- As a key state organ, Parliament performs inherently varied and complex functions. However, it is unwieldy to thoroughly deliberate on issues placed before it.
- To address this, it has formed several Committees that investigate specific issues in detail and report back to Parliament.
Role of Parliamentary Committees
- Parliament relies on Parliamentary Committees to thoroughly scrutinise matters. Therefore, Parliament functions in two modes: on the floor of the House and in Committees.
- Reports submitted by the Committees allow for informed debate in Parliament.
- Additionally, Committees provide a forum to build consensus across party lines, develop subject expertise, and consult with experts and stakeholders.
Types of Parliamentary Committees
- Standing Committees can be broadly categorised into four types:
- (i) subject,
- (ii) financial,
- (iii) accountability, and
- (iv) administrative.
- Department-related Committees, or subject Committees, ensure oversight over each ministry.
- A Minister is not eligible to be a member. There are 24 subject Committees, and each Committee has 31 members, with 21 from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha.
- Membership in Committees is allocated to parties in proportion to their strength in the House.
- Subject Committees review proposed laws, select subjects for closer examination, and scrutinise the allocated budget for each ministry.
- Financial Committees consist of three Committees: Estimates, Public Undertakings, and Public Accounts. A minister is not eligible to be a member.
- The Estimates Committee examines prebudget estimates of ministries; the Committee on Public Undertakings (CoPU) examines the functioning of public undertakings; and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reviews the government’s spending statement approved by Parliament.
Administrative and Accountability Committees
- There are other Committees that investigate administrative and accountability matters related to Parliament and the House’s day-to-day business.
- These Committees include the Committee on Privileges, which examines questions involving breaches of rights, privileges, and immunities enjoyed by Members of Parliament.
- The Committee on Petitions examines complaints sent to it in the form of petitions by the public.
Ad hoc Committees
- Additionally, Ad hoc Committees are appointed by either House for a specific purpose. They cease to exist when they finish the task assigned to them and submit a report.
Recommendation to improve functioning of Parliamentary Committees
- The effectiveness of Parliamentary Committees is crucial to the effective functioning of Parliament. There are several areas where Parliamentary Committees need improvement and strengthening.
- Referring all Bills to Committees:
- Currently, Bills are not automatically referred to a Committee. The decision of whether a Bill should be referred to a Committee depends on the decision of the Speaker or Chairman, in consultation with the Minister presenting the Bill.
- Referring all Bills to a Committee would ensure that all laws go through a minimum level of Parliamentary scrutiny.
- During the 17th Lok Sabha, until the end of the Monsoon Session of 2023, 17% of Bills have been referred to Committees. This number has been declining over the last three Lok Sabhas.
- Discussing the recommendations made by the Committees or specifying the reasons for rejecting certain recommendations is also not mandatory. However, discussing these details in the House could help make laws robust.
- The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2002) noted that all Bills introduced in Parliament should automatically be referred to subject Committees for detailed consideration and discussion.
- Further, subject Committees should also review the implementation of laws passed by Parliament in their respective subject.
- In some Parliamentary systems, such as the United Kingdom, all Bills other than Money Bills are automatically referred to Committees.
- Attendance of MPs:
- The attendance of MPs in Parliamentary Committee meetings is low. In the 17th Lok Sabha, the average attendance for subject Committees meetings was 47%. The attendance in financial Committees drops further to 37%. In comparison, attendance in Parliament was 79% for the same time period.
- The quorum for a Committee meeting is one-third of the Committee members, which is around 10 members for a subject Committee.
- The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution Report noted that there was large scale absenteeism in Committee meetings.
- Shortage of technical staff and experts:
- The role of Committees includes examining selected matters in greater depth than is possible in the House and reporting any conclusions of those examinations to the House.
- Parliamentary Committees can consult with expert witnesses, stakeholders, and the public to better understand complicated issues and the potential impact of policies or legislation.
- The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution recommended that funds be secured to assist these Committees in conducting inquiries, holding public hearings, and collecting data.
- Public transparency:
- Committee reports are usually made public, but the internal workings of the Committee may not be transparent. While closed door meetings allow for greater room to reach party consensus, they may hinder public awareness of key findings of Parliamentary Committees.
- Therefore, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution recommended that major reports of all Parliamentary Committees be discussed in Parliament, especially where there is a disagreement between any Committee and the Central Government.
- In contrast, some other democracies provide live webcasts of meetings. In Canada, Parliament allowed Committees to broadcast their proceedings.
- Other Recommendation:
- The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution recommended certain other reforms for Parliamentary Committees.
- Establishment of three new Committees: the Constitution Committee, the Committee on National Economy, and the Committee on Legislation.
- The Committee noted that it may not be necessary to continue the existing Committees on Estimates, Public Undertakings and Subordinate Legislation as the topic covered by them can be covered by subject Committees or the proposed Committees.
- Parliamentary Committees serve an important role in scrutinising the work of the Government and improving the quality of Bills brought before Parliament. They enable parliamentarians to access stakeholder and expert views, and forge consensus across party lines on contentious issues.
- Reforms mentioned above, such as referring every Bill to a Committee and providing expert staff to subject and finance committees, can improve their effectiveness.