can give it other tasks or instructions (such as reporting by a certain date).

Tasks are usually widely defined: for example, departmental select committees must ‘examine expenditure, administration and policy’, although other committees, such as those on statutory instruments or regulatory reform, are much more circumscribed. Most committees thus have a good deal of latitude; and it is also a basic principle that (subject to any instruction from the House) the interpretation of their orders of reference is a matter for them. Committees generally do not take kindly to being told by the government or by witnesses that they should not be looking at this or that subject; indeed, such comments are normally entirely counterproductive.

Committees are subordinate bodies of the House; they have only those powers that the House gives them and cannot exercise any power that the House itself does not have. The normal menu is ‘to adjourn from place to place’, which means that they do not have to sit only at Westminster (‘within the United Kingdom’ is added for those committees that may not travel abroad); to report ‘from time to time’, which means that they may continue reporting on their subject area rather than making one report at the end of their work; to appoint specialist advisers; (in most cases) to appoint one or more sub-committees; to exchange evidence with other committees (and with the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly); and to meet jointly with any other committee of either House. This last power provides a good deal of flexibility when a subject affects several committees: for example, the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees have formed what is, in effect, a joint committee on arms exports. The Welsh Affairs Committee may invite members of any specified committee of the National Assembly for Wales to attend and participate in its proceedings (but not to vote).

 
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