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Presidency 17Recently, at a Consultative Committee in Parliament, one of my colleagues remarked that there was no need of any opposition given my own contribution. I had been critical but what my colleague, from the Gampaha District, failed to understand was that I had criticized neither policies nor action. What I had been objecting to was a failure of action, and had the gentleman understood how Parliaments should be conducted, he would have realized that I was actually trying to help. Surely it should be the business of politicians supportive of the government to promote action in accordance with productive policies, not to sit back complacently when there is no progress.

The incident occurred at the 17th meeting of the Consultative Committee on Education, when I wondered what had happened about a matter I had raised at the previous meeting, held 3 months earlier (meetings are supposed to happen every month, but this Standing Order, like almost all others, is observed in the breach). In May I had brought up the question of opening computer laboratories which had, in at least two cases I knew of, been completed and equipped, but were awaiting a ceremonial opening.

The Minister had claimed on that occasion that such a ceremony was needed so that the people would know who had gifted the laboratory. But when I pointed out that these were not gifts, but built with the people’s money, he had granted my point. So, to cite the minute, he ‘stated that the Chairman of the Development Committee of the area should be responsible to utilize them and instructed to take immediate action to open them’.

This time it was reported that some laboratories had been opened already, and that many more would soon be opened in the Uva Province. This caused a lot of giggles, but that did not matter so long as the children were now able to use the equipment. But surely it should have struck my colleagues that, even if the priority was to get brownie points from these computers, the sooner they were in use, the better for the politicians too, as well as the children. For obviously the people would know if there were an unnecessary delay – it was parents and teachers who had kept me informed in areas I am familiar with – while there is also a risk of computers deteriorating if not swiftly put into operation. Read the rest of this entry »

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I received recently a letter from the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, pointing out that her Ministry had been allocated responsibility for several elements in the National Human Rights Action Plan which were not within their purview. She was quite right, and there are other elements too with regard to which the Inter-Ministerial Task Force will have to request Cabinet to make the appropriate adjustments.

One or two of the points raised arose from the fact that sometimes many Ministries have to share responsibility for action. Thus recently I attended a discussion chaired by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs regarding the replacement for the Child and Young Person’s Ordinance. This had been prepared by the Ministry of Justice, but the draft was to go to Cabinet through a joint Cabinet Paper, given the seminal role required of the Children’s Ministry in implementing the new law.

Unfortunately, while the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice is happy to develop active coordination mechanisms with other ministries, this does not always happen. I remember for instance the difficulties we had with establishing a framework for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of former Combatants, when the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights was responsible for coordination of humanitarian assistance. Because, even with the end of the war in sight, there was no sense of urgency about this, we took the lead with the support of the International Labour Organization in developing a framework, and produced what should have been the basis for action.

But unfortunately the mandate for rehabilitation lay then with the Ministry of Justice, and cooperation was not forthcoming. Even when a dedicated Commissioner General of Rehabilitation was appointed in the form of an army officer – previously the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, who had far too much to do anyway, had occupied that position too – he still reported to the Minister of Justice, and so could not formally adopt the document we had produced, even though he did a great deal that was recommended there.

But because the Policy Document was not formally adopted, there remained a lacuna with regard to reintegration, and we still suffer from a lack of clear responsibility in that regard. It is widely assumed that the Rehabilitation Bureau is responsible for that element too, but that is not the case officially. Though interventions to support reintegration can be promoted in terms of the rehabilitation mandate, these cannot be systematic, and this leads to problems.

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I wrote last week about Parliamentary Consultative Committees and the role they should play with regard to legislation. But there is more that they should do, in helping the Executive develop policies and monitor their implementation.

The hopelessness however of expecting them to fulfil these tasks came home to me when, the morning after I got back, I received notice of a meeting of the Consultative Committee on Education, and was rung up also by the Secretary to the Committee Office, urging me to attend. It is possible she does this for all members, but I doubt it, because she mentioned again that no one else on the Committee had commented on the proposals for Education Reform that have been discussed in a Special Parliamentary Committee for over two years now.

They had not commented a few months back when a penultimate draft had been circulated, and they have not commented now, when a final draft has been sent out to all of us for comment. I will continue to hope, as I think she does, that something from someone else will come in before the 15th of January, which is the deadline, but I doubt it.

One of the problems is the manner in which the Committees are constituted. The copy of the Standing Orders distributed to MPs when Parliament was convened in 2010 was printed in 1993, and notes that Committees should have not more than 12 members. This has now been changed and all Committees now have 21 members. The Standing Orders I have say that ‘No Member shall serve in more than one Consultative Committee unless the Selection Committee decides to the contrary’, but either the Selection Committee has made several decisions to the contrary or else the Standing Order has been changed. I am supposed to serve on 7 Consultative Committees, including the Committee on Civil Aviation, about which I have no ideas at all.

I don’t think the Selection Committee has been at all serious in constituting Consultative Committees, but in mitigation I should add that it would be impossible for the Committee to be serious about this job, given that it has to allocate 21 members to each of 60 odd Committees. What would be much more sensible is to ask MPs to apply to Ministers for membership of their Committees, and for Ministers to propose a small Committee of the truly committed who could meet on a regular basis to discuss issues in an informed manner. For meaningful discussion the Committee should have not more than ten members. 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.

You can sign the petition by clicking here.

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/his-excellency-mahinda-rajapaksa-the-president-of-sri-lanka-introduce-constitutional-amendment-limiting-cabinet-to-20-cabinet-ministers

Short link – http://chn.ge/YbSBgY

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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 »

I wrote last week about the need to have a Parliament in which members could fulfil their legislative role more effectively. But, in addition to changes in the electoral system, we need for this purpose to ensure that Parliamentarians have a better understanding of that role.

Essentially Parliament has two principal functions. One is with regard to laws, inasmuch as it is Parliament that formulates and passed laws. But, since laws pertain to particular functions, which are fulfilled by the Executive Branch, it is necessary for Parliamentarians to understand what those functions are.

Sadly the principal contact that Parliamentary practice in Sri Lanka now provides is used to discuss particular issues relating to constituencies, and to request resources for constituency purposes. There is hardly any discussion of policy. In any case the manner in which Parliamentarians are allocated to Committees, and the large numbers involved (many of whom do not attend, as I have found in waiting for a quorum to be made up), mean that policy discussions are rare.

The large number of Ministries we have – some of which have hardly held Consultative Committee meetings – mean that policy making is complicated, since so many different agencies are involved. The absurdity of pretending that Parliament can actually monitor the work of so many Ministries has been made manifest by the manner in which this year, twice the number of Ministries as last year have been put into a job lot for Committee Stage discussion during the Budget debate. Read the rest of this entry »

Earlier this year I was asked by Parliamentary officials to contribute to a journal that the Research division of Parliament proposed to publish. It was to deal with Policy Issues in the Post-Conflict Era. Articles were supposed to be of around 2000 words in length, which made sense since I assume they wish to accommodate as many Members of Parliament as possible. I felt obliged then to try to put something down, though clearly one would not be able to cover as much ground as one would like to within such limits.

Being spurred to think about such matters, and to write, was however salutary, and it struck me then that perhaps this could be a topic for a series of articles to follow on the literature series I had contributed to the ‘Island’. I don’t know whether the role of Parliament in terms of seeking good governance would be a generally popular topic, but I thought it worth trying to put down some ideas in a comprehensive manner. For the next few weeks therefore, as an interlude before some other literary topics, I plan to discuss what a Parliament should be, and why we have not succeeded in getting from our legislature the service the country needs.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2019
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