11th REPUBLICAN PARLIAMENT: 2nd SESSION

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Committees


Role and Function of Parliamentary Committees

Many Parliaments find it convenient to refer complex issues to small groups of their Members for detailed study and recommendations. Indeed, in the context of an ever-expanding bureaucracy, the growing magnitude of state activity today, the pressure on parliamentary time, the size of Parliaments and the growing volume of work which now reaches Parliament, it has become almost impossible for Legislatures to adequately respond to this workload from the floor of the House.

By referring some matters to these small groups or Committees, Parliaments have found the solution to dealing with its growing workload.

The experience of Parliaments with sophisticated and institutionalized Committee systems like India, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have demonstrated that a comprehensive Committee system enables a Legislature to take up new problems more readily as they arise and provides for members to gain experience on important subjects so as to exert power and influence that they would not otherwise have.

The Committees Unit in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago

Committees have become an important and vital part of legislative activity in Trinidad and Tobago.

In Trinidad and Tobago, as well as in most Westminster-type Parliaments, Committees fall into three broad categories as follows:-

  1. Those of a general nature concerned mainly with the organization and powers of the House;
  2. Those assisting the House in its legislative and policy-making functions; and
  3. Those which act as "watch dogs" over the Executive.

General Committees

Sessional Select Committees fall within this first category. In Trinidad and Tobago, the provision for such Committees can be found in the House of Representatives Standing Orders 64 to 68 and 71 to 76 of the Senate. Sessional Select Committees of the Senate/House of Representatives are as follows:-

  1. the Standing Orders Committee;
  2. the House Committee;
  3. the Committee of Privileges; and
  4. the Statutory Instruments/Regulations Committee.

These Sessional Committees are appointed by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House as soon as possible after the beginning of each parliamentary session.

The Standing Orders Committees have responsibility to oversee matters relating to the Standing Orders which may be referred to them by the Senate/House; the House Committees look after the comfort and convenience of Senators/Members of the House of Representatives; the Privileges Committees oversee the powers and privileges of the Houses; and the Statutory Instruments/Regulations Committees (or Committee on Subordinate Legislation as it is referred to in other countries) scrutinize and report as to whether the powers to make regulations, rules, sub-rules and bye-laws conferred by the Constitution or delegated by Parliament are being properly exercised within such delegation.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the House and Standing Orders Committees are extremely active Committees. In fact, within recent times, the House Committee of the House of Representatives, in association with its equivalent in the Senate, has been responsible for several major initiatives related to the functioning of Parliament. Such initiatives include:

  1. Improvements in the facilities afforded elected Members for the maintenance of offices within their constituencies;
  2. Restoration works on the Red House which includes a commitment obtained from the Government that the Red House should be dedicated for the sole use of the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago;
  3. An improved Food and Beverage Service for Members of Parliament and those required to be in attendance at late sittings;
  4. Efforts for reforming the management and organizational structure of the Parliament;
  5. Proposals for a Group Life and Medical Plan for all members of Parliament (superannuation plan).

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Special and Joint Select Committees, Legislative Committees

Similar to other Standing Orders of the region and indeed throughout the Commonwealth, our Standing Orders provide for the establishment of Special and Joint Select Committees to consider and report on important issues. Such issues may be legislative, financial or investigatory and once the Committee has reported to Parliament, the life of the Committee comes to an end. The operational procedures of these Select Committees allow them wide powers to fully consider their mandates and facilitate an interaction between Members of Parliament and Government officials, interested parties, legal and other professional associations and the general public in deliberations on a wide variety of subjects.

Very many Special Select Committees of both Houses are appointed each session to consider and report on private legislation. Usually such legislation, introduced on petition from private parties, seek Parliamentary approval for the incorporation of charitable organisations, by Act of Parliament. Committees appointed to consider such legislation, examine the promoters of the bills and the organisations involved in order to ensure the bona fides of the information submitted to Parliament as well as to investigate whether the facts and allegations presented in the Bills are accurate.

During their investigation, the Committees are assisted by parliamentary officials who serve as Secretaries to these Committees and are responsible for all administrative and research activities. At the end of their deliberations, these Committees report back to their principal Houses, stating their findings and observation and recommending acceptance or rejection of the legislation.

During the 1996-1997 session, four Joint Select Committees of both Houses were established to consider and report on:-

  1. proposals for legislation to promote integrity in public life;
  2. proposals for the enactment of equal opportunity legislation;
  3. mechanisms for strengthening the office of Ombudsman;
  4. the constitutional and legislative arrangements for Tobago.

Three of these committees were appointed to consider draft legislation which was engaging the attention of policy technocrats. This trend differed from the past in that Bills which were sent to Committees in previous sessions were committed only after the second reading (debating stage). Those past Committees were prohibited by Standing Orders from considering or interfering with the general principles and merits contained in Bills since those would have been covered during the second reading stage. The new trend in Trinidad and Tobago provides certain Select Committees with the novel opportunity to examine and scrutinize pre-legislation proposals - the aim being to minimize the length of debates on the floor of the House by arriving at some degree of consensus on the main policy matters of the Bill.

The effective performance of those Committees depended, in part, on the willingness of persons to share their knowledge and expertise so that the Committees were able to make their recommendations to the Parliament after a full consideration of all the facts. To encourage this, copies of the matters under consideration were widely circulated throughout the country and three Committees held meetings in various places in Trinidad and Tobago. The response was encouraging and such interchanges between Parliamentarians and the public is now an accepted practice of Trinidad and Tobago parliamentary life.

It is important to remember that a Committee has only such powers as are conferred on it by Parliament and it follows that a Committee does not possess the power to do something which Parliament itself cannot do. In Trinidad and Tobago, by Standing Orders 83 of the House of Representatives and 76 of the Senate, the Houses have delegated their powers to "send for persons, papers and records" to their Committees and by motion establishing Committees, the House/s may convey express permission for Committees to go from place to place and consider the views of the public.

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Watchdog Committees

The Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago establishes the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Public Accounts Enterprises Committee (PAEC). These Committees, in respective order, are charged with the responsibility to examine the appropriation accounts of moneys granted by Parliament to meet the public expenditure of Trinidad and Tobago and to examine the audited accounts of all State Enterprises that are owned or controlled by the State.

The PAC therefore examines the audited accounts of Government Ministries and Departments, paying close attention to the comments made by the Auditor General which relate to financial management. In the performance of its work, the PAC calls to account many Permanent Secretaries and Heads of Government Departments and has been instrumental in the establishment of a more responsive attitude on the part of Administrative Heads of Government Ministries/departments to the advice and requirements of the Auditor General’s Department.

The PAEC was established as a result of the growth of the public sector. Since the early 1970s there has been an increase in the number of statutory corporations and state enterprises covering a wide range of industrial and other economic activities. Consequently, it was considered that since parliamentary control was too remote and not continuous, a mechanism should be created for Parliament to keep an effective watch over public sector projects in which millions of taxpayers’ dollars had been invested.

The PAEC examines the reports and accounts of the public undertakings and determines whether the affairs of these institutions are being managed in accordance with sound business principles and prudent commercial practices.

The work of both the PAC and PAEC are facilitated by the assistance of personnel from the Offices of the Comptroller of Accounts as well as the Auditor General whose audited reports of Government Ministries and Departments and public sector enterprises form the basis of the scrutiny exercised by these Committees.

In keeping with its 1995 manifesto promise to appoint Select Committees to monitor the operations and functioning of all Ministries of Government, the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 1998 was introduced into the House of Representatives by the Government and subsequently passed by Parliament. This Bill amended the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago by adding thereto a new section to enable the House of Representatives or the Senate to appoint Select Committees or Joint select Committees to investigate and report to Parliament on the powers and methods of functioning of, and criteria adopted by:

  1. Service Commissions in Trinidad and Tobago;
  2. Ministries and Departments of Government;
  3. Statutory Authorities; and
  4. Enterprises controlled by or on behalf of the state or in which public money is invested.

It is hoped that the establishment of these oversight Committees will give effect to the principles of accountability, transparency, openness and access to information held by public bodies generally.

The Committees meet fairly regularly, on average, twice per month, as the need arises.

Contact the Committees Unit

The Committees Unit is responsible for providing secretarial support for the various oversight Committees and may be contacted as follows:

Departmental Joint Select Committees

Tel: (868) 624-7275 ext. 2277/2288/2282/2283 or via email to jscgroup1@ttparliament.org; jscgroup2@ttparliament.org; jscmcsc@ttparliament.org.

Public Accounts Committees

Tel: (868) 624-7275 ext. 2250/2285/2373 or via email to pac@ttparliament.org or paec@ttparliament.org