Fixing Ottawa: Committees

(This is the first in a series of posts on Fixing Ottawa. Other installments are: Fixing Ottawa: Question Period, Fixing Ottawa: Draft Legislation, and Fixing Ottawa: Empowering Backbenchers.)

A large part of the work of the House of Commons takes place in committees. These committees consider policy issues, scrutinise the work and expenditure of the government, and examine proposals for primary and secondary legislation. Standing Committees (or Select Committees as they are known in the UK) operate largely by an investigative process to conduct inquiries and to produce reports on a range of matters, from the conduct of Government to specialist subject areas.

The Canadian House of Commons currently has 26 Standing Committees (24 House of Commons Standing Committees and two Joint Standing Committees). Many of these Committees have particular responsibilities to examine the administration, policy development, and budgetary estimates of certain government departments and agencies while other Standing Committees are also given mandates to examine matters that have government-wide implications (e.g. official languages policy, multiculturalism policy) or that may not relate to a particular department (e.g. procedure of the House of Commons).

This is quite similar to what we find in the UK. At Westminster, there are currently 34 Commons Select Committees and 6 Joint Select Committees. There is a Commons Select Committee for each government department, examining three aspects: spending, policies and administration. Like their Canadian counterparts, some Select Committees have a role that crosses departmental boundaries such as the Public Accounts or Environmental Audit Committees. Depending on the issue under consideration they can look at any or all of the government departments. Other Commons Committees are involved in a range of on-going investigations, like administration of the House itself or allegations about the conduct of individual MPs.

Where things differ, is how the membership is decided.

In Canada, most Standing Committees have 12 members, and the party distribution on committees reflects the party distribution in the House of Commons. Committee membership is decided by the Party Whips, who submit names of Members from their respective parties for each Committee to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to be approved by the House. The Committee Chair is the member selected by the Committee members to act as the presiding officer for the Committee.

This was much the same in the UK until this current Parliament. The previous parliament adopted significant reforms to the Committee process in the spring of 2010.

With the reforms, the majority of Select Committee Chairs are now elected by the whole House in a secret ballot using the Alternative Vote. Chair roles have been divided up between parties based on the general election results. Twelve Committees have a Conservative MP as chair, Labour MPs chair 10 and Lib Dem MPs two. So each of the elections – where there were more than one candidate – was between MPs from the same party. To make the ballot for Committee chair, an MP had to be nominated by 15 MPs, or 10% of MPs from their own party – whichever is lower.

As for membership on Committees, members of select committees are now elected within their party caucuses by secret ballot.

What difference does this make? In Canada, Committee membership remains an effective tool for keeping backbench members in line. Party whips can threaten to remove them from a Committee if the member seems to be wavering on supporting the party’s position on a given issue, or promise a seat on a Committee as a reward. Because Canadian MPs are dependent on the goodwill of their party whip for their membership on a Committee, they are more likely to adhere to the party line when the Committee launches an inquiry, rather than maintain a more open, unbiased approach to the matter at hand. Consequently, partisanship becomes more of an issue with Canadian House of Commons Committees since members are more likely to do what their party wants, which might even include deliberately hijacking Committee proceedings.

Because members of UK Committees are now elected by their peers, they are beholden to them, not the party whips, for that position. Committee chairs in particular, because they are elected by all MPs, should, in theory, be beholden to the House of Commons and the Committee’s mandate, and not to advancing or protecting the priorities of their own party. Indeed, the secret ballot should give Committee chairs a powerful mandate to hold the government to account.

UK Select Committees do seem to demonstrate far more independence and initiative than do their Canadian counterparts. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, for example, newly appointed in June 2010 to consider political and constitutional reform and scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister, has initiated several studies based on issues that arose while it was conducting mandated investigations.

Another interesting innovation at Westminster was the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, which was established by the House of Commons on 15 June 2010. Its Chair was elected directly by the House on 22 June and its members on 29 June. This is the first business committee of any kind to be established by the House. The Committee is responsible for scheduling debates on 35 days during the current session. The House has decided that these days will be devoted to backbench business and that at least 27 of them will be debates in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, with the remainder to be taken in Westminster Hall. What this means is that on 35 days during the current session of Parliament, what gets debated will be determined by this Committee and not by the Government. Backbench business is best defined by exclusion: in other words, by establishing the concept of everything being backbench business unless it falls into some other defined category, principally Government business, Opposition business and individual Private Members’ business.

Interestingly, the first debate scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee was on how government statements are announced to the House. The Committee chose this subject because the disclosure of information on key policy announcements to the media before its announcement in Parliament by present and previous administrations has affected the work of backbenchers in holding the Government to account. Following that debate in July last year, the House invited the Procedure Committee to consider how the rules of the House could be changed or better used to ensure that Ministers made important announcements to Parliament first. The Committee was also asked to develop a protocol governing the release of information by Ministers. The Committee reported in February, and among its recommendations, it proposed that the House adopt a resolution setting out in broad terms the behaviour expected of Ministers and that any minister who breached that protocol should make a formal apology to the House, and at a time when the House is well-attended, such as prior to PMQs. In particularly serious cases, a motion of censure could be moved.

The Coalition Government has also stated that it would establish a House Business Committee, to consider government business, by the third year of the Parliament (2013) (see the Coalition’s Programme for Government, p. 27). If this were to happen, it would mark a significant departure from the almost exclusive control government has over the legislative agenda by allowing a Committee to decide the order of business for the House, including which pieces of Government legislation to call and when. I don’t know if readers can fully appreciate the degree of control the government would be forfeiting over the legislative agenda with such a move. I simply cannot imagine any Canadian government being willing to consider something similar.

The Canadian House of Commons Standing Committees have become increasingly partisan over the course of the past few parliaments, and their effectiveness has been affected by this. Because members are dependent on party whips for their place on a Committee, allegiance lies first with their party, and not with the mandate and role of the Committee.

By adopting reforms similar to those adopted in the UK, this could change. It would free Committee members from the control and influence of the party whips, it would make them more accountable to the House as a whole, and it would perhaps even give them more incentive to initiate studies rather than wait for a matter to be referred to them by the House. Establishing a Backbench Business Committee would allow all members to have a greater say in what gets debated in the House, and give more focus to matters of interest to MPs.

I recognize that it is perhaps too early to fully assess how successful the changes adopted by Westminster will be in the long run, but they strike me as inherently positive, and certainly worth consideration by the Canadian House of Commons. Strong Committees make for a stronger Parliament and more accountable Government. That can only be a good thing.

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