Parliamentary oversight of the executive: Ground rules

As in other Westminster systems, governments in the three South Asian democracies (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) owe their origin and remain accountable to the parliament. Theoretically, they remain in power as long as they can retain the confidence of the parliament. The cabinet in each country is collectively—and ministers individually—remain responsible to the parliament. The notion of ministerial responsibility, which lies at the heart of the parliamentary system of government, requires that a minister resign if anything goes wrong in his department. This convention, however, does not appear to be as effective and as appreciated now as in the past. Rarely can a parliament in a majoritarian democracy now force a minister to resign for any wrongdoing taking place in his or her department. Moreover, the convention has been subjected to serious scrutiny in recent years. The theory of ministerial responsibility, as a House of Commons Select Committee report observes (1996), ‘should keep pace with the contemporary reality if it is to retain its credibility . . . What the parliament instead wants now is to ensure that ministers do not mislead it’.

The pursuit of ministerial resignations, as the Commons' Report observes, ‘is only one part, and a very small part of the day-to-day business of accountability; it cannot be reduced to firm rules and conventions’. Nor can bureaucrats remain as anonymous as they could in the past; they are now increasingly being asked to appear before parliamentary committees to justify a range of administrative decisions. Kernaghan (2010) observes that individual ministerial responsibility has two components—a resignation component and an answerability one—and argues that although the resignation component is increasingly becoming very difficult to enforce, the other component is still important. This component requires that each minister answers to parliament, in the form of explanation or defense, for all the actions of his or her department (Kernaghan: 2). In other words, the answerability component remains as valid today as it was centuries ago when the convention first evolved.

There is, however, no ‘one best way’ of making the government answerable to parliament. However, the development of effective tools can be considered as an important first step toward making parliamentary oversight meaningful. Three important categories of tools (with several groups in each category) of oversight are most commonly found in parliaments patterned on the Westminster model.

These are questions, debates and committees. Ombudsman as a tool of oversight is also very popular but can be found only in a few countries. Interpellations are commonly used in different West European and Scandinavian parliaments. Oversight tools such as committee hearings, hearings in plenary sittings, question time and interpellations are generally more common (and hence more likely to be found) in the legislatures of parliamentary systems than in the legislatures of presidential or semi-presidential systems, while other tools such as questions and ombudsman are as common in parliamentary systems as they are in, respectively, presidential and semi-presidential systems (Pelizzo et al. 2004: 5-6).

An MP in different South Asian countries has access, as his or her counterparts in other Westminster-derived parliaments, to a number of techniques to ask the executive government to account for its general actions. These can be grouped into two categories: individual and collective. The best example of the collective method is a system of committees. The widespread use of committees can provide an effective means of underpinning the authority of the legislature against the executive (Hague and Harrop: 157). Chapter 7 will provide a detailed account of the working and pitfalls of committees in the three South Asian countries covered in this book. This chapter focuses on individual techniques.

Probably the mostly commonly used oversight tool in all three South Asian parliaments is question. Questions to ministers, as a means of eliciting information about matters within their official responsibility, is a common practice in all parliaments and one of the celebrated functions of parliament (Wiberg 1995: 180). A question is a request by a member of the House to a minister for the explanation of, or for action on, a specific matter. The ostensible purpose of questions is to elicit concrete information from the administration, to request its intervention and, where necessary, to expose abuses and seek redress (IPU 1986: 1204). It is also used to obtain detailed facts which will help members to understand complicated bills and other items laid before parliament (IPU 1986: 1204).

According to the Rules, the first hour of eveiy sitting in the parliaments of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is available for asking and answering of questions. One exception is Pakistan, where no question period exists on Tuesday. In Bangladesh, question hour remains suspended on the day the budget is presented to the House. India also has a similar system. An MP has the opportunity to ask questions that require an oral answer or a written answer. There are provisions for short-notice questions and supplementary questions. MPs can also use several other individual techniques such as raising motions demanding the adjournment of the business of the House for the purpose of discussing a matter of recent and urgent public importance. They can also call attention of a minister to any matter of urgent public importance, and ask for a half-hour discussion (Bangladesh and India) on a matter of public importance which has been the subject of a recent question and the answer to which needs clarification on a matter of fact. MPs can also move private members’ resolutions, demanding government actions, or government support. Additionally, the formal debates on the President’s speech made at the beginning of each calendar year and, in particular, the general discussion on the budget speech by the finance minister, also provide an important opportunity to the MPs to scrutinize the activities of the government.

Among the different techniques, the first two—questions and adjournment motions—originated in the Westminster, while the other techniques—a half-hour discussion, discussion for short duration and call-attention motions—are innovations of the Indian parliament. Those charged with framing the Rules in the early years of Bangladesh independence probably found it expedient to copy the Indian Rules Book rather than suggesting or undertaking experiments with devices found in other parliaments, or evolving new Rules. Nor did these Rules undergo any major transformation for a long time, despite frequent changes in the system of government. The recent parliaments in different countries, however, have shown some willingness to make changes in the Rules.

For example, unlike the first four parliaments, when no more than one callattention motion could be moved in a sitting day in Bangladesh, MPs can now move three such motions. Besides, MPs whose call-attention motions are accepted but cannot be moved or discussed in the House because of time constraints are now allowed to speak for two minutes on their motions. Both these modifications in Rules made after the restoration of democracy in the early 1990s have led to an increase, if not a surge, in MP activism, enabling the members to raise and popularize many issues they consider important. The eighth parliament (2001-2006) amended the Rules, requiring ministers to submit short written answers to issues raised in different statements of public importance (Rule 71 A).

The Bangladesh parliament also introduced the provision for Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQT) in early 1997. Now the half-hour PMQT is held every Wednesday. This innovation was patterned on the British PMQT which, as one scholar has argued, ‘has become the focal point of the British parliamentary system, the jewel in the crown of political activity at Westminster’ (Shephard 1996). Referring to the PMQT in Britain, Richard Crossman (cited in Aiderman 1996: 290) once observed, ‘The whole of British politics is centered there. The man that’s running the executive... is being tested’. Although no provision for PMQT exists in the other two countries, the prime minister in India regularly attends parliament sittings.

There are, however, certain limits to the use of different techniques. None of the motions can be moved without advance notice being given to the Parliament Secretariat. The various devices, however, are not subject to similar types of constraints. Thus, in Bangladesh questions (except PMQT) can be asked and callattention motions moved in every sitting day except, as stated earlier, on the day the annual budget is presented, a half-hour discussion and discussion for short duration can be held only twice a week. The latter, however, can be moved at short notices: two hours before the commencement of a sitting, while an MP who wants to ask questions to a minister has to give at least 15 clear days notice. Even in the case of short-notice questions, he or she has to wait for five days before they can be answered. According to the Rules, no MP in Bangladesh can give notices of more than 10 questions, nor can he or she move more than one starred question and thr ee unstarred questions in a single day. A member who desires an oral answer to his question shall distinguish it by an asterisk. If s/he does not distinguish it by an asterisk, the question shall be treated as an unstarred question and shall be placed on the list of questions for written answer (Bangladesh Parliament 1992).

A similar situation exists in both India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, not more than two starred questions, including a short-notice question and two unstarred questions from the same member, can be placed on the list of questions for any one day. As in Bangladesh, questions in Pakistan and India have to be submitted 15 days in advance. In India, each MP can submit a maximum of 10 questions for each sitting day. There can only be 20 starred questions which are due for oral answer in each sitting day, and 230 unstarred questions for written answer. Every MP wants a starred question, that too in the first five of the list, as these are the only ones which will be answered on the floor of the House and where MPs can ask supplementary questions. The rest only get written replies, which might not be very satisfactory.

Besides, each technique is subject to certain other constraints; in particular, these have to satisfy a number of conditions before being accepted. The three South Asian parliaments follow similar rules in respect of the admissibility of different types of motions. For example, those seeking to ask questions to ministers have to follow some procedures: a question addressed to a minister shall relate to public affairs with which he or she is officially concerned or to matter of administration for which he or she is responsible. Questions addressed to the Prime Minister in Bangladesh should relate to government policies. The Rules require that a question also shall not be trivial, vexatious, vague or meaningless. Nor shall it repeat in substance any question which has already been answered during the term of parliament or any question to which an answer has been refused in the same session.

Similar conditions exist in the case of other techniques. In the case of callattention motions (CAMs), the Rules specify that not more than three such motions be raised and discussed in a single sitting in Bangladesh, one in India and two in Pakistan. There cannot be any debate on the statement of a minister at the time the motion is made. The Rules further specify that no member can give more than one notice of CAM in one sitting in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and two notices in India. Time required to give notices also varies: in Pakistan it is one day, and in Bangladesh, two hours. Half-hour discussions can be held every sitting day, if necessary, in India. But in Pakistan they can be held on the day which is reserved for transacting private members’ business. In Bangladesh, they can be held on two sittings in a week.

These restrictions are, however, found not only in the South Asian parliaments but also in the House of Commons in the UK and the parliaments patterned after it. Different West European parliaments also impose many of these restrictions (Wiberg 1995: 196-204). These are needed, among other things, to ensure that the parliament maximizes its use of time. But the extent to which these restrictions are actually followed and/or the extent to which various techniques are capable of securing the accountability of the executive and administration depends on a

Parliamentary oversight of the executive 93 number of factors, of which two deserve special mention: the willingness and the ability of MPs to make maximum use of them. The next section attempts to identify the nature and level of use of different techniques by MPs in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

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