Sanat Kanwar's blog

The Importance of Parliamentary Committees

Last week, the Departmentally Related Standing Committees were reconstituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha.  In this context, we discuss the functioning and role of Standing Committees.

The visible part of Parliament’s work takes place on the floor of the House.  Parliament meets for three sessions a year i.e., the Budget, Monsoon, and Winter Sessions.  This part of Parliament’s work is televised and closely watched.  However, Parliament has another forum through which a considerable amount of its work gets done.  These are known as Parliamentary Committees.  These Committees are smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties and they function throughout the year.  These smaller groups of MPs study and deliberate on a range of subject matters, Bills, and budgets of all the ministries.

During the recently concluded first Session of the 17th Lok Sabha, Parliament sat for 37 days.  In the last 10 years, Parliament met for 67 days per year, on average.  This is a short of amount of time for MPs to be able to get into the depth of matters being discussed in the House.  Since Committees meet throughout the year, they help make up for this lack of time available on the floor of the House. 

Parliament deliberates on matters that are complex, and therefore needs technical expertise to understand such matters better.  Committees help with this by providing a forum where Members can engage with domain experts and government officials during the course of their study.  For example, the Committee on Health and Family Welfare studied the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 which prohibits commercial surrogacy, but allows altruistic surrogacy.  As MPs come from varying backgrounds, they may not have had the expertise to understand the details around surrogacy such as fertility issues, abortion, and regulation of surrogacy clinics, among others.  The Committee called upon a range of stakeholders including the National Commission for Women, doctors, and government officials to better their understanding of the issues, before finalising their report. 

Committees also provide a forum for building consensus across political parties.  The proceedings of the House during sessions are televised, and MPs are likely to stick to their party positions on most matters.  Committees have closed door meetings, which allows them to freely question and discuss issues and arrive at a consensus. 

After a Committee completes its study, it publishes its report which is laid in Parliament.  These recommendations are not binding, however, they hold a lot of weight.  For example, the Standing Committee on Health made several recommendations to the National Medical Commission Bill in 2017.  Many of these were incorporated in the recently passed 2019 Bill, including removing the provision for allowing a bridge course for AYUSH practitioners. 

There are 24 such Departmentally Related Standing Committees (DRSCs), each of which oversees a set of Ministries.  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.  They consist of 21 Members from Lok Sabha, and 10 Members from Rajya Sabha, and are headed by a Chairperson.  The DRSCs primarily look at three things: (i) Bills, (ii) budgets, and (iii) subject specific issues for examination.  Other types of Standing Committees include Financial Committees which facilitate Parliament’s scrutiny over government expenditure.  Besides these, Parliament can also form ad hoc Committees for a specific purpose such as addressing administrative issues, examining a Bill, or examining an issue. 

To ensure that a Bill is scrutinised properly before it is passed, our law making procedure has a provision for Bills to be referred to a DRSC for detailed examination.  Any Bill introduced in Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha can be referred to a DRSC by either the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.  Over the years, the Committees have immensely contributed to strengthen the laws passed by Parliament.  For example, the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, overhauling the 1986 law, was recently passed during the Budget Session.  An earlier version of the Bill had been examined by the Committee on Food and Consumer Affairs, which suggested several amendments such as increasing penalties for misleading advertisements, making certain definitions clearer.   The government accepted most of these recommendations and incorporated them in the 2019 Act.

Besides Bills, the DRSCs also examine the budget.  The detailed estimates of expenditure of all ministries, called Demand for Grants are sent for examination to the DRCSs.  They study the demands to examine the trends in allocations, spending by the ministries, utilisation levels, and the policy priorities of each ministry.  However, only a limited proportion of the budget is usually discussed on the floor of the House.  In the recently dissolved16th Lok Sabha, 17% of the budget was discussed in the House. 

Committees also examine policy issues in their respective Ministries, and make suggestions to the government. The government has to report back on whether these recommendations have been accepted or not.  Based on this, the Committees then table an Action Taken Report, which shows status of the government’s action on each recommendation. 

While Committees have substantially impacted Parliament’s efficacy in discharging its roles, there is still scope for strengthening the Committee system.  In the 16th Lok Sabha, DRSCs examined 41 Bills, 331 Demands for Grants, 197 issues, and published 503 Action Taken Reports. 

However, the rules do not require that all Bills be examined by a Committee.  This leads to some Bills being passed without the advantage of a Committee scrutinising its technical details.  Recently, there has been a declining trend in the percentage of Bills being referred to a Committee.  In the 15th LS, 71% of the Bills introduced were referred to Committees for examination, as compared to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.

With the DRSCs now constituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha, they will soon begin their meetings to select the subjects they are going to examine.  Some Committees already have Bills to examine that were referred to them during the 16th Lok Sabha.  Some of these Bills are: (i) the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2019, (ii) the Allied and Healthcare Professions Bill, 2018, and (iii) the Registration of Marriage of Non- Resident Indian Bill, 2019So far in the 17th Lok Sabha no Bill has been referred to a Committee yet.

 

Monsoon Session 2018: What to Expect

The Monsoon Session of Parliament begins tomorrow and will continue till August 10, 2018.  It is scheduled to have 18 sittings during this period.  This post outlines what is in store in the upcoming session.

The session has a packed legislative agenda.  Presently, there are 68 Bills pending in Parliament.  Of these, 25 have been listed for consideration and passage.  In addition, 18 new Bills have been listed for introduction, consideration, and passage.  This implies that Parliament has the task of discussing and deliberating 43 Bills listed for passage in an 18-day sitting period.  Key among them include the Bills that are going to replace the six Ordinances currently in force.  The government is going to prioritize the passage of these six Bills to ensure that the Ordinances do not lapse.

Besides the heavy legislative agenda, the session will also witness the election of a new Deputy Chairman for the Upper House.  Former Deputy Chairman, P.J. Kurien’s term ended on July 1, 2018.  The upcoming election has generated keen interest, and will be closely watched.  The role of the Deputy Chairman is significant, as he quite frequently oversees the proceedings of the House.  The Deputy Chairman is responsible for maintaining order in the house and ensuring its smooth functioning.  The preceding Budget Session was the least productive since 2000 due to disruptions.  Rajya Sabha spent only 2 hours and 31 minutes discussing legislative business, of which 3 minutes were spent on government Bills.  In this context, the role of the Deputy Chairman is important in ensuring productivity of the house.

Another key player in ensuring productivity of Parliament is the Speaker of the Lower House.  In Budget Session 2018, the Speaker was unable to admit a no confidence motion.  This failure was based on her inability to bring the house in order.  Repeated disruptions led to the passage of only two Bills in Lok Sabha.  The same session also saw disruptions by certain MPs demanding special category status for Andhra Pradesh.  Between the last session and the upcoming session, a key development includes the resignation of five YRSC members, reducing the strength of MPs from Andhra Pradesh to 20.  In light of this, one has to wait to see whether the demand for special category status for Andhra Pradesh will be raised again.

Coming to the legislative agenda, of the six Bills that aim to replace Ordinances, key include: (i) the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018, (ii) the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2018, (iii) the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2018, and (iv) the Commercial Courts (Amendment) Bill, 2018.  The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill aims to confiscate the properties of people who have absconded the country in order to avoid facing prosecution for economic offences.  The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2018.  Subsequently, an Ordinance was promulgated on April 21, 2018.  The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill increases the punishment for rape of women, and introduces death penalty for rape of minor girls below the age of 12.  The Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Amendment) Bill aims to address existing challenges in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.  It amends the Code to include homebuyers as financial creditors in the insolvency resolution process.

There are some Bills that have been passed by one house but are pending in the other, and some that are pending in both the houses.  These cut across various sectors, including social reform, education, health, consumer affairs, and transport.  Some key reformative legislation currently pending include the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, and the Triple Talaq Bill.  The Triple Talaq Bill, passed on the day of introduction in Lok Sabha, is pending in Rajya Sabha.  When introduced in Rajya Sabha, the opposition introduced a motion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.  In the forthcoming session, it remains to be seen whether the Bill will be sent to a Select Committee for detailed scrutiny or will be passed without reference to a Committee.  Other pending legislation include the the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017, the RTE (Second Amendment) Bill, 2017, the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 and the Specific Relief (Amendment) Bill, 2017.

Of the 18 new Bills listed for introduction, all have been listed for consideration and passage as well.  These include the Trafficking of Persons Bill, 2018, the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, and amendments to the RTI Act.  Since they have been listed for passage, it remains to be seen whether these Bills are scheduled to be scrutinized by a Parliamentary Committee.  In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 28% of the Bills introduced in Lok Sabha have been referred to Committees.  This number is low in comparison to 60% and 71% of the introduced Bills being referred to Committees in the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, respectively.  Committees ensure that Bills are closely examined.  This facilitates informed deliberation on the Bill, and strengthens the legislative process.

Besides taking up the legislative agenda, an important function of Parliament is to discuss issues of national importance and hold the government accountable.  In the previous session, the issue of irregularities in the banking sector was repeatedly listed for discussion.  However, due to disruptions, it was not taken up.  Budget Session 2018 saw the lowest number of non- legislative debates since the beginning of the 16th Lok Sabha.  In the upcoming session, it is likely that members will raise various issues for discussion.  It remains to be seen whether Parliament will function smoothly in order to power through its agenda, and fulfil its obligation to hold the government accountable.