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Standing OrdersThe Standing Order Committee finally met today, and we had what seemed a very productive session. I hope we are on our way now to fulfilling one of the first commitments in the manifesto, to amend Standing Orders so as to strengthen Parliament.

Needless to say there was nobody there from the UNP. Their total neglect of Standing Orders in the last few years was I think due more to ignorance rather than a lack of principle, which is why the Prime Minister should have nominated someone with a greater grasp of political concepts. But it was still John Amaratunga who was supposed to attend, and of course he did not come.

But we had Mr Sumanthiran, who had been the other moving spirit behind the swift way in which we worked in the first few months of this Parliament, before the Speaker stopped summoning the Committee. Dinesh Gunawardena also came, which I much appreciated, because he had done his best, which no one else in the Parliamentary Business Committee did, to get the Speaker to move on the Amendments I had proposed way back in 2013. Ajith Kumara was also there, and the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees, as also the Secretary General (who has a very good grasp of political principles), along with his Deputy.

We did not reach any decision on Consultative Committees, since it seems the Prime Minister has suggested we should have something called Sectoral Committees. I am delighted that he has at last thought about something he should have been thinking of for the last 37 years, but I suppose one should be glad that at last he has realized the importance of structures that enhance the power of Parliament. I have still to see his suggestions, which have been circulated to other Party Leaders, but will be content to hope for the best and return to this area later.

Meanwhile we have reached agreement on seven other areas as to which I had proposed reforms. Many intelligent suggestions were made on the rest, and we finally agreed on the following; Read the rest of this entry »

Join us in calling on His Excellency The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet to 20, with no more than 20 Cabinet Ministers and no more than 20 other Ministers of Junior Ministerial rank.

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I promised to return to the subject, since I did not spend much time on discussing Committees of Parliament. These should be extremely important, since they should be the principal forums in which Parliament discharges its two vital responsibilities, namely legislation and financial oversight.

In most Parliaments, important business is conducted through Committees, with plenary sessions reserved for the cut and thrust of debate, for discussion of broad policy issues, and for questions to keep government on its toes. The Sri Lankan Parliament does still have lively debates and discussions, though the function of questions has collapsed, since Ministers now postpone answers to difficult questions, and there are no sanctions against them when this happens. We tried, when the Committee to amend Standing Orders was sitting, to introduce a provision whereby the Speaker reports to the Head of the Executive any Ministers who are in dereliction of their duties. Unfortunately that Committee went the way of all Parliamentary Committees, into virtual oblivion.

Other Committees, I should note, do sit, though hardly any Ministers conduct meetings on a monthly basis as is expected. This would be difficult, given the number of Committees there are. I can also understand Ministers thinking these meetings not very useful, since they are largely concerned with the problems of individual Members of Parliament, who can also bring those problems up direct with the Minister or the Secretary, instead of using up time meant for general discussions. As I have suggested, Ministers should be required to set aside a time each week for Members to approach them about matters concerning their own interests, so the time of the Consultative Committee could be spent on general issues and policy matters. But since that rarely happens now, I can understand why Members who do not have individual issues to bring up do not attend, since it must be tedious for them to sit through the individual problems of others. Read the rest of this entry »

The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

At one of the discussions on the promotion of Human Rights that the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies has been arranging together with the Reconciliation Office, it was decided to set up a more structured consultation, to look into conceptual questions as well as make practical recommendations. Given that clarity of conceptualization is largely lacking in the world of politics – or even recognition of the need for conceptualization – I was deeply impressed by the presentation at that discussion of the Consultant on Children to the Attorney General’s Department. What he presented seemed a good basis for further analysis so as to promote more helpful state interventions.

His argument, if I understood it correct, was that social policy in Sri Lanka continues to be based on the colonial legacy of Poor Law with emphasis on Criminal Law, on institutionalization of social rejects, and on very generalized administrative approaches without a positive social agenda. I am not sure that I agree with this completely, but he certainly presented a convincing contrast between our administrative framework for social services and that which we have in education and health. The latter promotes equity and inclusivity, whereas the former entrenches the dichotomizing view of society that Victorian England seemed to embody – but which was fought against and changed by advanced social thinkers and, perhaps most prominently, by Charles Dickens, who had suffered himself from the prevailing patronizing philosophy.

Coincidentally I happened, during the time our discussion took place, to have been reading one of his early works, entitled ‘The Mudfog Papers’, which satirized the practice of putting people in workhouses. In that Dickens produced a mock scientific paper on how to treat fleas, which was clearly meant to suggest that this was how the dominant sections of society regarded their less fortunate brethren – ‘He suggested that measures should be immediately taken to employ the labour of these fleas as part and parcel of the productive power of the country, which might easily be done by the establishment among them of infant schools and houses of industry, in which a system of virtuous education, based upon sound principles, should be observed, and moral precepts strictly inculcated. He proposed that every flea who presumed to exhibit, for hire, music, or dancing, or any species of theatrical entertainment, without a licence, should be considered a vagabond, and treated accordingly, in which respect he only placed him upon a level with the rest of mankind’.

The word vagabond of course recalled the Vagrants’ Ordinance which we still have on our statue books. Everyone agrees that it should be got rid of, or at least amended, but no one seems concerned enough to proceed with this. So we still continue to hear horror stories of how it is applied, most recently of a woman who went out shopping, and was taken in under the Ordinance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2020
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