An enormous step forward was taken recently by Parliament, the first with regard to Parliamentary practice since COPE decided to establish Sub-Committees so that it could try to cover all the institutions that came under its purview each year. I can take some credit for this step too, since the Secretary General kindly informed me that this followed on my pointing out to him that the proceedings of Parliamentary Consultative Committees were not available to the public.
Beginning with the proceedings of May 2014, Parliament now issues a Monthly Report that consists of the Minutes of the Consultative Committees. This should in theory be a monthly document, since there are 60 Consultative Committees, all of which should meet every month according to Standing Orders. However there were only 15 sets on minutes, one of which recorded that the meeting was not held since only the Minister and I were present. So there was no quorum, though I should note that we did have a very fruitful discussion, which has been recorded, since the Ministry, that of National Languages and Social Integration, had invited representatives of the Ministries of Education and of Youth Affairs to discuss matters of common interest.
For five other Ministries the minutes had not been confirmed, which I presume means the Ministry has not as yet responded to the draft sent by the Committee Office. 40 Ministries it seems had not met. One excuse made for this lapse is that, given limited space and time, it is not possible for all the Ministries to meet each month. But this will not wash since, given that more than one meeting can be held at a time, and that Parliament sits for 8 days each month, it would easily be possible to cover the whole gamut if 7 or 8 meetings are held on each sitting day.
Whether this would serve much purpose though is a moot point. The quorum for meetings is three members, including the Chairman, and three Committees had just that number, with six having only one or two more (though other members can attend, and in some cases they did so). And, as I wrote to the Speaker in pointing out that the volume ‘serves to make clear how ineffective the current Committee system is….There is little sign of discussion of the issues which, according to the Standing Orders, are the responsibility of the Committees.’
I realize that not many of my colleagues will share my concern about these lapses, but I know the President does. Once, at a meeting of the Parliamentary group, he rebuked members who did not fulfil their duties in this regard, and actually read from a schedule of attendance at the Finance Committees, the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises. This led to comparatively large attendance at the next meeting of COPE, but that was just for one meeting, perhaps to overcome the President’s suggestion that members who did not attend should be replaced. Unfortunately the President did not follow up on that particular initiative, and perhaps it is difficult for him to do so, since his son Namal is one of those who I have not seen at COPE since the first meeting, way back in 2010, and who was not at any Consultative Committee which has been reported on.
But he is not alone in this, for hardly any of the new entrants to Parliament on the government side come to Committees, though with a few honourable exceptions. That the President had hoped Namal would learn is clear, from the very interesting Committees on which he sits, and indeed from his special request that his son be invited to meetings of the One Text Initiative, which used to be a forum for members of different political parties to come together. But the new style of government that had developed under this strange confused constitution we suffer from seem to have no room for discussion, such as the President may recall from the days when Parliament functioned in accordance with established traditions.
So I can sympathize with those who do not attend meetings, since much time is taken up with parochial concerns, two MPs asking for construction of elephant viewing points (at the Committee on Botanical Gardens and Recreation), others seeking pensions and arrears and bus passes and vehicle permits and permanency and financial assistance for individuals. I presume Namal can get such requests fulfilled by a simple telephone call, and I have no quarrel with that, provided the requests are in accordance with regulations. But my point is that this should be true for all Members of Parlament, and that is why I have suggested, in my proposed Amendments to Standing Orders, that there should be a separate time allocated for Members to take up such matters at Ministries, whereas Consultative Committees should be for discussion of policy and finance, as the Standing Orders suggest.
The contrast between what might be termed parish pump politics and policy issues is apparent in the minutes of the Committee on Investment Promotion, where opposition National List Members have raised some very important issues. Similarly, two Ministers, and another government Member along with myself, sought responses on difficulties with regard to Resettlement. The opposition was conspicuous by its absence there, which could be interpreted as a lack of concern with regard to solving problems, as opposed to raising them in public forums. But I have to admit that the lack of authority of the Ministry in this regard, despite very well meaning Ministers and a competent and concerned Secretary, may explain the absence of the opposition. But I must insist that this does not justify their absence, since they should understand the importance of raising questions in Parliament and ensuring formal recording of situations that need rectification.
With regard to COPE, after the President’s forceful but ultimately ineffective intervention, we went back to our usual small group, where after the inception I have not seen 14 of the 31 members. But I think we make up for this through quality, with committed contributions from the 5 Cabinet Ministers who do attend, and the half dozen opposition members who are regular including, most constructively assiduously, Eran Wickramaratne. And I should also pay tribute to the COPE staff who have responded magnificiently to the additional work the Chairman has thrust upon them, in demanding regular reports, and follow up so that institutions can no longer ignore our directives and respond to queries only when they next appear.
I am also impressed by the interest the staff show in Parliamentary procedures. After my motion to amend Standing Orders, one of them who is doing a thesis on Parliamentary practice got in touch, and more recently an official in the COPE office, who had been on a training programme in a Parliament which has a more systematic approach to work sent me some invaluable suggestions. I have therefore proposed a Sub-Committee for follow up, a subject which Eran too has been pushing for some time, and the Chairman has agreed to take this up at our next business meeting when we will be looking at the latest draft Interim Report.
That Report notes instances where officials ‘could directly be held responsible for certain embezzlements’ and recommends that Parliament should not approve their appointment to the same or other positions. This might have seemed an unnecessary recommendation, but unfortunately we do have instances of such indulgence, where improprieties are forgiven are forgotten. In order to strengthen the provisions against such indulgence, I planned to suggest that the names of those guilty of irregularities should be made public.
I believe this is essential, and that transparency and good governance requires exposure in such instances. But I realize too that, to be consistent, I must also propose that our Report should record attendance at our meetings. Since we have been tough on institutions which do not hold statutory meetings regularly, and have indicated that members of Boards and Committees who are there in an official capacity must take their responsibilities seriously, I think we need to take the same approach with regard to our own Committee. The public on whose behalf we are supposed to exercise financial oversight deserve no less than to know whether or not we are fulfilling our responsibilities.