Following the discussion organized by Transparency International on the role of Parliament in reducing corruption, I thought that perhaps there was more I could and should do to strengthen this role. I had been complacent about the fact that I seemed to be the only one writing about the need for action, and urging the Speaker to reconvene the Committee on Standing Orders, to go ahead with the reforms that had been initiated way back in 2010. In this context I was pleased that the Chief Oppositon Whip, who represented the UNP on the Committee, agreed that he should have done more about this, and also that Eran Wickramaratne, who can be relied upon to pursue reforms without partisanship, asked to see the Standing Orders and what had been agreed on already.
But I realized then that I too had been at fault in relying on the Speaker to move, when he has so much else to do. I therefore checked the Standing Orders again, and found that any individual could give a notice of motion for the amendment of the Standing Orders’ and that such a motion ‘when proposed and seconded shall stand referred without any question being proposed thereon to the Committee on Standing Orders’ which meant that that Committee would have to be convened.
I have therefore given notice of such a motion, suggesting changes to several areas in the Standing Orders, including the questions procedure and the manner in which impeachment procedures should be carried out. It may be remembered that it has been universally agreed, on several occasions, that the Standing Orders with regard to impeachment are inadequate, and various commitments have been made about amending them. However, despite the controversy over the recent impeachment of the Chief Justice, which illustrated practically what had previously been seen in the abstract, the matter has been forgotten.
What is relevant here however, following on the conclusions reached at the Transparency International workshop, are the suggestions I have made with regard to Oversight Committees. I have proposed that, instead of a Chairman elected by the Committee, the Committee on Public Accounts and the Committee on Public Enterprises should both have ‘a Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Committee appointed by the Speaker in consultation with the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance. Neither Chairman nor Deputy Chairman may be a Minister or Project Minister or Deputy Minister, and the Chairman shall be a Member of the Opposition and the Deputy Chairman a Member on the government side’.
This would bring us in line with practice in other parliamentary democracies, where setting the agenda for oversight is the business of opposition. This used to be the practice in Sri Lanka, until the system was changed in the top heavy Parliament of 1977, and the practice began of having Cabinet Ministers chairing such oversight committees. Though there have been exceptions since then, the problem is that traditions are developed in Sri Lanka at the drop of a hat, and the concept behind various Parliamentary practices is not understood. It is therefore necessary to entrench through regulation the systems which are normal elsewhere.
At the same time I have tried to accommodate government concerns about the possible partisan nature of Chairmen who might be appointed by leaving the final decision in the hands of the Speaker, following consultation of the relevant Government Minister. My view is that, while some members of the Opposition might use the position for party political purposes, there are others who are concerned primarily about public service and accountability, and this should be recognized. I have also added a Deputy Chairman position, not only to ensure adequate government input into the manner in which the Committees are conducted, but also to develop a bipartisan approach.
I have also suggested mandatory follow up with regard to the reports of these Committees, which must be prepared annually. Instead of the reports being simply approved by Parliament, whereupon the recommendations ‘shall be deemed to be recommendations to the Government which shall accordingly consider the same and report back to Parliament within a period of six months.’ I have suggested that the report ‘shall be laid before Parliament and sent to the Minister in charge of the subject of Finance who shall within one month respond to the Report and indicate which recommendations may be accepted with a time frame for implementation. Explanations will be provided with regard to recommendations which cannot be implemented with a description of what remedial action will be taken instead to deal with issues raised.
Following such a response, the Report shall be discussed by Parliament, and after amendments if appropriate shall be approved, whereupon the recommendations in such report shall be deemed to be recommendations to the Government which shall be responsible for implementing the same and reporting back to Parliament within a period of six months. The Speaker will ensure that such reports are furnished on time, and will raise any delays with the Head of the Executive.’
The purpose of this is to ensure that there are productive responses to the Reports. At the same time I recognize that Parliament, while pursuing financial probity and accountability, may not be in a position to understand the practical considerations involved, and that is why I believe it is important to give the Executive an opportunity to respond, and explain what can be done, and what cannot be done.
However the incapacity to act in the way recommended cannot suffice, which is why I have requested that the Executive indicate what remedial action is proposed instead for any inadequacies or abuses to which attention has been drawn. This will also facilitate the next stage, which is reporting back to Parliament within six months as to the actions taken. At present there is no method of ensuring the required feedback, and sadly it almost never occurs.