In addition to discussion of the role of oversight committees of Parliament in reducing corruption, two other important issues were raised at the Transparency International consultation with Parliamentarians, where structural reforms are required if corruption is to be reduced. One is an area in which the system we have increases the temptation, or perhaps even the need, to be corrupt.

This is our current electoral system, where those seeking election to Parliament, and indeed to any political body, have to campaign over a vast area, and combat members of their own party as well as the opposition. The obvious solution is to change the electoral system, but another method proposed was to have strict caps on election expenses, with funds provided by the state. I am not sure this will work, given the many ways in which money can be spent with no direct connection to the candidate, which indeed might increase corruption. But I was happy that the issue had been considered, and some sort of remedy thought essential.

The other structural problem we have is the vast size of the Cabinet. There may be no direct link between the plethora of Ministerial positions and corruption, but it certainly makes financial controls more difficult. In addition to the natural desire of any Minister to make a mark, which requires spending money, the number of Ministers means that Parliament cannot properly exercise financial controls over the Executive, since it is holders of Executive office who dominate Parliament and all its committees.

I have therefore suggested, in my motion to amend Standing Orders, that, in addition to the Chairmen of the financial oversight committees not being Ministers, the same should apply to Chairmen of Consultative Committees. Currently there is absolutely no attention paid to the Clause in the Standing Orders which specifies that ‘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, motions, annual reports or papers.’

This neglect is possible because it is rarely that either the Chairman or Parliament refers any such matter to the Consultative Committee. Instead meetings are taken up, except for the tabling of reports of agencies under the Ministry, by matters brought up by members, and these usually relate to concerns within their constituencies.

I have therefore proposed that the first clause in Standing Orders relating to Consultative Committees should deal with their duties which ‘will include inquiring into and reporting upon all matters relevant to the Ministries with regard to Bills, proposals for legislation, supplementary or other estimates, statements of expenditure, motions, annual reports or papers.’ I have also included in another Clause the provision that ‘Ministers in charge of subjects on which Bills are proposed shall submit all such Bills for the observations of the relevant Consultative Committee and shall preside over special meetings to discuss such Bills.’ This is because legislation is particularly important and we must introduce mechanisms to overcome the present fashion of introducing bills without opportunities for parliamentarians to discuss them at leisure (instead of only in the context of the cut and thrust of debates in plenary sessions of Parliament). But I believe it is also important to make it mandatory for Consultative Committees too to discuss estimates and statements or expenditure, and help to monitor finances in terms of the professional objectives of the Ministry.

At the same time I appreciate the need of my colleagues to discuss constituency issues, so I have noted in the proposed changes that the Consultative Committees ‘will not take up matters relating to particular constituency concerns, with regard to which Ministers are expected to set aside times in which Members may deal with them and their officials at the Ministry’. I should note that this will also save a great deal of time and money, since now a great many officials have to turn up to Consultative Committees, often simply to sit and stare into space. The administration of Parliament had in fact decided that this is wasteful and tried to set a cap on the number of officials who come to Consultative Committees, but given the current way in which they function, this has been opposed by Ministers. My proposal will ensure that members with particular concerns can raise these in the Ministry and get responses on the spot from relevant officials, who will be able to consult papers as required and also call up anyone in the regions whose responses are required.

I have also suggested that the Selection Committee of Parliament ‘shall appoint the Chairman of each Consultative Committee in consultation with the Minister or Ministers in charge of the subjects of such Committee. The Chairmen of Consultative Committees shall not be Ministers or Deputy Ministers, and at least half of the number of Chairmen of such Committees shall be members of the Opposition.’ This is standard practice in most Parliamentary democracies, but I have kept it open for any Minister who is worried about this to advise on who should chair meetings, with the possibility of appointing a government member if there is any special reason for worry. However I believe that, as happens in other countries, people grow into responsibilities, and if a collegiate system of conducting business were adopted from the start, opposition would work together with government to ensure efficiency and positive outcomes of the consultative process.

At the same time, given the need to liaise closely with relevant Ministers, I have also suggested that each Committee will also have an opportunity to meet with the Minister to discuss important isssues. This should be at the Ministry, where a small group could raise issues in a spirit of accommodation, which will also I hope contribute to good governance.

Daily News 9 July 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2013/07/09/fea03.asp

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