Committees: The backbone of the work of the House of Representatives
The first image that usually comes to mind when thinking of the House of Representatives is that of the Plenary Hall. This is where MPs carry on sometimes fierce debates with ministers, state secretaries and each other. The committees of the House gather in one of the nine smaller meeting rooms along with ministers and state secretaries. Two thirds of the debates in the House with the ministers and state secretaries take place in committee meetings.
A committee is a group of MPs who deal with a particular policy area within a ministry or with a specific subject. Committees are composed of members of the various parliamentary groups and each MP sits on one or more committees. There are standing committees and temporary committees, in addition to general and thematic committees, and committees that deal with the internal organisation of the House itself. Furthermore, there is a special committee that addresses Petitions and Citizen's Initiatives. In this piece, we will focus on the standing and temporary committees.
What is the function of a committee of the House of Representatives?
Ministers and state secretaries are assisted by civil servants with a number of tasks, including drafting bills. It is the duty of the House of Representatives to scrutinise the work of the Government, therefore the House must also retain relevant expertise, which is concentrated around the committees. In many cases, the spokesperson for a given parliamentary group has gained expertise in that policy area prior to being elected to the House of Representatives.
What does a committee do?
Committees of the House examine and express their views on proposals and plans put forward by ministers and state secretaries and sometimes by the House itself. Committees regularly carry out their own investigations, for instance by holding consultations or paying working visits. As a rule, after a proposal has been scrutinised by the relevant committee, it is subject to a plenary debate in the Plenary Hall. Committees are not mandated to take final decisions on proposals – this can only be done in a plenary sitting. The same applies to voting on motions. The labour of the committees forms the backbone of the work of the House of Representatives. Within the committees, parliamentary groups can exercise considerable influence on proposals therefore every parliamentary group endeavours to be represented on as many committees as possible. Almost all committee meetings are open to the public and can be followed live on the House’s website.
Types of debate
Committee debate on general policy
The most common type of committee meeting is a committee debate on general policy (algemeen overleg, AO). This is a regular committee meeting with a minister or state secretary to deal with a specific aspect of the policy area for which the minister or state secretary is responsible. The MPs put questions to the member of the Cabinet, who provides responses. The formal conclusion, including tabling motions, is reached in a plenary sitting often following a short debate.
Committee debates on policy documents or draft legislation
In debates concerning policy documents, the committee discusses one or more specific policy documents with a member of the Cabinet. Committee debates on draft legislation, on the other hand, deal with bills. During these meetings MPs may also put forward motions.
Committee meetings on policy documents and draft legislation "unburden" the plenary sittings. In a committee meeting setting, all kinds of specialist and technical aspects can be considered in detail leaving only the headlines still to be discussed in the plenary sitting.
The standing committees of the House of Representatives frequently hold hearings and round-table talks in which experts or stakeholders are invited to comment on the matter under discussion. In such hearings, participants are interviewed individually and allowed the opportunity to express their view on a specific issue.
Round-table talks are a specific type of hearing. Several participants enter into discussion with MPs simultaneously leading to a group discussion which lays bare any differences of opinion. The committee members subsequently use the input from hearings and round-table talks in their scrutiny of a bill, for instance.