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I promised to return to the subject, since I did not spend much time on discussing Committees of Parliament. These should be extremely important, since they should be the principal forums in which Parliament discharges its two vital responsibilities, namely legislation and financial oversight.
In most Parliaments, important business is conducted through Committees, with plenary sessions reserved for the cut and thrust of debate, for discussion of broad policy issues, and for questions to keep government on its toes. The Sri Lankan Parliament does still have lively debates and discussions, though the function of questions has collapsed, since Ministers now postpone answers to difficult questions, and there are no sanctions against them when this happens. We tried, when the Committee to amend Standing Orders was sitting, to introduce a provision whereby the Speaker reports to the Head of the Executive any Ministers who are in dereliction of their duties. Unfortunately that Committee went the way of all Parliamentary Committees, into virtual oblivion.
Other Committees, I should note, do sit, though hardly any Ministers conduct meetings on a monthly basis as is expected. This would be difficult, given the number of Committees there are. I can also understand Ministers thinking these meetings not very useful, since they are largely concerned with the problems of individual Members of Parliament, who can also bring those problems up direct with the Minister or the Secretary, instead of using up time meant for general discussions. As I have suggested, Ministers should be required to set aside a time each week for Members to approach them about matters concerning their own interests, so the time of the Consultative Committee could be spent on general issues and policy matters. But since that rarely happens now, I can understand why Members who do not have individual issues to bring up do not attend, since it must be tedious for them to sit through the individual problems of others.
As a consequence, policy issues are rarely discussed. There are exceptions, like the Ministry of Justice, where we brought up the question of the lack of progress on the policy documents commissioned when Milinda Moragoda was Minister. But, what with meetings being postponed, and changes of personnel, there has been little progress on that or other policy matters.
Unfortunately the only Ministers who would have time to meet regularly, if Parliament could provide time and space for them, namely the Senior Ministers, do not have Consultative Committees, and no notice was taken even of the very weak suggestion, following the Committee Stage of the Budget debate when Senior Ministries first came up for discussion, that they should have one Committee where all their work could be taken up in a job lot.
This is the sadder since, when Senior Ministries were set up, the belief was that they would coordinate policies and work in Ministries coming under their purview. Since however someone forgot to indicate precisely which Ministries were related to the work of which Senior Minister, there were hardly any efforts at coordination. I should note there was at least one exception, namely D E W Gunasekara who tried together with related Ministries to put forward a Human Resources Development Policy, but mechanisms to ensure coordinated action in that regard are not apparent.
If Parliament is to be more effective then with regard to its principal functions, the Standing Orders should be amended to set up a few Committees in areas where policy discussions would be useful, with provision to examine any legislation proposed in those areas.