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:-
- proposals for legislation to promote integrity in public life;
- proposals for the enactment of equal opportunity legislation;
- mechanisms for strengthening the office of Ombudsman;
- 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.
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 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:
- Service Commissions in Trinidad and Tobago;
- Ministries and Departments of Government;
- Statutory Authorities; and
- Enterprises controlled by or on behalf of the state or in which public money is invested.
It is hoped that the passage of this Bill will give effect to the principles of accountability, transparency, openness and access to information held by public bodies generally.