Parliament and accountability: New lease of life for watchdog committees | Sunday Observer

Parliament and accountability: New lease of life for watchdog committees

19 August, 2018
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presenting awards to institutions with a high level of performance based on COPA evaluation for financial year 2015
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presenting awards to institutions with a high level of performance based on COPA evaluation for financial year 2015

Since December 2015, 16 sectoral oversight committees have been empowered to scrutinise draft laws and recommend changes to the country’s legal network, while watchdog committees COPE and COPA have strengthened parliament’s role as controller of the public purse

The Government made vital changes to the country’s legal framework based on a report by an oversight committee of Parliament when it increased the number of High Court Judges and set up a Permanent High Court at Bar to try serious financial crimes. This was an encouraging sign that law-making had become an all-hands process with the fast evolution of Sectoral Oversight Committees which were introduced in February 2016, Parliament Assistant Secretary General (ASG) Tikiri Jayathilake observed.

The Sectoral Oversight Committee on Legal Affairs (Anti-Corruption) and Media headed by Ajith Mannapperuma, who was recently appointed a Deputy Minister, came up with a report containing ‘Recommendations Pertaining to the Expeditious and Efficient Administration of Criminal Justice’ on September 20 last year.

The committee in its report made the shocking observation that “the entire criminal procedure in response to serious crimes seems to consume approximately 17 years”, an average 10.2 years to prosecute at the High Court and another seven years for the completion of the two appeals in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. The report was a damning indictment on the serious delays in administration of criminal justice in the country.

Subsequent to this report, the Government amended the Judicature Act accepting the Committee’s recommendations that, “The Parliament should establish a new Anti-Corruption High Court. It should hold day to day trials through three benches each comprising three judges of the High Court” and “the maximum number of High Court judges should be increased to110 from 75”.

The oversight function of Parliament is considered one of the cornerstones of democracy. Oversight powers of the legislature is aimed at holding the executive branch accountable for its actions and ensuring its policies are in line with laws and budgets enacted by Parliament. Since the executive presidential system came into effect in 1978, historically Parliament’s oversight role was diminished by an all powerful executive, who usually held large majorities in Parliament. The mixing of members of the executive branch with legislators also complicates the oversight process, with ministers often sitting in oversight committees, and in many cases such as the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) until 2015, a cabinet minister chairing the committee. Until August 2015, D.E.W. Gunesekera who was a minister in President Rajapaksa’s cabinet held the post of Chairman of COPE. Traditionally, and according to parliamentary best practice, oversight committees should be chaired by a member of the opposition, if the true aim of legislative oversight committees is to hold an incumbent Government to account.

On December 19, 2015, nearly a year after President Maithripala Sirisena assumed office, a resolution was passed in the House of Parliament to introduce what is known as a system of Sectoral Oversight Committees.

Out of the 16 Sectoral Oversight Committees, Jayathilake observed that the Committees on Legal Affairs (Anti-Corruption) and Media, Women and Gender, Education and Human Resources Development and Energy have stood out from the rest with their national level contributions.

“The oversight committees are headed by the backbenchers and they have more time than the Ministers to involve in the committee process. They can get the assistance of individuals with expert knowledge on a particular subject and study the draft policies and legislation in depth. If needed, they can also go on field visits to collect information and summon witnesses. The committees can even appoint sub-committees to look into any matter in detail. “There were instances where some committees even got the assistance of foreign experts,” said the ASG.

He pointed out that it is easy for the minister concerned to go ahead and make the proposed amendments based on the recommendations coming from oversight committees as there is collective agreement on them. “This is the true spirit of participatory legislative process,” he observed.

ASG Jayathilake noted that in just two and a half years, Sectoral Oversight Committees in Sri Lanka’s Parliament had exceeded expectations.

Participatory legislative process

Under the new system, annual reports, draft legislation, amendment bills, regulations are referred to the oversight committees. The ASG observed that it is only in Sri Lanka that regulations made by various ministries were being referred to the Oversight Committee prior to being approved in Parliament.

Going through the statistics uploaded in the Parliament website on the attendance of MPs for sectoral oversight committees however does not paint an impressive picture of MPs participation in the committees.

From January to July there had been 41 meetings of sectoral oversight committees and the attendance of none of them exceeded eight where each committee comprises 21 members. Thirteen out of 41 meetings had only 3 members in attendance, barely the number of MPs required for a quorum.

“Our committee system is still at a very young age compared to many other countries. Therefore the MPs don’t have thorough understanding on its role. The attendance in committees must be improved for better results and productivity. We believe this can be corrected as the committee system evolves. There are ample instances where progressive amendments came up from the committees and a considerable number of such proposals has been accommodated by the Government,” the ASG commented.

COPE and COPA in full-flow

In the meantime, Parliamentary watchdog committees have sprung back to life wielding substantial control over public finance with a new found vigour, ending a long and dormant winter season that prevailed prior to 2015.

The ASG pointed out the Committee on Public Enterprises and Committee on Public Accounts, in their abbreviations ‘COPE’ and ‘COPA’ have become household names and everybody from intellectuals to common man on the street is eyeing their proceedings. “This is indicative that those committees have earned public confidence as never before,” he added.

Presently about 410 public enterprises are coming under the purview of the COPE. The COPE has presented five reports in the eighth Parliament, which commenced sittings from September 2015, in addition to two special investigation reports on the questionable Treasury Bond transactions and rice importation scam. Cumulatively, the COPE has reported its findings on 95 public enterprises in the five reports. Its special report on irregularities of treasury bonds completed the full circle and legal action has been instituted after the Presidential Commission of Inquiry report.

COPE Chairman, Sunil Handunnetti however regrets that society, media and especially the institutions that are accountable and Ministers in charge of the relevant subjects have not paid sufficient attention to the five COPE reports especially compared with the focus on the Treasury Bond report.

To overcome this problem often encountered, ASG Jayathilake said the new Standing Orders adopted from April 15 this year have made it compulsory for the Finance Ministry and the subject ministry to report to Parliament, within two months of the submission of COPE and COPA reports, the actions taken with regard to their recommendations.

MP Handunnetti said they were optimistic that the new Standing Orders will help change the present lacklustre attitude of the institutions on the COPE reports. He further said the COPE has felt the need for expertise help as Parliamentary staff alone cannot handle all its affairs. “We have at several times requested expertise knowledge, but Parliament so far has not been able to connect us with such experts when needed,” he added.

Earning public confidence

The MP said the COPE has decided to make spot investigations more often, adding that collecting first-hand evidence and experience is more useful in understanding the true ground situation than going through prepared documents.

Handunnetti also spoke of the time constraints the committee has faced in investigating on all 410 institutions coming under its purview. “It is hard to collect the quorum of MPs for the Committee when it meets on a non-sitting day. Parliament meets only eight days per month and if we are to probe properly into an institution we cannot summon more than one institution per day. We have sought the information of some institutions in writing without summoning them in order to cope,” he explained.

Handunnetti noted the significant increase in the number of letters being received to the COPE was a testimony that the COPE has become closer to the people and has earned their confidence.

Adopting new technology

Taking entirely a different approach, the COPA headed by Deputy Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna has come up with a computerized information management system to assess financial management and performance of all the 837 public institutions coming under its purview.

Alagiyawanna said this system was used to assess whether the institutions coming under its purview have met the basic performance criteria. “Now we have been able to produce year by year a report that contains all the institutions. This has never happened in Sri Lanka Parliament history. It is practically impossible to summon all these institutions to Parliament within a year. For example for the entire five years of the seventh Parliament (2010-2015) only 160 institutions had been summoned before Parliament. Our new tool allows us to give more attention to the institutions where there are problems. A fine example is that we summoned the Motor Traffic Department several times within these few years,” he said.

All the Ministries, Departments, Provincial Councils, Local Authorities, District Secretariats and Divisional Secretariats come under the purview of COPA. The task of the COPA is to probe their managerial efficiency and financial discipline based on the Auditor General’s reports and observations. Amendments to the Parliament Powers and Privileges Act that will open committee meetings to outsiders including the media, were also in the works. “Amendments are now being drafted in consultation with the Legal Draftsman and will be presented to the Cabinet soon. In most countries, committee sittings are public, with the exception of national security and intelligence committees.

Open government policy

The Public Finance Committee headed by TNA MP M.A.Sumanthiran is relatively a new addition to the committee system of Parliament. ASG Jayathilake observed that the budget office is needed for the Public Finance Committee to come into full operation, and draft legislation for this is at the final stages.

“In many countries, the chairmanship of committees is held by members of the Government, but in Sri Lanka chairmanship of committees is shared between the Opposition members and Government backbenchers. The people’s involvement with Parliament has increased with the committee system and their problems have increasingly been addressed. The open government policy initiated in Parliament with the guidance of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has gradually made its activities more transparent while interacting closely with the people,” he commented.