What are Oireachtas committees and why are they set up?

An Oireachtas committee is a group of Members of the Oireachtas chosen by one or both Houses of the Oireachtas to consider a certain subject. The establishment of committees allows work to be delegated by the Dáil and Seanad, allowing for a more detailed examination of a topic than could be given to it by the Dáil or Seanad. Committees can invite third parties to their meetings to discuss the topic with members. Committees members have the opportunity to develop expertise in the subject their committee deals with and to interact more closely with the public.

Oireachtas committees typically fall into two main categories, namely, departmental and thematic. Departmental committees tend to shadow the work of a Government Department and consider all aspect of policy that relates to that Department, including proposed legislation and Estimates for Government expenditure. Thematic committees are established to consider specific topics such as European affairs or public petitions.

What are the key functions of Oireachtas committees?

The key functions of committees are:

  • Legislation – scrutiny of draft legislation in advance of its publication or before Committee Stage; consideration and amending of Bills on Committee Stage; and consideration of draft EU legislative proposals. 
  • Scrutinising the work of Government Departments – Ministers appear before Oireachtas committees to answer questions concerning all policy, expenditure and governance matters regarding their Departments.
  • Advising on policy issues – seeking submissions from and holding hearings with third parties; and conducting off-site visits and drafting reports outlining the committee’s findings and recommendations with a view to influencing policy decisions or legislation.

What powers does a committee have?

Committees’ powers include the power to invite submissions, hold hearings with stakeholders including Ministers, and draft and publish reports. Committees are given these powers by one or both Houses of the Oireachtas when they are established. Committees remain subject to the Houses and cannot expand or increase their own powers or functions, unless the Houses formally agree to do this.

What types of committees are there?

There are four different types of committee: joint, select, special and standing.

  • A joint committee comprises members of both the Dáil and the Seanad.
  • A select committee includes members from either the Dáil or the Seanad, but not both.
  • A special committee is established for the sole purpose of considering a specific matter. It is usually given a deadline by which it must report back to the House(s).
  • A standing committee is a permanent committee that is required by Standing Orders of either House to be established after a general election, for example, the Committee of Public Accounts.

How are members and chairpersons appointed to committees?

The membership of each committee usually reflects the proportion of the seats held by each of the political parties in the Houses. Chairpersons of committees are appointed by Dáil Éireann using the d’Hondt system, a formula that results in the committee chairs proportionately reflecting each party’s representation in the Dáil Chamber. This has replaced the previous practice of most committee chairpersons being from parties which are in government.

How does a committee manage its work effectively?

On establishment, and at the start of every year, a joint committee decides what priority areas it will focus on and how much time it will allocate to each of these priorities for the year ahead. Each committee is required to publish and send its annual work programme to be laid in the Oireachtas Library. These reports are also uploaded on each committee's web page. Most of the select committees’ business is referred by Dáil Éireann and that workload is often heavy, especially as Bills can be quite technical in nature and may have a time limit for reporting back to the House.

The committee as a whole must plan its work programme to ensure its time is well used, and that the focus is strategic and selective regarding major issues to be considered and reported back to both Houses. All issues considered by a committee must be relevant to its remit.

The requirement to report to the House(s)

In addition to items of business referred to the committee by the Houses, a committee may decide to examine a particular issue with a view to influencing a related policy. This usually involves inviting stakeholders to make submissions on the subject and/or to attend a public meeting to discuss such issues in detail. Stakeholders may include the Minister, civil or public servants, representatives of NGOs and other interest groups. The committee can use this investigative process to reach conclusions, balancing public opinion with expert advice. The outcome from that process may be a formal report by the committee to the Houses setting out its views and recommendations.

In some cases, a committee may decide it is necessary to set up a sub-committee to work on a specific piece of business. Sub-committees usually report to the main committee, but can have power to report directly to the House(s).

What are the functions of an Oireachtas committee in relation to the EU?

There is a dedicated European Union Affairs Committee which plays a key role in fully considering important EU developments and initiatives affecting Ireland. Furthermore, draft legislative proposals are regularly received from the European Commission and passed to the relevant Oireachtas committee for review. If further scrutiny of the draft proposals is deemed necessary, this is initiated by the committee.

Meetings

Committee meetings take place in four purpose built committee rooms located in Leinster House 2000 which is part of the Leinster House complex, and is accessed through the main gate on Kildare Street. Committee meetings are generally conducted in public session. Normally each committee has one set meeting slot per week. Additional meetings can be arranged subject to availability of a room.

Committee schedules

A schedule of all committee meetings for the week is distributed by email on the Friday of the preceding week and posted on the Oireachtas website. Anyone can subscribe to receive this weekly schedule. Any changes or updates to the schedule are posted online.

Quorum

A minimum number of committee members is required to be present before a meeting can begin. If a quorum is not present within 15 minutes of the scheduled start time, the meeting cannot commence and has to be rescheduled for later that day or for another day.

Procedure and protocol for committee meetings

The Standing Orders of both Houses apply to proceedings in committees. The chairperson is responsible for enforcing them and members must accept and obey the rulings of the chairperson.

There are also general conventions (or rules), based on custom and practice over the years, which apply to committee meetings. Some of the principal rules are:

  • Precedence of chair - If the chairperson intervenes during a debate, any member who is speaking, or who is waiting to speak, should give way.
  • Speaking in committee - A member who wishes to make a contribution should signal his/her intention to the chairperson and wait until called on by the chairperson before speaking. All speakers should address the chairperson. Members must not speak or applaud from outside the barrier of the committee room or from the public gallery.
  • Addressing Members - Members are referred to as – “Deputy X”, “Senator X” – and Ministers and Ministers of State are referred to by their titles – “Minster for X”. The chairperson is addressed as “chairman”, “chairperson”, or “A chathaoirligh” as appropriate.
  • Private session - Committees can meet in private session. The usual practice is for housekeeping issues (such as adoption of minutes; consideration of correspondence, draft reports, work programmes and travel proposals; and legal advice) to be dealt with in private session. Private session generally takes place at the start of meetings or on the conclusion of the public business. The discussions during private session remain confidential unless the committee decides otherwise. 

Can any Member participate in a committee?

Even if they are not Members of a particular committee, all Members of both Houses wishing to attend a joint committee meeting are entitled to do so and may take an active part in the meeting, but may not vote or move motions or amendments. Similarly, all TDs may attend and participate in select committee meetings. Exceptions apply in the case of certain special and standing committees.

Where a Bill or Estimate is being considered by a select committee, the Minister of the relevant Department is an ex-officio[1] member of that committee for that purpose and has the same rights as any other member of the committee. 

What is the function of a committee regarding legislation?

The making, amending and repealing of laws is the major function of the Oireachtas. One of the most important functions of a Dáil select committee is to consider Bills that are referred to it by Dáil Éireann. The Third Stage of a Bill is commonly referred to as Committee Stage.

If a committee decides to seek submissions on a Bill, this should be done before the commencement of Committee stage. Committees may also ask for a private briefing session by officials of the sponsoring Department before the commencement of Committee Stage, if the nature and complexity of the Bill requires it.

All TDs, even if they are not members of the select committee, may table amendments on Committee Stage and may attend the meeting to move and discuss the amendments. However, a non-member may not vote on these amendments unless they are attending as a formal substitute for a committee member.

All amendments submitted are examined and those which do not comply with Standing Orders (rules of the Houses) are ruled out of order by the chairperson. The decision of the chairperson on the disallowance of amendments is final.

Financial scrutiny

The role of committees in relation to scrutiny of Government expenditure programmes includes consideration of Estimates for Public Services (the Estimates), annual output statements and value for money and policy reviews. This involves questioning Ministers’ proposed spending plans for the coming financial year; scrutinising results achieved for monies approved and spent; and consideration of the effectiveness of the expenditure programme.

What is the role of each member at a committee meeting?

The chairperson

The chairperson is responsible for chairing committee meetings and making decisions (rulings) on procedural issues. The chairperson must act in an impartial manner. For that reason, if a chairperson wishes to express a view favouring one side of a discussion, he/she should vacate the chair and become an ordinary member of the committee for the duration of that debate.

The chairperson also has responsibility, with the assistance of the clerk to the committee, for monitoring the progress of the committee against the agreed work programme.

The vice-chairperson

A committee may choose to elect a vice-chairperson who can perform the duties and exercise the authority of the chairperson in his/her absence. Where a chairperson or vice-chairperson is not present, the committee can elect one of its members to act as a temporary chairperson.

Other members

The other ordinary members of a committee also have duties as committee members. They have a responsibility to attend and participate in meetings and to abide by the rules of debate.

Responsibilities regarding defamation and privilege

As in Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann, members are protected by absolute parliamentary privilege in relation to statements which they make in committee meetings. However, they also have a duty not to abuse that privilege and to avoid naming or identifying any individual or entity or making statements which may be defamatory in nature.

Witnesses are also protected by absolute privilege. However, if their submission reflects unfavourably on another person, the committee may direct them to stop their remarks on that particular topic, and reduce their protection to qualified privilege if they continue making the same remarks.

Both members and witnesses should avoid any comments about an issue that is currently before a court of law, or about which court proceedings are imminent, because comments could prejudice the judge or jury in the case.

Parliamentary privilege also applies to the official written record of committee meetings and all official reports and publications of a committee, wherever published.

When does a committee invite witnesses to a public meeting?

Most Oireachtas committees have the power to invite interested persons or bodies to their meetings to discuss any matter that the committee decides to examine.

In addition to seeking submissions on a topic, committees receive many requests for meetings. A committee must ensure that the proposed topic comes within its remit and fits in with the work programme of the committee before holding any public hearings.

Is attendance voluntary?

Most individuals are invited to attend committee meetings and attendance is voluntary. Only committees that have the power to send for “persons, papers and records” can insist upon the attendance of named persons and the production of papers and other material. Any committee that has these powers has to apply to the House for permission to use these powers under legislation called The Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013.

How do the committees connect with the public?

Much of the detailed work of the Oireachtas is conducted through the committees and they provide an opportunity for the public to be directly involved in the work of the Oireachtas. Their work is publicised in a number of ways, as described below.

  • Every public committee meeting is transcribed by the parliamentary reporters and the transcript is published on the Oireachtas website three to four days after the meeting. This is the Official Report of a committee meeting.
  • The public part of the meeting is streamed live online and can be played back online after the meeting. Footage is also made available to broadcasting organisations.
  • Members of the public may attend the public sessions of committee meetings and observe the meeting from the public gallery, if arranged in advance by conacting a member and asking them to sponsor the visit. There are between 20 and 30 places in the gallery, depending on the committee room being used. Any association with a lobby group or other organisation should be specified when requesting permission to attend.
  • The committee press officers may issue press releases in advance of, and following, meetings.
  • Each committee has a dedicated web page on www.oireachtas.ie. It is updated weekly to advise the public what topic the committee will be considering at its next meeting and from whom the committee will hear. The web page also contains other information including membership details, contact details, a copy of the current work programme and copies of all reports published by the committee.

What support services are available to committees?

The committee clerk and committee secretariat staff

Each committee has a committee clerk who is the main point of contact for that committee. He/she is assisted by staff in the committee secretariat.  As civil servants, committee clerks and other support staff have no political affiliation or connection with political parties. They carry out their functions impartially on behalf of the whole committee. clerks along with their staff are responsible for co-ordinating all the administrative arrangements for the committee, advising on matters of procedure and organising policy advice and papers. When a committee is in formal public session, the clerk provides procedural advice to the committee through the chair, as the clerk may not speak in public session.

Library and research staff

The Library and Research Service (L&RS) provides impartial and confidential information and research services to support the work of both Houses, the committees and individual members in respect of parliamentary duties. The committee clerk liaises with the L&RS on behalf of the committee.

Press officers

The committee press officers work to increase media coverage of the committees by promoting and providing information such as press releases and reports to national and local media. They respond to media queries, monitor media coverage of committee activity and assist in organising events, launches and press briefings on behalf of committees.

Consultants

Where an issue being considered by a committee is of such a technical and/or complex nature that the required expertise is not available within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, a committee may need to hire a consultant with the required specialist or technical knowledge for a fixed period. Consultants are selected, in accordance with public procurement rules, for a fixed period.

[1] ‘Ex-officio’ in this case means because of his or her responsibility as a Minister.