Targeted reforms needed for making parliament assertive

ISLAMABAD, August 13: Targeted reforms are essential to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of parliament in the performance of its core functions of executive oversight, legislation and representation.

At the media launch of annual report on the performance of the National Assembly in the fourth parliamentary year, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN)observed that the parliamentary decisions and discussions can only be enforced in the letter and spirit through wide-ranging reforms in the Rules of Procedures and Conduct of Business that govern the functioning of the National Assembly. These reforms must be meaningful and focus on enhancing the role of the standing committees, improving transparency of assembly business, participation and attendance of legislators, the role of the chair, misuse of Points of Order and ensuring government assurances to the House.

The network urges political parties to initiate public debate on the important issue of parliamentary supremacy at a time when it is being questioned. Political parties need to include their vision and plans for parliamentary reforms in their manifestoes for the upcoming elections. A strong and assertive parliament is essential for democratic development in Pakistan.

FAFEN’s broader recommendations for improvement in parliamentary effectiveness are informed by fouryears of observation of the National Assembly proceedings, which indicated several issues that need to be mitigated. While improving access to the parliamentary proceedings for the citizenswhich at present is restricted will be a step forward towards parliamentary transparency, there is need for parliamentary parties to ensure that their members are participating in sessions and making quality input.

The attendance of members is crucial to assembly sittings to perform their legislative and representative roles. The National Assembly Secretariat should keep record of the actual time spent by Members in the assembly, especially about lack of Quorum. However, it seems that the government and the opposition have reached an unwritten understanding on pointing out lack of Quorum in the National Assembly. It was not pointed even for once during the whole fourth parliamentary year. On average 74 Members were present at the beginning and 80 at the adjournment of each sitting during the fourth year.

Even when legislators appear in the sittings, they do not participate in the proceedings. During the fourth year 60 legislators did not participate in any form of parliamentary intervention.

Additional orientation and training for the parliamentarians is needed on their fundamental responsibilities. They should also be trained on basic parliamentary procedures, particularly those that are commonly misused, such as Points of Order. A total of 1,275 Points of Order were raised, which consumed 31% of total time during the fourth year. In the third and second parliamentary years, 1,316 and 1,124 Points of Order were raised. Excessive use of Points of Order dips into the time otherwise allocated for the regular agenda, 60 percent of which remained unaddressed.

Though preparing the national budget is the executive’s task, the parliamentarians’ role is only limited to authorizing it when the annual financial plan is tabled in the National Assembly, allowing less than two weeks for debate. Apart from giving legislators more time and information on the budgetary proposals, the budget of a ministry should be scrutinized by the relevant Standing Committee. In the fourth parliamentary year, 139 legislators out of 341 took part in the budget debate for only 34 hours.

The National Assembly must maintain a ‘public record’ of parliamentary business. This will enable constituents to stay informed on the performance of their representatives. The transcripts of substantive discussions on policy matters and legislation, including readings on bills and voting, should be made available on the National Assembly’s website.

The Question Hour, a forum for the executive’s oversight, is not being utilized fully, with ministers not ensuring their presence. During the fourth parliamentary only 400 out of total 1,271 oral questions were answered by the ministers.

All questions must be responded to within the stipulated timeframe. Transcripts of all questions, including the ones that the National Assembly Secretariat finds inadmissible, should be made available to the legislators and the public.

A comprehensive mechanism should be in place to track the government assurances given to the House on various parliamentary interventions. A total of 101 brief statements were made in response to Calling Attention Notices in the fourth year.

These recommendations for parliamentary reforms will help foster strong and sustained engagement between the people and elected representatives for promoting a vibrant democratic culture.