THE CONTEXT: There was not a single meeting of any parliamentary committee in the four months following the national lockdown and the opposition parties have claimed that the government is making Parliamentary Standing Committees irrelevant by bypassing them while passing legislations. The Lok Sabha Speaker has initiated an assessment of the effectiveness of the Standing Committees and the Rajya Sabha secretariat had already done a similar analysis.
- The institution of Parliamentary Committees has its origins in the British Parliament. The earliest parliamentary committees were the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) (1921) followed by the Estimates Committee (1950).
- A parliamentary committee is a committee which is appointed or elected by any House or nominated by the Speaker/Chairman and which works under the direction of the Speaker/Chairman and presents its report to the House or to the Speaker/Chairman and the respective Secretariat. They draw their authority from Article 105 and Article 118
- The practice of regularly referring bills to committees began in 1989 after government departments started forming their own standing committees. Prior to that, select committees or joint committees of the houses were only set up to scrutinise some very important bills.
- DRSCs were set up first in 1993, to ensure Parliament could keep with the growing complexity of governance. These are permanent Committees that are reconstituted every year.
- DRSCs are composed of members from across political parties. Currently, there are 24 DRSCs. Each has 21 members from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha.
- Each DRSC focuses on a set of ministries and, therefore, helps its members build sector knowledge. DRSCs can examine Bills referred to them; select specific topics related to the ministries and examine implementation by the Government; and examine the budgetary outlays of the departments.
- They do not consider matters of day-to-day administration but only focus on long-term plans and policies to guide the working of the executive. They have the right to call for records and witnesses and prepare reports that are then placed before Parliament for necessary action.
- Some of the important Bills currently under scrutiny of standing committees include those on data protection, surrogacy and DNA technology regulation and the Industrial Relations Code, 2019.
TYPES OF COMMITTEES
- There are broadly two kinds of committees: (a) Standing Committees; and (b) Ad-hoc Committees.
- Both Houses have a similar committee structure, with few exceptions. Their appointment, terms of office, functions, and procedure for conducting business is regulated as per Rules of Business of each House.
- Standing committees are permanent in nature, and are reconstituted from time to time. They can be further divided into financial committees and DRSCs.
- Ad hoc committees are appointed for a specific purpose — like the examination of a bill or inquiry into specific subjects, say, the 2G scam — and exist only until this purpose is fulfilled.
IMPORTANCE OF STANDING COMMITTEES
- Over the years, responsibilities of the government have increased significantly. Government expenditure and legislation have become technical and complex in nature. Disruptive changes in technology and the expansion of trade, commerce and economy in general throw up new policy challenges. The laws and regulations that are required to govern a digital society cannot be made without highly specialised knowledge and political acumen. MPs may have great acumen but they are generalists. They are neither effective in their role as lawmakers nor in questioning the functioning of the government. Also, given the volume of work it is difficult for Parliament to scrutinise all government activities in the House in a limited time.
- Parliamentary Committees ensure that Parliament can effectively discharge its two functions – lawmaking and oversight of the executive. Their ability to devote more time on each item allows them to examine matters in greater detail. Smaller group of lawmakers with interests and expertise of individual members could have more open, intensive and better informed discussions. Members of Parliament can get the assistance of experts through the committees.
- The sittings of Parliament are steadily declining over the years, from 100-150 sittings in the 1950s to 60-70 sittings per year. Fewer sittings of Parliament are compensated by the working of DRSCs. During the recess in the current Budget session, the committees have done work worth 30 sittings of Parliament. Also, only a limited proportion of the budget (17% in the 16th Lok Sabha) is usually discussed in the House. The DRSCs examine the budget in detail and ensure financial accountability. Bills that are referred to committees are returned to the House with significant value addition. For example, the Committee on Food and Consumer Affairs suggested several amendments in the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, most of which were accepted and incorporated in the Act.
- Parliamentary committees enable input from experts and those who may be directly affected by a policy or legislation. For example, the DRSCs often invite comments from the public and call people to testify.
- Since time on the floor of the house is allocated on the basis of party strength, many MPs very less time. But in committee meetingsMPs can contribute extensively to the discussions.
- Committee reports are usually exhaustive and provide authentic information on matters related to governance. Their reports allow for informed debate.
- Being outside direct public glare allows members to discuss issues and reach consensus without worrying about constituency pressures.
- They also help parties reach consensus on various issues as committee meetings are ‘closed door’ and members are not bound by party whips and the anti-defection law does not apply to committees.
- The committees allow members to focus on some specific areas and build their expertise, which helps them scrutinise issues more thoroughly.
FUNCTIONING OF DRSCs
While it is difficult to analyse the quality of deliberations of its sittings, the number of sittings held by various DRSCs can be used as an indicator to measure the quantity of work done by them.
- Examining Demands for Grants: in many cases MPs do not have sufficient time to study the DRSC reports on Demands for Grants
- Examining Bills: the trend shows that fewer Bills are being referred to Committees as compared to previous Lok Sabha
- Examination of Issue some of the subjects identified for examination by DRSCs constituted for 2019-20 include: state of the Indian economy, online security measures for data protection etc.
- Reports submitted by DRSCs: During the 16th Lok Sabha, 2,038 sittings were held by DRSCs and they submitted 1,111 reports. On average, DRSCs published one report in 1.8 sittings. Average sittings taken to publish one report vary across DRSCs.
- The recent decline in the role and performance of standing committees is part of a larger trend visible even before the lockdown, an India Spend analysis of published parliamentary data regarding eight standing committees found.
- Despite 133 Bills being passed in the 16th Lok Sabha, 15% higher than the previous Lok Sabha, a lesser number of Bills were sent to committees for scrutiny. According to PRS Legislative Research, only 25% of the Bills introduced were referred to committees in the 16th Lok Sabha, as compared to 71% and 60% in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha respectively.
- Comparing every standing committee’s number of meetings and number of hours under both governments shows a steady decline. The number of sittings decreased by 22.1% and the standing committees were 26.8% less productive by number of hours during 16th Lok Sabha as compared to the 15th Lok Sabha.
- The average attendance of every departmentally-related standing committee was 54% in the second session (November-December 2019) and 48% in the third session (January-March) of the 17th Lok Sabha.
- The standing committee on finance, which scrutinises the expenditure of the Ministry of Finance, had the lowest attendance of all at 22 between November and March.
HOW THE ROLE OF PARLIAMENTARY STANDING COMMITTEES IS REDUCING?
DIMINISHED SAY IN LEGISLATIVE MATTERS
There was a decrease in the involvement of standing committees in legislative matters. Only 25% of all bills were referred to committees, compared to 71% under the previous government. Only about 10% of bills introduced in Parliament during the 17th Lok Sabha have been referred to committees.
The opposition has charged the government with bypassing parliamentary panels by introducing all bills in the Lower House, where it has a strong majority. Controversial laws like RTI Amendment Bill and the UAPA Amendment Bill were not referred to any Parliamentary Committees despite the Opposition’s motion. During the lockdown between March and August, the government has promulgated 11 ordinances. Some of the ordinances which had nothing to do with the pandemic could have been brought as bills and sent to the committees for review.
PARTISANSHIP CURTAILING DELIBERATION
Traditionally, parliamentary committees function on a non-party basis. This tradition seems to have broken down and members have started political posturing. The committee on home affairs saw political partisanship during its meeting on Kashmir post abrogation of Article 370.
When a party has sufficient numbers in both Houses of Parliament, it is almost inevitable that these standing committees are populated by members from the ruling disposition, which enables them to prevent matters unfavourable to the government from being taken up.The PAC was recently prevented from scrutinising the PM-CARES Fund by committee members from the ruling party.
Such political partisanship during the proceedings of committees has reduced its deliberation over important issues such as tracking the expenditure of ministries and, consequently, its ability to hold the government to account.
VIRTUAL MEETINGS NOT ALLOWED
Virtual meetings of standing committees were not allowed by the Speaker despite requests due to the confidentiality conditions under Rule 275 of the Lok Sabha. If parliamentary standing committees were able to meet virtually, they could review the performance of the government and how it dealt with the pandemic.
The standing committee on labour looked at the performance of the One Nation-One Ration Card scheme and the welfare benefits to migrant labourers, but months later. Timely review and recommendations by the committee was required here. More than 15 countries have allowed their parliamentary committees to meet virtually to ensure socially distanced proceedings.
A NEW TREND
Several Bills piloted by the Finance Ministry have been referred to specially-formed joint committees of the two Houses rather than the DRSCs. The DRSC is chaired by a member from the opposition while the joint committees were chaired by a member of the ruling party.
WHY THE ROLE OF PARLIAMENTARY STANDING COMMITTEES IS REDUCING?
In 2002, the NCRWC pointed out some shortcomings of the committees: (a) low attendance of MPs at meetings; (b) too many ministries under a committee; (c) norms not followed by most political parties while nominating MPs to committees; and (d) the constitution of DRSCs for a year leaves very little time for specialisations.
Saving time and scrutiny could be reasons to bypass parliamentary panels. It can take months to table a report in the Parliament with some bills being referred to committees more than once. When a government has adequate numbers to push through legislation, it might view the committee as unnecessary and disadvantageous as it allows the Opposition to get its dissent noted on record.
Repeated requests to either send or not send or send bills to a joint committee, instead of an already established specialised committee, creates an impression that the committee process is political and not focused on technical scrutiny. Not referring a bill to a committee sends the message that the bills piloted by the government are perfect, and they are so urgently needed that they do not require the contribution of a committee of MPs. These impressions reduce overall interests of the MPs to participate in the meetings.
With reports of large-scale absence of MPs from the committees, the Rajya Sabha Chairman has pointed out that a total of 95 MPs did not attend a single meeting of the 8 DRSCs that reviewed allocations for 18 Ministries after the presentation of the 2020-21 Union Budget. MPs are unable to pay attention to the committees as they prioritize social functions in their constituency due to risk losing voters.
The issue of members not attending the meetings of committees, particularly DRPSCs, has come to the fore against the backdrop of the opposition’s criticism that the government was bypassing parliamentary scrutiny by not referring bills to the DRPSCs. The committee chair’s supervisory role has not proved to be effective and there is no mechanism for a regular assessment of the performance of the committee.
MEASURES TO STRENGHTHEN THE COMMITTEE SYSTEM
REFERRING BILLS TO COMMITTEES
Currently, it is not mandatory to refer a Bill to a Committee. All Bills, other than Money Bills, should be referred to the DRPSCs for consideration and scrutiny after public opinion has been elicited. The Committees may schedule public hearings, if necessary, and finalise with the help of experts the second reading stage. Referring all Bills to a Committee would ensure that all laws go through a minimum level of Parliamentary scrutiny.
EXPERT WITNESSES AND RESEARCH SUPPORT
Very often, MPs experience a knowledge gap when dealing with specialised subjects. The DRSC usually invites experts while scrutinising Bills but this is not always the case. The technical support available to Parliamentary Committees is limited to a secretariat. Late Speaker Somnath Chatterjee favoured associating external experts with parliamentary committees to support the committees in analysing legislations and policies. There is a need to reconsider the infrastructure support that MPs require for contributing effectively. Committees in other countries such as the UK, USA, and Canada can retain specialist advisors to assist in specific inquires.
REPORTS OF THE COMMITTEES
Currently, reports of the Parliamentary Committees are not discussed in the Parliament. The reports are non-binding and have persuasive or advisory value. The government can ignore the recommendations. Major reports of all Parliamentary Committees should be discussed by the Parliament especially where there is disagreement between a Parliamentary Committee and the Government. The findings and recommendations of the PAC should be accorded greater weight.
The Standing Committees are permanent and the one-year term is of the members of the committees and not of the committees per se. MPs should have longer tenure in committees so that they could build up their expertise in subject areas. Once a member is nominated to a committee, he should be allowed to continue till he retires or otherwise discontinues the membership.
ATTENDANCE OF MEMBERS
Persistently absent members from the committees should be dropped from them after being duly cautioned. A proportionate reduction in salary and other allowances could also be effected
- Parliamentary committees are the brain of Parliament. They give the institution the ability to identify pressing and prospective issues, suggest solutions, and highlight gaps in implementation. They are a huge reservoirs of information, which are made available to MPs in order to enlighten themselves, and contribute ideas to strengthen the parliamentary system and improve governance.
- The DRSC system has been a fairly successful experiment. It is important to further strengthen its ability for detailed scrutiny of issues so that it helps parliament work well in its lawmaking and accountability roles. They largely have an audit-based role of their respective ministries and are restricted in their areas of functioning. Strengthening their working will improve Parliament’s overall effectiveness. Standing Committees should embrace the entire spectrum of administration for an in-depth and continuous study.
- The performance of the Committees affects the overall effectiveness of Parliament as an institution. There should be periodic evaluation of the parliamentary committees which can be then reviewed by the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the speaker of the Lok Sabha along with the chairmen of the committees following a parliament session.
- Standing committees are the parliament’s principal instrument to ensure executive accountability. These Committees could restore the balance between Parliament’s legislative and deliberative functions and its role as a representational body. They could provide a potent mechanism for a meaningful multilateral dialogue and reasonable accommodation of varying viewpoints and harmonization of conflicting interests.
- Parliamentary oversight of administration is never intended to adversely affect administrative initiative, effectiveness and discretion. The purpose of accountability mechanisms is to strengthen efficient functioning of administration and not weaken it. Better scrutiny leads to better governance.
Question to Ponder
- Are Parliamentary Committees witnessing a gradual decline? Analysis the situation and suggest measures to strengthen the committee system.