I wrote last week about the need to amend the Standing Orders of Parliament so that they provide clearcut guidelines about how Parliament should proceed. This is particularly important with regard to Consultative Committees, which now do very little of consequence.
Most Parliamentarians think they are a place to raise problems related to their electorates. Thus in the Education Committee questions are raised about Principals of schools, in the Justice Committee questions about whether there is a functioning lift in a particular Court, in the Cultural Affairs Committee whether Cultural Centres have been set up in particular places. Rarely are there discussions about policy.
It seems that no one has bothered to explain, either to Members of Parliament, or to the Ministers who function as Chairmen of these Committees their actual function. According to the Standing Orders, ‘The duty of a Consultative Committee shall be to inquire into and report upon such matters as are referred to it by the chairman or by Parliament, including any Bill, proposals for legislation, supplementary or other estimates, statements of expenditure, annual reports or papers.’
Reports I should note are referred to Committees, but they are never circulated in advance so that they are generally adopted without discussion. Bills are rarely referred for consultation, but are presented when they are about to be placed before Parliament, sometimes after they have been put on the Order Paper. There is hardly ever discussion of policy with regard to legislation, nor opportunities to make suggestions. Recently, when I advanced some ideas about how the Resettlement Authority Bill could be amended to make it more effective, and responsive to people’s needs, the Chairman – who is a very sensible man, and understood along with his Deputy the shortcomings of the current Act – suggested I propose an Amendment on the floor of the House. My point though was that these suggestions should be discussed constructively in what is termed a Consultative Committee, and not left to the mercies of the generalizations that pass for debate in Parliament.
This is no criticism of Parliament, for all over the world plenary sessions of Parliament are for the purpose of grandstanding and making political points. The real business of Parliament is done in Committees, where the ideas of others are taken into consideration and consensus sought. But, as we see from what happens in most Committees, these are seen simply as places to satisfy local needs.
Of course it could be pointed out that, as a National List MP who does not have to respond to local needs, I do not understand their importance. I do, and I can see why, given the lunatic electoral system we have, my colleagues must endeavour to provide satisfaction to potential voters. But these matters should be brought up at meetings in Ministries, where they could be directed to relevant officials. As it is, the time of all MPs and of all the officials who are required to attend is wasted while one MP discusses with the Minister and one or two officials why a particular Zonal Educational Director has not been transferred (which is the preferred way of dealing with someone who is not performing properly, doubtless so he can fail somewhere else for yet another MP to demand that he be transferred).
The lunacy of getting several officials into Parliament to simply sit and listen has now been understood, and Parliament has limited the number who come to Consultative Committees (characteristically not directly, but by limiting the number who will be fed free of charge). This indicates that finally someone somewhere has realized that Parliament is not the place to discuss parochial problems. Since however MPs continue to raise them, Ministers will continue to demand details of what is going on in a particular place from more senior officials who do not know, and thus even more time will be wasted.
I am no longer astonished that no one else will think of simple solutions to these problems, because unfortunately the guiding ethos of Parliament over the last few decades has been to inhibit thinking with regard to principles, and rather to turn all MPs into lobby fodder and instruments for winning elections and increasing majorities. This is unfortunate since many MPs are actually concerned with national problems, and when I do raise questions of policy they contribute actively to discussion.
Thus we had a very constructive discussion recently at the Justice Ministry Consultative Committee, when we finally decided we need action on issues that have been raised in the past but which have been brushed aside by the difficulties the Ministry has in producing required reports or acting on them. This is not entirely its fault since two Departments crucial to its work, the Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draughtsman’s Department, have been brought under the Presidential Secretariat, which has made coordination difficult. But it is sad that mechanisms have not been put in place to overcome the difficulties caused by this measure, and to expedite action on many crying necessities.
With a little prodding from my colleagues it has been decided that we should now have a consultative meeting with relevant bodies, including the Law Commission, to expedite legislative changes that have been agreed in principle, and to ensure proper training for the judiciary so that they fulfil consistently and effectively the aims of the laws Parliament has passed. We also need to move swiftly on the proposal the President made more than a year ago about reducing overcrowding in prisons, about which little was done for ages, though now there are signs of stirring, with the greater role envisaged for the Rehabilitation Bureau.
These are the things Consultative Committees should work on. But whether we can actually achieve anything remains to be seen, given the deadening culture that has developed over the years.