In modern democracies, parliament plays an instrumental role in bridging the gap between the government and the public. Accountability of the government in a parliamentary democracy generally depends on question-answer sessions at the individual level and the parliamentary standing committees at the collective level. Standing committees in parliament act as important tools to safeguard transparency and accountability of the executive in parliament.
In the Westminster model of democracy, in countries like Britain and India, members and the chairs of committees are selected through proportional representation of different parties in the parliament. Ministers are not made chairs or members of committees. In both countries, there is a timeframe for replying to recommendations of the committees by concerned divisions/ ministries and the recommendations are considered with utmost importance. Directives are issued on behalf of ministries in case of summons and testimonies. The committees can oversee appointments to top levels of the government.
Committees allow the members to perform numerous functions that otherwise might not happen at all. They help to formulate rational decisions and provide an important means of oversight on the function of governing bodies. Committees are also capable of offering members of organizations a variety of opportunities such as encouraging them to acquire more specialized knowledge of policy areas and granting them more active and rewarding participation in the governing process.
In Bangladesh, parliamentary committees comprise members of the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament). Parliamentary committees evaluate legislative proposals and scrutinize activities of the executive government. In most democracies they provide a means of keeping parliamentarians busy, useful and watchful of the policy-management processes. The Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad is empowered through Article 76 of the Constitution to appoint a number of standing committees, including the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee of Privileges, for the purpose of examining legislative proposals, considering bills, scrutinizing the performance of ministries and reviewing law enforcement measures for proper governance. Standing committees in Bangladesh are generally grouped into categories like ministerial committees, finance and audit committees, providing an overview and scrutiny of their functioning.
The quorum for a sitting of a committee requires the presence of one-third of the committee members. The agenda of the committees are addressed by a majority of the members present. The committee chair has a casting vote in case of a tie. The committees prepare their respective reports which are subsequently placed before the Sangsad, in session. They also review bills and other issues referred to them from time to time by the Sangsad.
Attempts to demand transparency and accountability of the government are made through the parliamentary committee system. Senior members of bureaucracy attend meetings of the standing committees to explain their ministry’s performance and, whenever necessary, submit information before the concerned committee. While examining accounts and public expenditure, the financial committees determine whether the government's financial powers are being exercised properly and whether public money has been spent following the approved procedures.
It is apparent from the 10th parliament that verifying the bills placed in parliament is one of the key tasks of parliamentary standing committee. The predominance of the ruling party was clear as the chairs and most members were from the treasury benches. For the first time, women were given 20 percent proportional representation in parliamentary committees in the 10th Jatiya Sangsad, although their attendance and participation in the standing committees was not encouraging.
The system is not transparent as citizens and the mass media do not have access to committee meetings and detailed information on the committee deliberations is not provided on the Parliament website. In Britain, however, deliberations of the committees are broadcast live. In Bangladesh, irregularity in holding committee meetings, quorum crises in committee meetings, partisan approach of some committee members and executive dominance of legislative affairs are responsible for the parliamentary standing committee system being less effective.
The skills of the chairperson of the committee in managing activities and meetings have a tremendous impact on committee output. Consensus building is a necessity because of the multiparty nature of parliaments. The support staff of committees play a critical role in ensuring that these objectives are met. In providing inputs to Members of Parliament, committee support staff must be trained to provide unbiased factual, accurate, up-to-date information.
In the opening session of the 11th Parliament in January 2019, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said criticism is always important in a democratic process. Welcoming the opposition leader and all opposition lawmakers, she assured them that they would be allowed to criticize the government, without any obstacles, in the 11th Jatiya Sangsad. Strong political will is vital for the effectiveness of parliamentary standing committees.
Involving people through their representatives directly in the formulation and implementation of decisions is the need of the hour. Let political parties represented in the 11th Jatiya Sangsad take lessons from the past and shoulder their duties with sincerity, to make standing committees effective and credible.
(The author is Assistant Professor of Government and Politics at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. He can be reached at email@example.com)