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10 Jan 2015The most important issue facing the new President is to restore confidence in the governmental process.

For this purpose it is necessary to establish systems that work according to the Rule of Law, and with full accountability to the people. In this respect it is vital that Parliamentary control of legislation and finances be restored.

This does not mean strengthening an Executive based in Parliament, but rather strengthening Parliament to be an effective check on the Executive. This means strengthening the power of ordinary members of Parliament, both government and opposition.

Measures to ensure this were the principle component of the Standing Order changes I had proposed last year, changes which the Speaker ignored in contravention of the existing Standing Orders. My main purpose was to strengthen Committees of Parliament by streamlining them and ensuring that they were not chaired by members of the Executive. In the case of the Finance Oversight Committees, the PAC and COPE, the chair was to be a member of the opposition.

But ensuring open discussion in committees is not enough. It is also necessary to give them teeth, and for this purpose we should ensure that the Executive either follows their recommendations, or else gives reasons in writing as to why this is not desirable or possible. The same would apply to the petitions committee, the directions of which are now simply flouted by the Executive.

I would take this principle further, to promote consultation as well as accountability at local levels. The Local Government Act should be amended to ensure involvement of People’s Representatives in Committees of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Local Councils. I have already suggested amendments in this regard to the Secretary of the Local Government Ministry who had consulted me about the Act. It will also be necessary to define clearly the areas of responsibility of local government bodies, and to give them powers to work effectively in these areas.

In addition, given the number of administrative decisions made at Divisional Secretariat level, there should be consultation mechanisms at Grama Niladhari level, with mandatory feedback at the decision making level. This is the Divisional Secretariat, and I am glad that Mr Sirisena’s manifesto declares the centrality of this level, and the need to ensure coordination of services. With regard to this I have been working together with several Ministry Secretaries on a UNDP Project to improve delivery of services, and I hope the next government studies the excellent report produced by Asoka Gunawardena and implements its recommendations. Certainly we must get rid of the ridiculous system introduced by Basil Rajapaksa, of handing over development funds to Members of Parliament to spend virtually at will, with no coordination and little reference to the plans of the Line Ministries.

Line Ministries should be strengthened, and this requires reducing the size of the Cabinet in accordance with clear rationales, as pledged in the opposition manifesto. We cannot have many ministries dealing with similar subjects, and we cannot have ministers doing what they want – and in particular accepting unsolicited bids for projects, which has become a feature of the way the present government runs things – without adherence to well developed plans. It is imperative that a Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation be set up, and given teeth on the lines of the suggestions the Secretary to that Ministry and I forwarded to Mr Lalith Weeratunge at the end of 2009.

I have stressed governance issues, because these seem to me the most important in terms of safeguarding democracy and promoting equitable development. For this purpose it is also essential to pass the proposed Freedom of Information Act, and to give it teeth through ensuring public accountability at all levels of government. In addition I hope we will also introduce the Bill of Rights which was promised in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya, and which the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights had got drafted by the end of 2009, but which has since been ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

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While I continue to believe improving consultation as well as efficiency at local level should be the most important priority for government, I will interrupt the discussion of appropriate mechanisms for this briefly, to look at a very interesting initiative that was publicized recently. This was the launch of a website called http://www.manthri.lk which grades Members of Parliament with regard to their performance in Parliament. This is an interesting effort which could be very useful to the country, but I felt that there had been a lack of intellectual rigour in preparing the website, and it could thus seem to be designed simply to promote particular politicians.

Prominence was given to Members of the Opposition, which is understandable since the system is based only on Hansard. Obviously there are more opportunities for Members of the Opposition to speak. The exception that proves the rule is that the only government Member within the first five was Dinesh Gunewardena. While he fulfills his functions admirably, the reason he is ranked so highly is that he spends much time on his feet only because other Ministers are not present to answer questions.

If rankings are to be made, then it would make sense to have three distinct categories,

a) Opposition members who have far more time allocated to them proportionately, given their paucity, than those on the Government side

b) Ministers who have to answer questions and obviously get more time in debates than backbenchers

c) Government backbenchers. I hasten to add, since on the common system of argument used in Sri Lanka, it will be assumed I am critical of the method because I come out badly, that in fact I am in the first half of all, and comparatively high amongst my peers. But this surprises me because, having been the first MP on the government side to ask a question and to move an Adjournment Motion in this Parliament, I rarely do this now because answers took so long to come and were not precise – while hardly anyone ever waits in Parliament for the Adjournment motions that take place after regular Parliamentary business.

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In addition to Consultative Committees for each Ministry, Parliament has another range of Committees, some intended to facilitate administration, others supposed to contribute to the core functions of Parliament. Amongst these last is the Committee on Public Petitions, related to the work of the Ombudsman, who is officially called the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. He is supposed, on behalf of Parliament, to look into administrative injustices, and ensure redress.

Unfortunately the Ombudsman has not been especially effective in Sri Lanka. Initially direct access to him was not permitted, and the public had to present petitions to Parliament, which could either deal with these themselves, or send them to the Ombudsman. Later it was decided that the public could access him direct. In both cases however the problem is that the Ombudsman has no statutory powers. He can only report to Parliament, which then has to take action. Since however action has to be taken with regard to Ministries, and since many Ministers – or their officials – are unwilling to have their actions reversed, remedial action is often not possible.

An imaginative Ombudsman could sometimes achieve a compromise, using the threat of invoking adverse procedures in Parliament to persuade officials to offer some sort of redress. But this requires close knowledge of the system, which most holders of the position have not possessed. Thus, while petitions continue to come in abundance to Parliament, these too do not often lead to petitioners being satisfied that justice has been done.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2019
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