Orders of reference

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38.11As noted earlier, a select committee usually possesses no formal authority except that which it derives by delegation from the House. When a select committee is appointed to consider or inquire into a matter, the scope of its deliberations or inquiries is defined by the order by which the committee is appointed (the order of reference). The interpretation of the order of reference of a select committee is, however, a matter for the committee.1 Committees have sometimes resolved that certain matters were within the scope of their order of reference.2 However, when a bill is committed, or referred, to a select committee, the bill itself is the order of reference, and the inquiries and deliberations of the committee must be confined to the bill and amendments relevant to its subject-matter.

Departmental select committees have regularly found when inquiring into questions of government policy that such questions cross departmental boundaries. In such cases committees have, for example, taken evidence from several Ministers from different departments appearing together. It is customary for the Chair of a committee to inform other Chairs when an inquiry is being considered into issues which overlap with the responsibilities of other committees and, should a dispute arise, the Liaison Committee has a role in resolving it.

Motions establishing committees to inquire into specific matters3 or draft bills4 have usually required the committee to report by a certain date.

Section 13A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, as amended by the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, gave the European Scrutiny Committee in the Commons and the European Union Committee in the Lords temporary statutory powers to require a debate, on a potentially substantive motion, in their respective Chamber on EU legislation or proposed EU legislation where they considered that legislation raised a matter of vital national interest. Section 13A debates were held in the Commons on 4 June 2020 and in the Lords on 16 March 2020.5


  1. 1. The Speaker has upheld this practice in a particular case, HC Deb (1982–83) 40, c 184 and ibid (2008–09) 485, c 304.
  2. 2. In 1981, the Welsh Affairs Committee resolved ‘That in the opinion of the Committee, the Boundary Commission for Wales may be regarded for the purposes of this order of reference as an associated public body of the Welsh Office’, see Minutes of Proceedings of Session 1980–81, HC 494, p xxii; and see HC Deb (1993–94) 248, c 1273. The Select Committee on Post Office Servants divided on the question ‘That (a certain subject) is within the terms of reference of the committee’, Session 1906, HC 226, Qs 677–78. The Speaker having been consulted as to the regularity of this proceeding gave it as his view that the Chair had been right in leaving the matter for the decision of the committee. For other instances of committees coming to resolutions as to the scope of their orders of reference, see Proceedings of Committees on Ministers' Money (Ireland), Session 1847–48, HC 559, pp x–xi; Income and Property Tax, Session 1852, HC 570, pp xi–xii; Indian Territories, Session 1852–53, HC 768, pp iv–v; Land Transport Corps, Session 1857–58, HC 401, p viii; Contagious Diseases Acts, Session 1881, HC 351, p x; Privilege (Mr Gray), Session 1882, HC 406, pp xix–xx; and Aged Deserving Poor, Session 1899, HC 296, p xv.
  3. 3. For example, House of Commons Reform Committee, CJ (2008–09) 571; Select Committee on Governance of the House, CJ (2014–15) 202–3.
  4. 4. For example, Draft Mental Incapacity Bill and Draft Civil Contingencies Bill, CJ (2002–03) 534; Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, CJ (2007–08) 358; Draft Restoration and Renewal Bill, Votes and Proceedings, 26 November 2018.
  5. 5. HC Deb (2019–21) 676, c 1077 ff; HL Deb (2019–21) 802 ff.