In addition to Consultative Committees for each Ministry, Parliament has another range of Committees, some intended to facilitate administration, others supposed to contribute to the core functions of Parliament. Amongst these last is the Committee on Public Petitions, related to the work of the Ombudsman, who is officially called the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. He is supposed, on behalf of Parliament, to look into administrative injustices, and ensure redress.

Unfortunately the Ombudsman has not been especially effective in Sri Lanka. Initially direct access to him was not permitted, and the public had to present petitions to Parliament, which could either deal with these themselves, or send them to the Ombudsman. Later it was decided that the public could access him direct. In both cases however the problem is that the Ombudsman has no statutory powers. He can only report to Parliament, which then has to take action. Since however action has to be taken with regard to Ministries, and since many Ministers – or their officials – are unwilling to have their actions reversed, remedial action is often not possible.

An imaginative Ombudsman could sometimes achieve a compromise, using the threat of invoking adverse procedures in Parliament to persuade officials to offer some sort of redress. But this requires close knowledge of the system, which most holders of the position have not possessed. Thus, while petitions continue to come in abundance to Parliament, these too do not often lead to petitioners being satisfied that justice has been done.

Financial Oversight – The PAC and COPE

The other principal tool of oversight for Parliamentarians are the finance monitoring committees, namely the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises.  These are assisted by the Auditor General’s Department and the Department of Public Enterprises, which provide the Committee with detailed reports on not only the finances of the institutions that appear before it, but also about the general state of those institutions. This is important since financial monitoring should include not merely checking on whether money is properly used, but also whether the public are receiving good value for funds spent in the public interest.

I gather these Committees made a great contribution in the past, but I fear that in recent years they achieved very little. Though one heard about their pronouncements, generally very negative about particular institutions brought before them, it turns out that there was hardly any follow up. If requests were made for further information, or reports of remedial action taken, the Committee was informed when the information or reports came in. Nothing was conveyed if nothing was done, and the matter was then forgotten.

The problem was compounded by the fact that the Committee – I am talking now principally of COPE, since that is one I serve on and know – met rarely, and in plenary, so that very few of the institutions under its remit were in fact examined. I have come across institutions that have never appeared before the Committee, or last did so more than five years ago.

New systems to promote remedial action

Under the current Chairman, the system has been changed, and there are three sub-committees, which look at different types of institutions, while the main Committee meets for more complex institutions. The Chairman has set himself the task, with the support of the Chairs of the Sub-Committees, to look at all institutions under the purview of the Committee within a year.

More importantly, systems have been put in place for follow up, with a tracking system of requests for information and reports, and letters of reminder sent when these are not forthcoming. So far responses have been slow, but one can hardly blame officials, since in the past, after they were roundly scolded, interest seemed to lapse, and they were not actively required to follow up on the meeting.

The Chairman also reported to Parliament that he would be issuing an Interim Report soon. This is the more urgent, since it is clear that at least some institutions funded with public money serve no public purpose. With regard to others there is an overlap of functions with other institutions. Sometimes one gets the impression that institutions that are set up for a particular purpose can go on for ever, whether the purpose is still desirable or not, whether there are other institutions fulfilling that purpose better.

Obviously few Ministers will press for closure of such institutions, since they provide opportunities for patronage. It requires an independent body to assess needs objectively, and a good PAC and a good COPE could do a tremendous service. However, for this to be achieved, there should be some modifications of the system. In the first place, staffing needs to be improved, since currently limited staff have to work on a much more crowded schedule than previously. Staff should also be able, on their own, without reminders from members of the Committee, to write to institutions that delay on submitting required documentation. They should also produced monthly reports, that sum up the main findings of the Committee, to be submitted to Parliament, and then to the relevant officials for suitable action.

More importantly, there needs to be serious consideration of the structure of these Committees. Though now Senior Ministers have more time, and are indeed ideally suited to chair these Committees, many Ministers and Deputy Ministers serve on them, but rarely have time to attend, and certainly not to any appreciable length of time. Opposition MPs do turn up more frequently, and now they are less contemptuous than in the past, when I too was on the butt end of criticism, when I was Secretary of a Ministry. But there is a case for better familiarization procedures for new MPs, especially government ones, and a monthly briefing by the professional bodies that service the Committees would also be useful to ensure more productive meetings.

Finally, there should be provision for the Committee to discuss its findings with officials responsible for the nation’s finances. Both the Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary to the Cabinet should have regular meetings with the Committee Chairs to discuss remedies for inappropriate uses of public funds.  I can understand that this could not be contemplated in the past, when the Committees seemed unremittingly hostile to public officials, but since the key feature now is constructive review and reform, such consultations would surely be productive.

 The Island 31 March 2011 –