Can Ministers be summoned by Public Accounts Committee?
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The Public Accounts Committee examines how the Government spends public money. It examines the amount granted by the Parliament and the amount actually spent. A Speaker in the past, has passed a direction which specifies clearly that a Minister cannot be summoned by the Financial Committees. This has been incorporated in a document titled "Directions by the Speaker" available here. The actual text of the direction reads - "99. (1) The Committee on Estimates or the Committee on Public Accounts or the Committee on Public Undertakings may call officials to give evidence in connection with the examination of the estimates and accounts, respectively, relating to a particular Ministry or Undertaking. But a Minister shall not be called before the Committee either to give evidence or for consultation in connection with the examination of estimates or accounts by the Committee." -Co-authored by Chakshu
The Finance Bill, 2017 is being discussed in Lok Sabha today. Generally, the Finance Bill is passed as a Money Bill since it gives effect to tax changes proposed in the Union Budget. A Money Bill is defined in Article 110 of the Constitution as one which only contains provisions related to taxation, borrowings by the government, or expenditure from Consolidated Fund of India. A Money Bill only needs the approval of Lok Sabha, and is sent to Rajya Sabha for its recommendations. It is deemed to be passed by Rajya Sabha if it does not pass the Bill within 14 calendar days.
In addition to tax changes, the Finance Bill, 2017 proposes to amend several laws such the Securities Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 and the Payment and Settlements Act, 2007 to make structural changes such as creating a payments regulator and changing the composition of the Securities Appellate Tribunal. This week, some amendments to the Finance Bill were circulated. We discuss the provisions of the Bill, and the proposed amendments.
Certain Tribunals to be replaced
Amendments to the Finance Bill seek to replace certain Tribunals and transfer their functions to existing Tribunals. The rationale behind replacing these Tribunals is unclear. For example, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) will replace the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority Appellate Tribunal. It is unclear if TDSAT, which primarily deals with issues related to telecom disputes, will have the expertise to adjudicate matters related to the pricing of airport services. Similarly, it is unclear if the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, which will replace the Competition Appellate Tribunal, will have the expertise to deal with matters related to anti-competitive practices.
Terms of service of Tribunal members to be determined by central government
The amendments propose that the central government may make rules to provide for the terms of service including appointments, term of office, salaries and allowances, and removal for Chairpersons and other members of Tribunals, Appellate Tribunals and other authorities. The amendments also cap the age of retirement for Chairpersons and Vice-Chairpersons. Currently, these terms are specified in the laws establishing these Tribunals.
One may argue that allowing the government to determine the appointment, reappointment and removal of members could affect the independent functioning of the Tribunals. There could be conflict of interest if the government were to be a litigant before a Tribunal as well as determine the appointment of its members and presiding officers.
The Supreme Court in 2014, while examining a case related to the National Tax Tribunal, had held that Appellate Tribunals have similar powers and functions as that of High Courts, and hence matters related to their members’ appointment and reappointment must be free from executive involvement.[i] The list of Tribunals under this amendment includes several Tribunals before which the central government could be a party to disputes, such as those related to income tax, railways, administrative matters, and the armed forces Tribunal.
Note that a Bill to establish uniform conditions of service for the chairpersons and members of some Tribunals has been pending in Parliament since 2014.
Inclusion of technical members in the Securities Appellate Tribunal
The composition of the Securities Appellate Tribunal established under the SEBI Act is being changed by the Finance Bill. Currently, the Tribunal consists of a Presiding Officer and two other members appointed by the central government. This composition is to be changed to: a Presiding Officer, and a number of judicial and technical members, as notified by the central government.
Creation of a Payments Regulatory Board
Recently, the Ratan Watal Committee under the Finance Ministry had recommended creating a statutory Payments Regulatory Board to oversee the payments systems in light of increase in digital payments. The Finance Bill, 2017 seeks to give effect to this recommendation by creating a Payments Regulatory Board chaired by the RBI Governor and including members nominated by the central government. This Board will replace the existing Board for Regulation and Supervision of Payment and Settlement Systems.
The Finance Bill, 2017 proposes to make changes related to how donations may be made to political parties, and maintaining the anonymity of donors.
Currently, for donations below Rs 20,000, details of donors do not have to be disclosed by political parties. Further, there are no restrictions on the amount of cash donations that may be received by political parties from a person. The Finance Bill has proposed to set this limit at Rs 2,000. The Bill also introduces a new mode of donating to political parties, i.e. through electoral bonds. These bonds will be issued by banks, which may be bought through cheque or electronic means. The only difference between cheque payment (above Rs 20,000) and electoral bonds may be that the identity of the donor will be anonymous in the case of electoral bonds.
Regarding donations by companies to political parties, the proposed amendments to the Finance Bill remove the: (i) existing limit of contributions that a company may make to political parties which currently is 7.5% of net profit of the last three financial years, (ii) requirement of a company to disclose the name of the parties to which a contribution has been made. In addition, the Bill also proposes that contributions to parties will have to be made only through a cheque, bank draft, electronic means, or any other instrument notified by the central government.
Aadhaar mandatory for PAN and Income Tax
Amendments to the Finance Bill, 2017 make it mandatory for every person to quote their Aadhaar number after July 1, 2017 when: (i) applying for a Permanent Account Number (PAN), or (ii) filing their Income Tax returns. Persons who do not have an Aadhaar will be required to quote their Aadhaar enrolment number indicating that an application to obtain Aadhaar has been filed.
Every person holding a PAN on July 1, 2017 will be required to provide the authorities with his Aadhaar number by a date and in a manner notified by the central government. Failure to provide this number would result in the PAN being invalidated.
The Finance Bill, 2017 is making structural changes to some laws. Parliamentary committees allow for a forum for detailed scrutiny, deliberations and public consultation on proposed laws. The opportunity to build rigour into the law-making process is lost if such legislative changes are not examined by committees
[i] Madras Bar Association vs. Union of India, Transfer Case No. 150 of 2006, Supreme Court of India, September 25, 2014 (para 89).
The Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Bill, 2017 is being discussed in Parliament today. The Bill replaces an Ordinance promulgated on December 30, 2016 to remove the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) liability and central government’s guarantee to honour the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes which were demonetised on November 8, 2016 through a notification. These notes were allowed to be deposited in banks by December 30, 2016. In light of this, we explain the provisions of the Bill and possible implications.
What does the Bill say?
Under the RBI Act, 1934, RBI is responsible for issuing currency notes, and is liable to repay the holder of a note upon demand. The Bill provides that, from December 31, 2016, RBI would no longer be liable to repay holders of old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, the value of these notes. Further, the old notes will no longer be guaranteed by the central government.
Can a person keep old notes?
A person will be prohibited from holding, transferring or receiving the old notes from December 31, 2016 onwards. It exempts some people from this prohibition including: (i) a person holding up to 10 old notes (irrespective of denomination), and (ii) a person holding up to 25 notes for the purposes of study, research or numismatics (collection or study of coins or notes).
What happens if a person continues to hold old notes after December 30, 2016?
Any person holding the old notes, except in the circumstances mentioned above, will be punishable with a fine: (i) which may extend to Rs 10,000, or (ii) five times the value of notes possessed, whichever is higher.
Are there any issues with this provision?
There may be two issues.
No window to deposit old notes before imposing penalty: The notification of November 8th allowed old currency notes to be deposited till December 30, 2016 and specified that people unable to deposit them till this date would be given an opportunity later.2 However, the Ordinance which came into force on December 31, 2016 made it an offence to hold old currency notes from that day onwards and imposed a penalty. This overnight change did not provide a window for a person holding the notes on that day to exchange or deposit them. Therefore, not only did the holder lose the monetary value of the notes but he was also deemed to have committed an offence. This implies that a person who had the notes did not have an opportunity to avoid committing an offence and attracting a penalty.
Unclear purpose behind penalty on possessing old notes: The purpose and the objective behind imposing a penalty for the possession of old currency notes is unclear. One may draw a comparison between holding an invalid currency note, and an expired cheque since both these instruments are meant to complete transactions. Currently, a cheque becomes invalid three months after being issued. However, holding multiple expired cheques does not attract a penalty.
Is it still possible to deposit old notes?
The government has specified a grace period under the Bill to allow: (i) Indian residents who were outside India between November 9, 2016 to December 30, 2016 to deposit these notes till March 31, 2017, and (ii) non-residents who were outside India during this period to deposit notes till June 30, 2017. The government may exempt any other class of people by issuing a notification. In addition, RBI has permitted foreign tourists to exchange Rs 5,000 per week. No other person can exchange or deposit old notes after December 30, 2016.
Would this satisfy Constitutional norms?
While the notification issued on November 8 specified that after December 30, 2016, any person unable to exchange or deposit old notes would be allowed to do so at specified RBI offices, the Bill does not provide such a facility except in the circumstances discussed above.
On may question whether this violates Article 300A of the Constitution, which states that no person will be deprived of his property except by law. Though this Bill will be a “law”, one may want to think about whether its provisions meet the standards of due process and are not arbitrary. Given that earlier notifications had indicated that a facility for exchanging or depositing old notes would be provided after December 30, 2016, would the action of not providing such facility under the Bill qualify as an arbitrary action which violates due process?  A few examples will be useful in examining this question.
Case 1: A person unable to deposit notes due to poor health
A person may have been unable to deposit old currency notes owing to various reasons such as poor health, old age or disability till the deadline of December 30, 2016. The Bill does not provide any facility for such persons to deposit old notes, except if they were not in India during the period between November 8 and December 30, 2016.
Case 2: A person without a bank account
A person without a bank account may have held over Rs 4,500 in old currency notes. The notification (and future modifications) allowed a person to exchange up to Rs 4,500 over the counter once till November 24, 2016. Such a person would have to incur a monetary loss if he possessed old notes above this value, given his inability to deposit them in a bank account.
Case 3: Indian citizens living abroad
There may be Indians working or studying abroad holding old currency notes. The government has notified the last date for depositing old notes for these non-resident Indians as June 30, 2017. However, these people may not visit India between November 8, 2016 and June 30, 2017. In such a scenario, these people may have to incur a monetary loss.
Case 4: Foreign nationals entering India before demonetisation
Foreign tourists in the country may have held old currency notes before demonetisation on November 8, 2016. Such tourists can only exchange old currency notes of up to Rs 5,000 per week till January 31, 2017. Given that such foreigners may not have bank accounts in India, they may also suffer a monetary loss for whatever amount could not be exchanged within the period they were in India. For example, a person who had Rs 10,000 and left India on November 13, 2016 would not have been able to get the value of notes they had, over Rs 5,000.
In addition, Indian currency notes are used legally in neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bhutan. The Bill allows only Indian citizens to deposit old notes for an extended period under certain conditions. However, it does not make any provisions for foreigners to deposit or exchange old notes held by them. Such foreign nationals who are not Indian residents would not have bank accounts in India.
 The Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Bill, 2017,http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Specified%20Bank%20notes/specified%20bank%20notes%20bill%202017-compress.pdf.
 The Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Ordinance, 2016,http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Ordinances/Specified%20Bank%20Notes%20%28Cessation%20of%20Liabilities%29%20Ordinance,%202016.pdf.
 Section 2 (ix) of the notification issued on November 8, 2016 (No. S. O. 3407 (E)) states that any person who is unable to exchange or deposit the specified bank notes in their bank accounts on or before the 30th December, 2016, shall be given an opportunity to do so at specified offices of the Reserve Bank or such other facility until a later date as may be specified by it.
 S. O. 4251 (E), Gazette of India, Ministry of Finance, December 30, 2016,http://dea.gov.in/sites/default/files/24Notification%2030.12.2016.pdf.
 Exchange facility to foreign citizens, January 3, 2017, https://www.rbi.org.in/Scripts/NotificationUser.aspx?Id=10815&Mode=0.