What Committees Do

3. WHAT COMMITTEES DO

Work of committees

3.1. Committees are, by their nature, subsidiary bodies in the sense that they only operate within the remit given to them by the Parliament which establishes them and to which they are, ultimately, accountable. However, within those remits, Scottish Parliament committees have a wide range of general powers which give them the ability to set their own priorities and act with a high degree of autonomy.

3.2. The general function of a committee is to consider matters within its remit – “competent matters” – and report on them to the Parliament. Rule 6.2 sets out in more detail what this can involve. It includes

  • conducting inquiries;

  • scrutinising the policy and administration of the Scottish Government;

  • scrutinising Bills, statutory instruments, proposals for European Communities legislation or other proposals to change the law (including Legislative Consent Memorandums under the “Sewel convention”);

  • initiating a Committee Bill or considering the need for reform of the law;

  • considering the financial proposals and financial administration of the Scottish Government.

3.3. In practice, however, not all committees do all of these things. For one thing, the remits of the mandatory committees restrict them to only some of these general functions. For the subject committees, the balance among these functions is largely a product of how much business is formally referred to them from elsewhere in the Parliament. Some subject committees find that the large majority of their time is taken up with matters referred to them (particularly Bills introduced by the Scottish Government12, statutory instruments and petitions), while others can spend more of their time on inquiries of their own choosing.

3.4. In relation to most of these types of activity, the main output of a committee’s work is a published report. Formally speaking, these reports are made normally to the Parliament (as the committee’s “parent” body), but in practice, some or all of the recommendations may be directed primarily at the Scottish Government or at other persons or organisations. Committee reports can (with a few specific exceptions) only recommend actions for the Parliament (or others) to take – Scottish Parliament committees are in this sense quite distinct from the committees that operate within many local authorities, which are delegated a range of “executive” functions.

3.5. Not all committee activity is directed towards the production of a report. Sometimes a committee may take evidence, or consider an issue, just in order to inform itself, or without seeking to reach a definite conclusion (for example, a one-off evidence session with a minister to find out about the Scottish Government’s priorities for the coming year). In other cases, a committee may reach a conclusion without it being necessary, or without there being time, to express that in the form of a discursive report (i.e. with an explanation of the background or reasoning). Committee consideration of petitions often takes this form, for example (though it is also, of course, possible for a committee to conduct a full inquiry on a petition and publish a report at the end of that process).

Competence

3.6. Where a question arises about whether it is competent for a particular committee to consider a particular matter – that is, whether the matter is within that committee’s remit – it is for the Bureau, after consultation with the Conveners Group13, to decide (Rule 6.13.1).

3.7. Where a matter falls within the remit of more than one committee, Rule 6.13.2 allows the Parliament, on a motion of the Parliamentary Bureau, to designate one committee to be the lead committee. Before proposing such a motion, the rule requires the Bureau to consult the Conveners Group. It should be noted that this procedure does not apply to the designation of lead committees in relation to Bills and SSIs. These are dealt with under Rules 9.6.1 and 10.2.2 respectively and the procedure for designation of a lead committee does not involve consultation with the Conveners Group.

3.8. In practice, it has not been necessary for the procedure contained in Rule 6.13.2 to be used, as committees have agreed informally any issues arising.

Joint consideration by committees

3.9. If any matter falls within the remit of more than one committee, the committees concerned may, if they wish, seek the agreement of the Bureau to meet jointly. The Bureau must consult the Conveners Group before agreeing (Rule 6.14.1).

3.10. At joint meetings, both (or all) of the committees involved must be individually quorate, i.e. there must be at least three members from each committee in attendance. The meetings are chaired by one of the conveners of the committees involved (Rule 6.14.2), by agreement between the conveners concerned. A joint agenda and joint minutes are produced of any meeting held jointly, and any report that results is also published in the joint names of all the committees involved (Rule 6.14.3). As an alternative to full joint meetings of two or more committees, the committees concerned may each seek to establish sub-committees in order for those sub-committees to consider a particular matter jointly (Rule 6.14.4).

3.11. Joint consideration is an alternative to having one committee designated as the lead committee (to which the others report). It is therefore appropriate when no single committee’s remit gives it an obvious primacy in relation to the subject, or where there are real advantages in involving members of the different committees in questioning the same witnesses or discussing together a subject of mutual interest. During part of Session 1 and throughout Session 2, there were two Justice Committees with identical remits, and their practice was to meet jointly during the annual budget scrutiny process.

Footnotes:

12 Such Bills are referred to in the Standing Orders and hence in this Guidance as Executive Bills.