Oireachtas committees were established in their present form in the 1990s so as to handle the committee stages of Bills more efficiently. Until then, the committee stage was debated by a committee of the whole house, with all deputies entitled to attend (and all senators in the Seanad). These committee stages were often very long, were attended only by the small number of deputies interested in that particular topic and tied down parliamentary time disproportionately.
In this reform, Oireachtas committee were introduced to debate these Bills away from the house, named along the lines of government departments. At the beginning of a new Dáil and Seanad, individual deputies sign up to those committees of most interest to them, being assigned on the basis of interest, seniority and the need for a party balance on committees. Some deputies and senators belong to several committees, a few to none at all. Nowadays, when a Bill goes to committee, it goes into one of these specialized committees. A transport Bill, for example, will go to the transport committee. Generally, committees shadow departments and ministers, but some bring together a mixed set of different issues. It is normal for the topics, titles, membership and terms of reference to be agreed between government and the main opposition parties. Opposition deputies chair some of the committees and these posts can be prestigious.
Some Oireachtas committees limit themselves mainly to handling only the committee stages of Bills. Others, though, take a much broader view of their role and hold discussions on particular topics, to which ministers, departmental officials, non-governmental organisations and other interested bodies may be invited. Some issue substantial reports, the Public Accounts Committee being the best known. In addition, the Oireachtas will agree to the appointment of ad hoc Oireachtas committees to deal with particular themes (e.g. climate change, the constitution) and these are particularly suited for outside consultation.
Some voluntary and community groups ask for the opportunity to make a presentation to an Oireachtas committee. This provides a useful opportunity to meet a number of deputies and senators at a time, to get a dialogue going on the questions concerned, to build up support and to have the presentation noted for the record. They are attended by the media and ordinary citizens may also watch and listen. In one year, Oireachtas committees received presentations from a total of 1,300 contributors (or ‘witnesses’).
Some committees comprise Dáil members only (e.g. Public Accounts Committee) but most are joint committees of both senators and deputies. For voluntary organisations and community groups, making a presentation to a committee can provide useful publicity (the media are normally present and the best extracts can be reported on the evening news). For a committee to support its viewpoint can be quite a boost and carry considerable moral effect. Several voluntary organisations have taken advantage of presentations to Oireachtas committees to criticize, with considerable effect; to support worthy initiatives by government; and to win support from individual members. Note that debates within Oireachtas committees are not reported as a formal part of the published Oireachtas debates: each issues its own transcripts. Each committee is assigned a clerk from the staff of Leinster House.
Present committees are:
- Investigations, oversights and petitions
- Public accounts
- Good Friday agreement
- Finance, public expenditure and reform
- Health and children
- Communications, energy, natural resources, agriculture, marine and food
- Environment, community, local government, transport, tourism, sport, arts, heritage and Gaeltacht
- Social protection, education, skills, enterprise, jobs and innovation
- Justice, equality and defence
- Foreign affairs and trade
- European affairs
- Members’ interest
- Procedure and privileges.