Ability of Parliamentary Committees questionable – Advocata
The Advocata Institute, a Colombo-based think tank, is questioning the ability of various oversight committees set up by Parliament to look into governance issues in Sri Lanka.
The report, which looks at the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), is highly critical of these institutions that are draining the Treasury of billions of rupees each year.
Advocata says the way Members of Parliament are elected is an issue. MPs align with wealthy election backers who provide campaign support in return for political protection or rewards. Thus, those elected are politicians with “access to cash and manpower – not intellect or ability.”
Although politicians will pursue their own interests, an effective governance system should apply the brakes on the worst of those impulses. Parliament, through the aforementioned committees, should be doing this, but is seriously underperforming, the report says.
Although Parliamentary Committees such as the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) conducted investigations that shed light on important issues – including the much talked about Bonds Scam – Advocata says these committees could do more to scrutinise public funds. These committees do not appear to have sufficient expertise to make concrete recommendations to right the wrongs in Government.
The report notes that “serious deficiencies exist.” With the current political uncertainty, it says that “engineering crossovers in return for political office reduces parliament to a rubber stamp and the committee system is weak.” The report commends the current government for the major overhaul of the committee structure, which it says makes them “much better geared to scrutiny and accountability.”
Structures aside, the report says that the performance of these committees depends on the calibre of the MPs.
Advocata recommends that experts who are not MPs be added to these committees so that they could function better. “Unfortunately, it does not seem as if we have the necessary quality of MPs in sufficient numbers to make the reformed system perform. Aside from capacity, there is little incentive for MPs to take committee work or parliament seriously. Many don’t even attend,” it says. Publicly available information shows that less than half the MPs attended at least 75% of the sessions. Even those who attended remained in the house only for the first hour.
Advocata also found that “COPA/COPE are under-resourced; their reports complain of a lack staff (particularly audit) and proper IT systems. Further, the government is not required to respond to the recommendations of these committees within any stipulated period of time, leaving the accountability loop open.” Advocata also adds its voice to the clamour to make the COPA and COPE hearings open to the media.
The picture that emerges from the Advocata report is bleak. It concludes that the “political process incentivises corruption. A weak governance regime means there is little accountability and few checks on government spending. In addition, limited technical capacity means policy is open to “capture” by special interests. The combination is deeply dysfunctional: a parasitic system that transfers wealth to the politically connected through corruption and rent-seeking.”