Much of the detailed work of the House of Commons is carried out by committees. Committees may be of three kinds - committees of the whole House, special committees and standing committees. At one time all bills were referred to committee of the whole House, but since the reform of the standing committee system in 1968 most of them are now referred to standing committees. Special committees are appointed on an ad hoc basis and consist of not more than 15 members. The standing committees are the essence of the present committee system and the y have three distinct functions which may be described as legislative, financial and investigative.
The Standing Orders provide for 18 standing committees, most of them covering a specific subject area. In addition there are three standing joint committees composed of members of both Houses, one of which is concerned with the scrutiny of delegated legislation - that is, regulations made by the government under the authority of an Act of Parliament.
Bills, the estimates of government departments and subjects of inquiry are referred to the standing committees in accordance with their various subject areas. In dealing with bills and estimates the standing committees remove a great deal of detailed work from the floor of the House. In undertaking special investigations they are pursuing their more traditional function of inquiry. Standing committees are empowered to call witnesses and appoint sub-committees, and they are sometimes authorized by the House to travel and hire expert assistance. All committees report directly to the House, their ultimate power being one of recommendation only.
Such control over finance as the House is now able to exercise is due in large measure to the committee system. the Standing Committees have the opportunity of scrutinizing the details of proposed departmental spending and reporting to the House before the money is voted. The Standing Committee on Pubic Accounts, whose chairman is by custom a member of the opposition, has the special function of examining public expenditure after it has been incurred. In carrying out its investigation it is assisted by the Auditor General who makes an annual report top parliament. The Committee examines witnesses from the departments of government and draws the attention of the House to any irregularities it might discover.