The recent series of articles by Mr Wijeweera on parliamentary and administrative reforms are a welcome feature in the columns of the ‘Island’. I do not propose to discuss here the different ideas he puts forward. Some are similar to those I advanced in a series on parliament that I wrote some months back, some are different, some seem to me unquestionably good, others I would hesitate about. But the details are not the point. What is important is that he has raised several issues, with criticism based on careful argument about current practices.

I can only hope then that authorities in Parliament, in the offices of the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip and the Opposition Whip, will have read these carefully. I am not too certain though that this will happen, and lead to fruitful discussion and reform. However perhaps our quest for improvement will revive now, since we had the benefit recently of a Parliamentary delegation visiting India and finding out about practices in the Indian Parliament.

Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal - Minister for Parliamentary Affairs

The visit, and in particular a meeting with the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal, were most enlightening. Our delegation was headed by the Speaker, and included the Chief Whip, though perhaps it is a pity that our own Minister for Parliamentary Affairs was not with us, since I am sure she could have engaged actively with her counterpart to pick up some good ideas.

Most interesting I thought was his description of what are described as Departmentally Related Standing Committees. There are 24 of these, and they deal with subject areas rather than Ministries. They are distinct from the Consultative Committees, which we also have, which are based on Ministries and chaired by the concerned Minister.

The Standing Committees cover areas which come under the purview of different Ministries. Ministers are not permitted to sit on these Committees, which therefore deal with policy matters from a wider perspective. The Minister also noted that these Committees tend to work on a less confrontational basis than happens in Parliament as a whole, and can therefore come up with helpful and generally acceptable proposals.

Thus there is one committee for Human Resource Development, and another for Transport, Tourism and Culture. Science and Technology goes together with Environment & Forests, while Health goes along with Family Welfare. The one he mentioned specifically was that which dealt with Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice.

Given the difficulties we have in Consultative Committees, where for instance generally agreed proposals made at the Committee on Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms also need to be referred to Justice, it would make sense to have Committees that looked at the wider picture. Standing Committees could also avoid the discussion of individual grievances, which should themselves perhaps be more effectively settled by Ministers meeting (or perhaps delegating officials with decision making powers to meet) individual MPs. Certainly the present practice of all MPs having to sit through discussion of particular problems with no general provenance should be changed, especially as no efforts are made to work out general principles to deal with such problems, as opposed to occasional positive but nevertheless arbitrary action that helps just the single individual.

The Standing  Committees, we gathered, chaired by members, of Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha, without executive responsibilities, not only made suggestions as to policy, they also functioned as committees with regard to legislation. Now in Sri Lanka the Third Reading of Bills, which is when they should be cleaned up and finalized, with anomalies ironed out and positive amendments accepted, is a formality. The Second Reading is often the only opportunity for debate, but given the character of debate in Parliament – in all Parliaments, I believe, not just ours, given the confrontational nature of the institution, rendered worse by media coverage which privileges aggressive sound bites – it is a pity that we do not really use the Committee system. That is where consensus can be reached without  confrontation, based on principles that can be – and have been – developed through the collegiality that such Committees encourage.

I believe the President envisaged something of this sort when he introduced Senior Ministers with responsibilities that in theory covered several Ministries. Unfortunately the idea was treated frivolously, and I believe some of the Ministers themselves decided there was nothing for them to do. It was a pity then that they were not allocated structures through which to function, and a concept paper that suggested regular meetings with the Ministers responsible for decision making and action in the subjects under their purview. They could also have been asked to chair Standing Committees of Parliament that could feed into collective action, or action in which one Ministry they worked with depended also on another.

Another function the Standing Committees fulfil is that of promoting financial accountability. We have seen in Sri Lanka how, with the proliferation of Ministries, the Committee stage of the Budget Debate involves very rushed debates which often consist of generalizations, with particular attention being paid only to a very few Ministries. In India on the contrary it seems that, apart from the general Budget Debate, there is detailed discussion in these Standing Committees. A few of them, presumably those in which there are grounds for contention, are then taken up in plenary too, but for most Ministries this is not thought necessary, given the coverage in a less contentious, and doubtless more productive, arena.

I hope therefore that we will consider some reforms on these lines that would restore to Parliament something at least of its oversight function. Currently, I believe as a legacy of the manner in which the 1978 Constitution was initially implemented, with a lopsided Parliament, we see Parliament as simply an appendage of the Executive. As a result it neither deliberates nor monitors as carefully as it should. While it may be difficult to revive those functions in Plenary, we should try to make use of the Committee system to ensure that Parliament is more productive.

Island 5 August 2011–