Parliament Committees

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    • A recent revamp of the Standing Committees of Parliament could potentially worsen the relations between the government and opposition parties.

    Committees of Parliament

    • About:
      • Parliamentary Committees have their origins in the British Parliament
      • A Parliamentary Committee is a panel of MPs that is appointed or elected by the House or nominated by the Speaker, and which works under the direction of the Speaker
      • It presents its report to the House or to the Speaker.
    • Derives Authority From:
      • They draw their authority from Article 105, which deals with the privileges of MPs, and Article 118, which gives Parliament authority to make rules to regulate its procedure and conduct of business.
    • Importance of Heads:
      • Preparing the agenda: The heads of the panels schedule their meetings. They play a clear role in preparing the agenda and the annual report, and can take decisions in the interest of the efficient management of the Committee. 
      • Power to Summon: The chairperson presides over the meetings and can decide who should be summoned before the panel. However, the chairman should have the support of the majority of the members to summon a witness.
      • Equivalent to a court: An invitation to appear before a Parliamentary Committee is equivalent to a summons from a court: If one cannot come, he or she has to give reasons, which the panel may or may not accept. 
    • Concerning Changes:
      • Of the 22 committees announced recently, the Congress has the post of chairperson in only one, and the second largest opposition party, Trinamool Congress, none. 
      • The ruling BJP has the chairmanship of the important committees on Home, Finance, IT, Defence and External Affairs.

    Various Committees of Parliament

    • Financial Committees:
      • Include the Estimates Committee, Public Accounts Committee, and the Committee on Public Undertakings.
      • These committees were constituted in 1950. 
      • A Minister is not eligible for election or nomination to Financial Committees, and certain Departmentally Related Committees.
    • Departmentally Related Standing Committees:
      • Aim: to increase Parliamentary scrutiny, and to give members more time and a wider role in examining important legislation.
      • Seventeen Departmentally Related Standing Committees came into being in 1993 to examine budgetary proposals and crucial government policies. 
      • The number of Committees was subsequently increased to 24 – there are 16 Departmentally Related Standing Committees for Lok Sabha and eight for Rajya Sabha. 
      • Important Lok Sabha Panels: Agriculture; Coal; Defence; External Affairs; Finance; Communications & Information Technology; Labour; Petroleum & Natural Gas; and Railways. The important Rajya Sabha panels include Commerce; Education; Health & Family Welfare; Home Affairs; and Environment.
      • Composition: 
        • Each of these Committees has 31 members — 21 from Lok Sabha and 10 from Rajya Sabha.
        • Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha panels are headed by members of these respective Houses.
    • Ad hoc Committees:
      • Appointed for a specific purpose
      • They cease to exist after they have completed the task assigned to them, and have submitted a report to the House. 
      • The principal Ad hoc Committees are the Select and Joint Committees on Bills. 
      • Other Ad hoc Committees: the Railway Convention Committee, Committee on Food Management and Security in Parliament House Complex, etc. also come under the category of Ad hoc Committees.
    • Other Parliamentary Standing Committees:
      • The Business Advisory Committee and the Privileges Committee for Each House.
      • Parliament can also constitute a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) with a special purpose, with members from both Houses, for detailed scrutiny of a subject or Bill. 
      • Also, either of the two Houses can set up a Select Committee with members from that House. 
      • JPCs and Select Committees are usually chaired by ruling party MPs, and are disbanded after they have submitted their report.

    Constitution of the Committees

    • Procedure for Heads:
      • By convention, the main Opposition party gets the post of PAC chairman; it is currently with the Congress. 
      • Chairmanship of some key committees has been allocated to opposition parties in the past. However, this pattern has changed in the latest rejig.
    • Procedure for Members:
      • The Presiding Officer of each House nominates members to these panels. 
      • Usually, the composition of a Committee remains more or less the same in terms of representation of the various parties.
      • Presiding Officers use their discretion to refer a matter to a Parliamentary Committee, but this is usually done in consultation with leaders of parties in the House.
      • MPs typically have a one-year tenure on Parliamentary Committees. 

    Significance of Parliamentary Committees

    • Improves Effectiveness: Parliamentary Committees act as a mechanism that helps in improving the effectiveness of Parliament. 
    • Coordination with Ministries: The Committees work closely with multiple Ministries, and facilitate inter-ministerial coordination. 
    • Important Functions: The Committees look into the demands for grants of Ministries/departments, examine Bills pertaining to them, consider their annual reports, and look into their long-term plans and report to Parliament.
    • Carries Out Legislative Business: A great deal of legislative business ends up taking place in the Parliamentary Committees as-
      • The process of lawmaking is often complex, and Parliament has limited time for detailed discussions. 
      • The political polarisation and shrinking middle ground has been leading to increasingly rancorous and inconclusive debates in Parliament.
    • Consensus through Experts: Committees can get inputs from experts and stakeholders on various matters. They also help parties reach consensus on various issues.  

    Importance of the Recommendations of the Committees

    • Significant Suggestions: 
      • Reports of Departmentally Related Standing Committees are recommendatory in nature. They are not binding on the government, but they do carry significant weight. 
      • The suggestions by the Select Committees and JPCs — which have a majority of MPs and heads from the ruling party — are accepted more frequently.
    • Value Addition: 
      • Bills that are referred to Committees often return to the House with significant value-addition.
      • In the past, governments have accepted suggestions given by the Committees and incorporated them into the Bill after it has come back to the House for consideration and passage. 
    • Promotes Government’s Action: 
      • These panels 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. 
      • Based on this, the Committees table Action Taken Reports, detailing the status of the government’s action on each recommendation.

    Differences between discussions/ debates in the Parliamentary Committees and in Parliament

    Debates in the Parliament

    Debates in the Parliamentary Committees

    MPs often do not get adequate time to put forward their views in Parliament, even if they are experts on the subject. 

    Small groups with relatively less demands on their time; in these meetings, every MP gets a chance and the time to contribute to the discussion.

    Parliament has only around 100 sittings a year.

    Committee meetings are independent of Parliament’s calendar.

    Parliament’s proceedings are telecast live and members are often constrained to speak to their constituencies.

    The discussions are confidential and off-camera, party affiliations usually do not come in the way of MPs speaking their minds.

    Peripheral discussions” – Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition.

    Real discussions” – Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.

    Issues with Parliamentary Committees 

    • Need Strengthening in Several Areas: All Bills are not referred to Committees. They are thinly staffed. Some Committees may not seek evidence from experts on important Bills.
    • Limited Support: Currently, the technical support available to Parliamentary Committees is limited to a secretariat that helps with matters such as scheduling meetings and note taking.
    • Participation of Members: Parliamentary Committees hold several meetings to conduct an in-depth analysis of various issues through extensive deliberations among Members. The success of the Committee system depends on the participation of Members in these meetings which is generally low.

    Way Ahead

    • Scrutiny of All Bills: 
      • Referring all Bills to a Committee would ensure that all laws go through a minimum level of Parliamentary scrutiny.
    • Funding: 
      • Funds should be secured to assist these Committees in conducting inquiries, holding public hearings, and collecting data. 
    • Expert Support & Specialist Advisors: 
      • Engaging with experts and stakeholders enables Committee members to better understand the details of complicated issues, and the potential impact of a policy or legislation.  
      • Committees in other countries such as the UK, USA, and Canada can retain specialist advisors (such as lawyers, economists, and statisticians) to assist in specific inquiries. 
    • Public Opinions: 
      • Committees can also invite comments from the wider public which can help Committees consider the wider implications of a Bill or policy.

    Source: IE