Reforms Needed to Optimize National Assembly Performance

  • FAFEN Releases Annual Appraisal of Second Year of 13th National Assembly
  • NA Remained Consistent in Responding to Urgent Issues but Lacked Conclusiveness
  • Low Participation, Unfinished Agenda, Lack of Quorum, Misuse of Points of Order and Weak Executive Enforceability of Assurances Underline Second Year of NA

ISLAMABAD, January 4, 2010: Critical regulatory and administrative changes are essential to optimize the performance of the National Assembly through greater investments in broader areas including, but not limited to, record-keeping, public access to assembly records, legislative tracking, monitoring progress against executive assurances to the assembly and orientation of Members in Rules of Business, recommends Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) in its report appraising the performance of the second year of the 13th National Assembly launched here Tuesday.

FAFEN Parliament Monitor covers the performance of the Lower House of the Parliament between March 15, 2009 and April 2, 2010. The report has employed direct observation for the performance assessment using a five-pronged criterion – Transparency, Participation, Responsiveness, Output and Order and Institutionalization.

While the report establishes that the National Assembly has been prompt in taking up issues of public importance, conclusiveness of assembly proceedings appeared to be lacking. Equally noticeable has been executive inactions to follow up on many of its assurances to the assembly, warranting consideration by the House of adequate changes in the Rules of Business to ensure that the government is being held to task for its promises to the parliament.

The FAFEN report acknowledges the consistency in the conduct of sessions of the National Assembly throughout its second year, but the consistency was not matched by the actual sitting time, which was too short for the House to dispose of the agenda and address issues that the Members had put up for discussions. Consequently, more than half items on the Orders of the Day could not be taken up.

The National Assembly held 79 sittings grouped in 12 sessions during the reporting period, remaining almost 243 hours in session – an average of 3 hours and 4 minutes per sitting. Each sitting started late by an average of 48 minutes while the proceedings remained suspended for almost 28 hours due to breaks on the account of prayers, food, etc. Such delays and breaks further decreased the opportunity to take up the agenda. The quorum remained visibly lacking during a majority of the sittings, though, quite surprisingly, the lack of quorum was pointed out only thrice during the entire year, indicating at some kind of tacit understanding between the treasury and the opposition on the issue. Lack of quorum was especially observed at the beginning and end of each sitting.

The House passed 33 of a total of 129 bills that appeared on the Orders of The Day, implying 25% achievement rate in this major form of parliamentary output. Twenty-eight Government bills and five Private Members’ Bills were passed during the year. One-third (10) of the passed legislations were related to economy, three to legal affairs, two each to education, electoral and representation matters and women rights and one each to energy, defense, natural calamities, technology, health, public policy, engineering, agriculture and employment, indicating that the assembly addressed a broad array of legislative areas.

The Lower House of the parliament passed some important laws pertaining to public interest such as Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Bill 2009, the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 and Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2009. Besides legislation, the National Assembly expressed its opinion on various issues through passing 16 out of total 64 Resolutions during the year.

Members’ Questions and Calling Attention Notices to various ministries and Cabinet Secretariat are an expression of executive oversight by the assembly. As many as 3,732 questions were put forward during Question Hour during the year — 1,325 starred and 2,407 unstarred. About 52% of the questions were put forward by women members, who represent only 22% of the total number of MNAs, indicating greater interest of female members in the executive oversight in comparison to their male colleagues. More than 85% of the questions were put forward by the PML-N and the PPPP members, who make up for 64% of the assembly’s strength. Ministry of Water and Power received the highest number of questions.

The National Assembly debated 87 out of 120 Calling Attention Notices appearing on the Orders of the Day. Out of these, 17 CANs were related to Ministry of Water and Power, 14 to Ministry of Finance and Revenue and 12 to Ministry of Health. PPPP members (34) and the PML-N (46) were particularly active in putting up the CANs.

The National Assembly addressed the issues of current nature by conducting debates on 10 Adjournment Motions during the year.

Lack of adequate space in the regulatory framework to raise constituency-related issues compelled members to use Points of Order to highlight the local issues in the assembly.  As many as 198 members raised 1,124 Points of Order during the second parliamentary year, 129 of which were responded to by Minister of Chairs. The members generally raised more than one issues through a single Point of Order.

As many as 210 assurances/responses were given by the treasury during discussions on various agenda items. Out of these, 64 assurances were given on 87 issues raised through the CANs. A total of nine assurances were given by the government in response to Adjournment Motions and eight to Resolutions. A total of 129 responses/assurances came from the government on the issues raised by the Members through Points of Orders. However, the treasury responses to a number of Points of Order were merely of rejoinder nature.

Lower House witnessed a total of 32 instances of protests, boycotts and walkouts by the members during the year. Most of the protests, boycotts and walkouts were staged by the members over breach of their personal privileges or after a verbal clash with the members of other parties. As many as 12 Questions of Personal Privilege and one Question of Committee Privilege were raised during the sessions.

The National Assembly proceedings were mostly dominated by the PPPP and the PML-N members. Among the parties with smaller representation, the MQM and the ANP members were relatively more active. The sole member of the PPP-S was quite active, but the presence of other one-member parties, the NPP and the BNP-A, was never felt in the Assembly during the reporting period. The PML members generally followed the rules and procedures and their interventions focused on government’s performance. The MQM members also actively took part in the discussions and mostly raised issues that were related to Sindh. Likewise, the ANP mostly raised issues related to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The PML-F members appeared less active during the sessions, but their participation was marked with tabulations on Orders of the Day.

However, almost one fourth (23%) of the Members of the National Assembly did not participate in any form of parliamentary business. As many as 25 Members of Pakistan Muslim League (PML), 22 of Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP), 17 of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), four of Pakistan Muslim League Functional (PMLF), three independents, two of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and one from Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Pakistan (MMAP) did not contribute to any of the parliamentary business during the entire year. Two single-member parties National Peoples Party (NPP) and Balochistan National Party Awami (BNPA) also did not show active participation during the reporting year. The participation of the women parliamentarians was relatively greater than their male counterparts in bringing agenda items e.g. Resolutions, Points Of Order, Calling Attention Notices etc. during the second parliamentary year.

Based on key findings, FAFEN recommends:

  1. National Assembly sittings should be open to citizen observers who should be given accreditation through a standardized process. FAFEN takes this opportunity to reiterate its request for permanent accreditation to observe assembly proceedings. Despite repeated requests for official accreditation for its parliamentary observers, FAFEN is so far unable to secure formal authorization from the relevant authorities to observe parliamentary proceedings. The National Assembly Secretariat has yet to demonstrate that it ascribes importance to independent observation and appraisal of parliamentary proceedings. FAFEN observers were instead forced to seek ad hoc accreditation.
  2. The National Assembly should consider keeping a public record of parliamentary business similar to that presented in this report so that the constituents can be informed about the performance of their elected representatives.
  3. Complete information (and relevant documents) about National Assembly business should be available to all the members, especially regarding the progress of legislation, CANs and other key policy decision-making processes. Such information should also be available to the public on the National Assembly’s website.
  4. Transcripts of all substantive discussion in the National Assembly on policy matters – especially debates on legislation – should be available on the National Assembly’s website immediately after it takes place.
  5. The National Assembly Secretariat should keep record of the actual time spent by the members in the Assembly chambers and especially about quorum. This information should be publicly available.
  6. No vote should be allowed by the National Assembly Speaker, especially on legislation, without meeting the requirement of quorum.
  7. Efforts should be made to understand and address why approximately one-fourth of the members did not participate actively in the sessions.
  8. All ministers (or a designated representative of each ministry and the cabinet) must be required to be present during Question Hour. All questions must be responded to within the stipulated timeframe. Transcripts of all questions, including the ones that the National Assembly Secretariat finds inadmissible, and responses should be made available to the members and to the public and for the historical record.
  9. The Speaker and the Deputy Speaker should be responsible for ensuring that business planned in the ‘Orders of the Day’ is accomplished during each sitting or at least during a full session.
  10. Additional orientation and training for the MNAs is needed regarding their fundamental responsibilities especially to their constituents as well as basic parliamentary procedures, particularly those that are commonly misused, such as Points of Order.
  11. The National Assembly Secretariat should devise a mechanism to document and make available to public on the National Assembly website the actual time spent by Members in the proceedings of the assembly session and committee meetings.
  12. The National Assembly Secretariat should develop publicly accessible mechanism to track government assurances given to the Assembly and progress made against each assurance.
  13. A full-day sitting should be allotted to issues related to constituencies at least once in a session as the existing half an hour of each sitting allowed for this purpose by the Rules of Business is inadequate, compelling the Members to raise constituency issues on Points of Order.