Over the last year or so, you may have noticed that our committees have seen an increase in inquiries looking into bills. Just last month Portfolio Committee 7 tabled its report into the provisions of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Territorial Limits) Bill 2019. If you’re a keen reader of Upper House Committee reports, this one might have looked a little different. If you’re an even keener reader of our reports, you may have realised that actually this report was a fairly typical example of a bill inquiry report.
What is a bill inquiry?
A bill inquiry examines the provisions of a bill in order to provide members with more information before they debate and vote on the bill in the House. Bill inquiries have a narrow focus – examining what a bill intends to do and how it might work in practice. In this way they are different to standard committee inquiries, which tend to look at broader policy or accountability issues.
The timeframe of a bill inquiry is usually set by the House and aims to balance giving a committee enough time to gather and analyse evidence, with the need for the House to consider the bill in a timely manner. The short timeframes can be a challenge for the committee and for inquiry stakeholders, so committees have developed their own shortened format for these inquiries.
How is a bill inquiry initiated?
The Selection of Bills Committee meets every sitting Tuesday just before the House sits. This committee considers all the bills before both Houses that week and recommends which bills should be referred to a committee. The Chair of the Selection of Bills Committee then moves a motion in the House that the recommended bills be referred to a committee.
The resolution of the House will specify which committee the bill will be sent to and by what date the committee must report back to the House. If a bill is still with the Legislative Assembly, the House will refer the provisions of the bill but if the bill has been received by the Legislative Council, the House will refer the bill itself.
The terms of reference for are usually very limited – the examination of the provisions of the bill itself. Unlike standard committee inquiries, the terms of reference generally do not include provisions for the committee to look into other related matters.
When a bill is referred to a committee through this process, consideration of the bill in the House ‘freezes’ until the inquiry is finished. This means the usual steps the House goes through to debate and vote on a bill are put on hold until the committee tables its report on the bill. Once the committee reports to the House, the House can then resume consideration of the bill.
Are there other ways a committee could look at a bill?
Referrals through the House via the Selection of Bills Committee are the most common way a bill is considered by a committee, but committees can also examine a bill in other ways:
- The House may refer a bill to a committee for consideration and report, usually as an amendment to the motion for the second or third reading. In this circumstance, debate on the bill has already commenced in the House, but the House determines that further consideration is required. When a committee reports on a bill, the second reading must be restored as a motion before the House.
- As part of an existing inquiry if the bill fits within the inquiry terms of reference. Bills examined in this way would not have the same effect of pausing a bill’s progress through the House.
An example of this is the Public Accountability Committee, which examined a consultation draft Design and Building Practitioners Bill 2019 as part of its inquiry into the regulation of building standards, building quality and building disputes in 2019. In that case, the bill was significant to the inquiry and the issues raised in it. The committee felt it was important to examine the bill before it came before the Parliament so that the House would not be delayed in considering the bill. The committee held a hearing on the bill and included a chapter on the bill in their interim report in November 2019.
How does a bill inquiry work?
Bill inquiries have their own format as they tend to run to a tighter timeframe than a normal inquiry. A committee holding a bill inquiry is subject to the same rules as usual and must gather evidence and table a report just like any other inquiry. The difference is the shorter timeframe and narrower focus of the inquiry.
The evidence gathering process in a bill inquiry usually looks like this:
- Generally, the committee will only hold one hearing to hear from a wide cross-section of stakeholders, often on panels of multiple witnesses.
- Submissions for bill inquiries tend to be shorter and more focused as stakeholders also have less time than usual before the hearing.
- Increasingly, committees have been using online questionnaires for bill inquiries to gather views from a large number (often thousands) of people who are interested in issues around the bill. For example, 2602 people responded to a questionnaire on the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Territorial Limits) Bill 2019.
Like all inquiries, the committee must table a report. These reports tend to be a lot shorter than regular inquiries and have a particular format, with an overview chapter that outlines the provisions and intention of the bill and an issues chapter that reflects evidence the committee received on how the bill will operate and related issues.
A bill inquiry report will usually contain a standard recommendation about what the House should do with the bill, rather than recommendations to government on policy issues.
What is the effect?
The aim of a bill inquiry is to take a deep look at how a bill might work and gather evidence from key stakeholders to inform members who must vote on the bill. They are an important tool for the Legislative Council in its scrutiny role.
As bill inquiries are very focused, the evidence tends to comment on how the bill might operate, any unintentional consequences the bill might have, and how the bill might be amended to improve it. This is incredibly valuable evidence for not just the committee but all members of the Legislative Council as it provides members with a broad spectrum of stakeholder views to inform them in debate in the House. Evidence from bill inquiries is often quoted in the House debate.
Bill inquiries can even influence amendments to a bill. For example, in October 2019, Portfolio Committee 4 examined the Right to Farm Bill 2019. After the committee’s hearing, the bill was amended in the Legislative Assembly and many of the amendments addressed concerns raised by stakeholders through submissions and the hearing.
Additionally, bill inquiries, like all committee inquiries, are an important way for the community to engage with the work of Parliament as they give members of the public a chance to put forward their views on a bill when they otherwise might not be able to.
Although bill inquiries are a fairly new type of inquiry, they are an important way for the Upper House to scrutinise legislation and you can expect more of them in the future.