6. An effective parliament (I): The national level


This and the following chapter will consider ways in which parliaments organise themselves effectively to carry out their key functions. Although ‘effectiveness’ may not at first sight seem a distinctively democratic value, it becomes so where the functions performed are those necessary to the working of the democratic process: law making, oversight of the executive, financial control, and so on. Electorates are not well served if parliaments do not have sufficient resources to carry out these functions, or are wasteful or ineffective in the use made of the resources they have. What may seem at first sight as merely ‘technical’ or ‘procedural’ considerations turn out to be relevant to outcomes, in terms of legislation and financial expenditure that serves societal needs. The same goes for a wider aspect of a parliament’s effectiveness, and that lies in its capacity to perform the important role of sustaining and promoting national integration, especially in situations where this may be threatened.

Parliamentary effectiveness cannot be satisfactorily treated without confronting issues of power. ‘Power’ has many different meanings, but two are particularly relevant here. The first is power as a capacity: having the relevant legal rights and resources – financial, human and organisational – to carry out necessary tasks. The second is power as relational: here having sufficient power and independence in relation to the executive to oversee it effectively. Of course parliaments have to strike a balance between cooperation with, and oversight over, an elected executive; sheer obstructionism rarely serves the public. Yet the more likely danger in the contemporary period is that of undue executive dominance, whether through lack of parliamentary capacity or an unwillingness on the part of parliaments to exercise the powers they have.

Naturally there are important differences between presidential and parliamentary systems, in that the former have a more clearly demarcated separation of powers between legislature and executive. It has been a feature of some presidential systems, for example in Latin America, that elected presidents have been unable to effect their legislative programmes because of their inability to sustain more than temporary majorities in Congress. Even here, however, democracy is not served by a weak or ineffective legislature. A recent comparative survey of democratisation in post-Communist states concluded that it was not so much the type of constitutional system (presidential, ‘semi-presidential’ or parliamentary) that determined the level and quality of a country’s democratisation, but the power and effectiveness of its legislature. This is because stronger legislatures serve as a weightier check on executives, and provide a stronger stimulus to party building. ‘The strength of the national legislature may be a – or even the – institutional key to democratization,’ the survey concludes, ‘….In polities with weak legislatures, democrats should make constitutional reforms to strengthen the legislature a top priority.’ (M. Steven Fish, ‘Stronger Legislatures, Stronger Democracy’, Journal of Democracy, 17.1, Jan. 2006, pp.5-20).

The present chapter will consider what makes for a strong or effective parliament as regards: parliamentary facilities and self-organisation; ways of improving the legislative process; effective oversight of the executive; procedures for budgetary oversight and financial control. A final section will examine parliament’s wider role in promoting national integration through democratic processes.

Parliamentary facilities and self-organisation

All the evidence, including that provided by returns from parliaments for this study, points to a wide gap in resources and facilities available to parliaments between developed and developing countries. This is hardly surprising, given the enormous pressure of other development needs on limited budgets in the latter countries. Yet it is clearly a matter of serious concern to the parliamentarians themselves.

A well resourced parliament, such as is typical in developed economies, will have, inter alia:

  • sufficient expert staff to provide impartial support to members across parliament’s whole range of work;
  • a comprehensive library and information service;
  • office facilities for individual members, with their own secretarial and research support;
  • dedicated facilities for the main opposition party or parties.

In most developing countries these facilities are insufficient and patchy, due to lack of resources and staff with the appropriate expertise. Even in a large country such as South Africa, where the parliamentary service has grown considerably since 1994 (for example, from 10 to 169 committee staff members), parliamentarians still say that the insufficiency of support staff and the skills of the available staff is a ‘limitation on their effectiveness’.

Where parliaments lack capacity through limited resources, this inevitably affects the balance of power with the executive. Parliament’s oversight work is less rigorous; members become dependent upon the expertise of government staff whose first allegiance is to the executive; governments may simply bypass parliament altogether in the development of policy and legislation. If parliament is consequently seen to be less relevant by the public, or its role is not understood, this may in turn affect its capacity to claim additional resources from a restricted national budget.

Strategies for compensating for these limitations of resources have been developed by a number of parliaments. These include:

  • more effective training for members themselves, with encouragement to greater specialisation;
  • more extensive and systematic use of experts in different fields from civil society and academia, to support the work of parliamentary committees and groups;
  • the development of internship programmes to supplement scarce parliamentary resources;
  • the development of on-line facilities to enhance the research and information capacity of parliaments, including library provision.

Capacity-building programmes for parliamentarians and support staff is one area where external assistance can make a considerable impact in emerging democracies, and is currently supported by organisations such as the IPU and many international development agencies (see chapter 8). Such forms of external assistance, however, should not be regarded as a substitute for adequate resourcing on an ongoing basis from the national budget. A study into the costs of parliament conducted by the IPU in 1999 revealed that, among the 52 parliaments surveyed, the share of the state budget taken by parliament ranged from 0.01% (Denmark) to 1.6% (Greece). Given their importance, parliaments are not extravagant institutions.

   Parliamentary autonomy

Whatever the level of resources and staffing available, it is now becoming widely accepted that parliaments should be independent of the executive in the way they organise themselves, including control over their own timetable and the ability to recall themselves outside normal session if circumstances so require. This is one area where the constitutional difference between presidential and parliamentary systems is more clearly marked. In the former the typical challenge may be to achieve effective cooperation between legislature and executive; in the latter the challenge is rather to achieve a more robust organisational independence or autonomy.

What exactly does parliamentary ‘autonomy’ entail? A report by the Association of Secretary Generals of Parliament (ASGP) in 1998 defines autonomy in this context as ‘on the one hand non-dependence and non-subordination of Assemblies in relation to the Executive, and, on the other, the possibility of the Assembly freeing itself at least partially from the rules of ordinary law so as to follow instead its own regulatons.’ It notes that ‘in almost all states, the principle of the autonomy of Parliament is formally recognised in the constitutional texts….dealing with the separation of powers.’ And it concludes that the general trend is to make this principle increasingly effective in practice. (Michel Couderc, ‘The principle of parliamentary autonomy’, Constitutional and Parliamentary Information, No. 176, 1998)

Implementing the principle of autonomy in practice involves a number of different aspects, as set out in the submission to the present study by the Slovenian Parliament:

  • parliamentary responsibility for its own staffing;
  • control over its own budget;
  • organisation of its own business.

As to the first of these, submissions from the Indian and Canadian Parliaments respectively underline the importance of parliamentary staff being independent of the central public or civil service:

India: To effectively carry out its functions within the framework of the separation of powers it is essential that Parliament should have an independent Secretariat. With the underlying objective of ensuring the concept of executive and administrative accountability to Parliament, separate and independent Secretariats for the two Houses of Parliament have been provided for in Article 98 of the Constitution of India.
Canada: A Parliament’s effectiveness is in large measure a reflection of the mechanisms and resources that ensure its independence and autonomy. The operational independence of the Canadian Parliament is provided for in the Constitution and by legislation that guarantees that the Senate, the House of Commons and the Library of Parliament each have access to a non-partisan professional staff distinct from the public service……While public servants in the bureaucracy may move from one department to another through the course of their careers, parliamentary staff tend to make their career serving Parliament in their respective institution.

This model of a professional parliamentary service with its own organisation and career structure is now becoming widely accepted, in parliamentary and presidential systems alike. It recognises that serving parliament is a distinctive activity where, given the nature of party competition, the norms of non-partisanship and professional discretion are at a special premium. Parliamentary autonomy here also includes the development of independent legal counsel to advise parliament on the legal dimensions of government policy, as well as on legislative drafting. The Israeli Knesset, for example, has its legal services concentrated in a single department, which deals with all the different legal aspects of parliamentary business.

   Budgetary control

A second aspect of a parliament’s independence is control over its own budget. The importance of this is emphasized in a statement of principles on parliament-executive relations made at an IPU regional seminar on parliament and the budgetary process:

In accordance with the fundamental principle of the separation of powers, the internal budget of the Parliament should be drawn up under the sole responsibility of the House, and subsequently presented to the Executive to be incorporated into the national budget. The Executive is not to judge the appropriateness of the resources requested by Parliament to carry out its functions. (General Report presented by Mr. Lahaou Touré (Mali), General Rapporteur, Bamako (Mali), 1-3 November 2001)

This principle has variable application in practice. On one side is a parliament such as that of France, whose financial autonomy is described as ‘absolute, both in respect of the way the budget is drafted and as regards the voting and implementation procedures’. On the other side are a number of new parliaments, especially in Africa, described in the ASGP report as having ‘the legitimate aspiration’ to free themselves from government supervision, in particularly from the Ministry of Finance.

   Control over business

Equally relevant to a parliament’s autonomy is control over its own business, and over the allocation of time between different types of business and between different parliamentary groups. In the traditional Westminster parliamentary system business was typically organised through informal arrangements between the Leader of the House (a Cabinet Minister) and opposition leaders and their whips. Such arrangements are now increasingly being formalised through a parliamentary business committee, on which all political groups are represented, and which is chaired by the Assembly President or Speaker. As an example, the chairmanship of the Business Committee of the Samoan Parliament has recently been transferred from the Prime Minister to the Speaker. Under this kind of arrangement the role of ‘Leader of the House’, if there is one, becomes more narrowly defined as ‘leader of government business in the chamber’. This evolution took place early in the life of the Indian Lok Sabha, with the creation of a Business Advisory Committee, whose members are nominated by the Speaker as ex officio Chair.

The function of the Committee is to recommend time that should be allotted for discussion on such government, legislative and other business as the Speaker in consultation with the Leader of the House may direct to be referred to the Committee. After the report of the Committee is agreed by the House, the allocation of time in respect of bills and other business takes effect as if it were an order of the House.

In the South African Parliament there is a Programme Committee for each House, meeting weekly, and a joint Programme Committee for both Houses which has the responsibility for preparing the annual programme for Parliament, including the legislative programme. This Committee allocates time for the Executive’s legislative and other business, and sets deadlines by which the Executive must introduce bills in Parliament, subject to fast-tracking in exceptional circumstances according to predetermined criteria. Within this agreed allocation, the Leader of Government Business, who is ‘responsible for the affairs of the national executive in Parliament’, takes responsibility for programming all parliamentary business initiated by the executive and for the attendance of relevant Cabinet members. These Programme Committees typically take decisions by consensus.

In presidential systems, the issue may be less of ensuring adequate independence from the executive in the planning of the legislature’s business, and more one of achieving effective coordination between the two branches of government. This may require the establishment of special coordinating bodies or committees, as in this example from the Philippines:

For purposes of relevant policy-making, the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) was created with the Speaker of the House as one of its members, with the intention of coordinating the approaches of the executive and legislative, to avoid gridlock in decision-making and to fast-track law-making. The LEDAC is a consultative and advisory body which coordinates executive development planning and congressional budgeting. Thus, the competing legislative priorities of Congress and the executive branch are thrashed out, draft bills on vital issues are discussed and consensus reached on which bills should be considered urgent.

More specific issues involved in programming the legislative process will be considered in the following section.

Further online reading about parliamentary self-organisation:

Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments (1991). The Parliamentary Budget, in Constitutional and parliamentary information, N° 161 <http://www.asgp.co/Resources/Data/Documents/UUELRQYYICJCPTBSGBJTOTYJDIVHON.pdf>

Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments (1999). The administrative and financial autonomy of parliamentary assemblies, in Constitutional and parliamentary information, N° 177 <http://www.asgp.co/Resources/Data/Documents/CVCNKQUEFMEUUCJWPENOSNADTHSKQJ.pdf>

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (2005). Administration and financing of parliament: a study group report <http://www.cpahq.org/uploadedFiles/Information_Services/Publications/CPA_Electronic_Publications/AdministrationandFinancingofParliamentStudyGroupReport.pdf>

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (2005). Study group on the administration and financing of parliament: key recommendations <http://www.cpahq.org/uploadedFiles/Information_Services/Publications/CPA_Electronic_Publications/TheadministrationandfinancingofParliaments%20recommendations.pdf>

Reports from a seminar on parliamentary administrations and legislative cooperation, organised by ECPRD and the Italian Chamber of Deputies (2003). <http://de.camera.it/files/pdf/dossier.pdf>

Improving the legislative process

Many parliaments have been experimenting with different ways of organising the legislative process, so that time constraints do not curtail the effective scrutiny of bills, and at the same time priority can be given to those parts of proposed legislation that are more important or controversial. The Italian Chamber of Deputies, for example, has recently undertaken a more rigorous timetabling of legislation, since it had found the process being swamped by amendments, and sessions having to be extended to unacceptable lengths. The problem has been resolved by means of a programming timetable for bills, and requiring parliamentary groups to select a number of amendments to be put to the vote, according to their respective size.

This approach addresses various demands: on the one hand, the need to work quickly and to establish how much time is allowed for discussion, thus preventing the Assembly from spreading itself too thin with a plethora of often repetitive votes, and on the other hand, the need to allow the Assembly to concentrate on those aspects of bills or proposed amendments that it considers are of the most political importance. Thanks to this reform and also the programme reforms, the Chamber of Deputies has been able to address and shorten the length of debates, which over the years had become increasingly problematic, thus guaranteeing that the legislature can respond more quickly to the country's needs.

Similarly, the UK House of Commons, through the proposals of its Modernisation Committee, has undertaken a systematic programming of legislation, with an agreed timetable for the different clauses of each bill, so as to ensure greater predictability and avoid having to guillotine discussion because time has run out.

There are a number of ways in which programming, when it is done well, assists the scrutiny of legislation. It provides Members with a clear idea which parts of a bill will be debated when, allowing them to concentrate on those parts of a bill in which they are most interested……The greater certainty of timing is also beneficial for outside groups. Knowing, at the beginning of the committee stage, when that part of the bill will be debated makes it easier for them to plan the delivery of briefing material to members of a standing committee. Programming should allow the House and committees to plan their consideration of a bill more effectively so that more time is made available to consider those parts of a bill which are of interest to the Opposition and backbenchers, while less time may be devoted to those parts of the bill which are more straightforward and less controversial.

The committee listed four basic criteria which a reformed legislative process should meet:

  • The Government of the day must be assured of getting its legislation through in reasonable time
  • The Opposition in particular and Members in general must have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance
  • All parts of a bill must be properly considered
  • Bills must be properly prepared so as not to require a mass of new Government amendments

   Law quality

This last criterion above raises the issue of the quality of bills, which is a concern of many parliaments facing a press of legislation, especially acute for those countries required to harmonise their laws with European Community requirements. In response to the problem of inadequate drafting, the Danish Parliament, for example, established a joint working commission with the Government on ‘law quality’. As a result the Government has issued a detailed set of guidelines on law quality to the civil servants at the individual ministries where bills are prepared, detailing a number of central requirements for the drafting of legislation. In addition, ‘a Bill must contain an account of its financial and administrative consequences for the public sector and the business community, its environmental consequences and its relation to Community law.’

Ensuring the constitutionality of proposed legislation is another aspect of law quality. In the Finnish Parliament this is the responsibility of the Speaker, assisted by a Constitutional Law Committee.

The task of the Constitutional Law Committee in supervising the constitutionality of laws is to examine if a bill is in harmony with the Constitution or if there is a discrepancy between them. In the latter case the Committee also indicates how the bill ought to be amended in order to become in accord with the Constitution……The Committee exercises this controlling task with the help of university professors and other constitutional lawyers, who are heard as outside experts in committee meetings.

The Greek Parliament also has a Scientific Service composed mainly of university law professors, whose reports on bills identify ‘any possible contradictions or discrepancies of the proposed legislation as regards the Greek Constitution and national legislation, international or European law.’

A further aspect of law quality concerns the clarity of the texts themselves. The Italian Chamber of Deputies has established a special legislative committee, composed equally of members of the majority and opposition parties, ‘which assesses the quality of legislative texts to see if they are homogenous, simple, clear and appropriate to their purpose, as well as their effectiveness in simplifying and reorganizing the legislation in force, and on the basis of these parameters, issues opinions to the Committees.’

   On-line facilities

It is in the context of the legislative process that the development of on-line facilities for parliamentarians is having perhaps the most significant impact. While many parliaments are at an experimental stage, a few are already well advanced in replacing paper altogether in the production and discussion of legislative texts, which can be given a uniform electronic layout. The following are the proposals for the Austrian Parliament:

The E-RECHT (‘Electronic Law’) project aims at creating one continuous electronic production channel from the invitation to comment on legislation to promulgation (on the Internet). As a result, it will only be required to enter amendments to the text during the legislative stages (for example by a committee, or in the plenary of the Nationalrat). Texts of law on paper are replaced by electronic texts, that is to say, printed government bills, committee reports and other parliamentary printed matter cease to exist. Technology will make it possible to draw up texts which can be queried electronically while all stages can be tracked in a fully transparent process.

Besides the potential saving of time, it is calculated that the new system will save sixty tons of paper annually, at a cost of more than one million Euros. In the Republic of Korea, to give another example, the main chamber of the National Assembly is currently in the process of being reinvented as a Digital Chamber.

When the Digital Chamber is complete, then a great deal of legislative processes will be digitalized, including proposing and deliberating bills, making decisions through electronic ballots, and delivering them to the government, which will bring some very positive effects of curbing cost and time by simplifying and removing papers from the process. Moreover, lawmakers will be able to search real-time information on various bills as they sit through the meetings and also effectively question cabinet members, discuss bills, or make five minute speeches utilizing power point or moving pictures on computers.

The Hungarian Parliament is also in the process of establishing an electronic Parliament, with the text of every submitted proposal (proposed bills, amendments, resolutions, draft policy announcements, reports, interpellations, questions, etc.) available on line. Although this is primarily intended to facilitate and improve the work of representatives, it means that the relevant texts will also be available to citizens through Parliament’s website.

   Role of an upper chamber

Most of the measures mentioned above for improving the legislative process also involve improved coordination between the two chambers of parliament where it is bi-cameral. The purpose of an upper chamber is to allow for the more thorough scrutiny of bills, and to expose them to a different range of opinion – whether this be a matter of state and regional perspectives, as in a federal system, a different balance of party strength, or a wider range of experience or expertise. A typical consequence of this exposure is to produce further compromises in proposed legislation and, hopefully, wider public acceptability as a result. Since democracy depends on consent, the public acceptability of legislation is an important criterion for its effectiveness.

   Keeping track of legislation

Two final issues raised by the submissions from parliaments are worth considering here. One is concern at the increasing use by governments of delegated legislation, which is difficult for parliaments to keep track of, and in some cases may exceed the terms defined in the relevant law. The Greek Parliament, for example, describes this a ‘major problem’, since ‘the normative acts thus issued by the Government often exceed the limits of the delegation granted by statute law,’ with the likelihood of frequent recourse to judicial review. To deal with this problem a number of parliaments require that specific powers of delegated legislation or regulation granted to the executive be subject to a specific time-limit (so-called ‘sunset clauses’), to enable the regulations to be systematically reviewed; and that any emergency regulations enacted beyond these powers be confirmed by parliament within a short time-span.

A second issue is the need for systematic monitoring of the implementation of legislation, both as to whether it is being effectively implemented and what its consequences are in practice. According to the submission from the South African Parliament, ‘the legislative function does not cease with the passage of a bill and, thus, only by monitoring the implementation process can Members of Parliament uncover any defects and act to correct misinterpretation of legislation or maladministration within a government department.’ One common reason why legislation is not effectively implemented is that adequate financial provision has not been made; hence the importance, already mentioned, of the fiscal implications of proposed legislation being clearly spelt out and also followed up in budget appropriations.

Both these issues closely touch on the oversight function of parliament, which will be considered in the next section.

Further online reading about improving the legislative process:

Global Centre for Information and Communication Technology in Parliament <http://www.ictparliament.org/>

Inter-American Development Bank (2006). Political Parties, Legislatures, and Presidents, in Economic and social progress in Latin America, 2006 Report (Chapter 3) <http://www.iadb.org/res/ipes/2006/chapter3.cfm>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, United Nations Development Programme (2003). Ten years of strengthening parliaments in Africa, 1991-2000. Lessons learnt and the way forward <http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/africa2000_en.pdf>

United Nations Development Programme (2003). Parliamentary Development practice note <http://www.undp.org/governance/docs/ParlPN_ENGLISH.pdf>

U.S. Agency for International Development (2000). USAID Handbook on Legislative Strengthening <http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/democracy_and_governance/publications/pdfs/pnacf632.pdf>

Effective oversight of the executive

Besides their responsibility for the legislative process, parliaments have a key function in providing oversight of the government on behalf of the public. The specific area of budgetary oversight and financial control will be discussed in the following section. Here the more general task of oversight over government policy and administration will be considered. This forms the other dimension of accountability raised in the previous chapter: the accountability of government to parliament, and through parliament to the electorate as a whole.

Nowhere more obviously than here are issues of relational power more relevant to a consideration of a parliament’s work. This is not just a matter of the relative powers as between parliament and executive, but also of the balance of power between parties and within them. Indeed, it is the configuration of party power that can often determine the relation between parliament and executive. In a presidential system, in situations where the legislature is controlled by a different party from the presidency, parliamentary oversight is not only typically rigorous, but party competition can easily degenerate into obstruction and gridlock. In a parliamentary system, and in presidential ones where the same party controls both branches of government, there is the opposite tendency: oversight may be blunted through the way power is exercised within the ruling party or coalition, or the way competition between parties discourages internal dissent within parties from being publicly expressed. So while the interest of opposition parties lies in the most rigorous oversight of the executive, members of a governing party can use their majority so as to ensure that ministers are not embarrassed by exposure or a critical report.

Political parties have many informal means of keeping their parliamentarians in line, through the party ‘whips’: with the patronage of appointment to key committees, the prospect of future preferment, membership of overseas delegations, and so on; or the threat of loss of a favourable place on the party’s electoral list, or even exclusion from the parliamentary party altogether. The way in which these patronage and disciplinary powers may work to blunt effective parliamentary oversight is detailed in the submission from the South African Parliament:

Although all parties in Parliament are represented in any given committee, party politics can undermine a committee’s ability to work together to exercise oversight of a government department. Furthermore, the presence of diverse interests within a party does not necessarily mean that these interests will be expressed publicly. Party hierarchy and discipline can act to prevent members from raising concerns and issues that might make the government uncomfortable or threaten party unity. The party leadership can command much loyalty from its members and impose firm discipline because members rely on their parties for a place on the party list and, hence, their seat in Parliament. This can also be an impediment to a Committee’s ability to exercise its oversight function effectively.

This context of power between and within political parties needs to be kept in mind when the different modes of parliamentary oversight are being discussed below. There is no such thing as a parliament’s oversight over the executive as if parliament were a single uniform and cohesive body; all oversight is mediated via the struggle and competition between parties, and how this may be seen to play with the public at large. In particular, it is minority or opposition parties within a legislature which give a necessary ‘edge’ to the different modes of oversight; in a parliamentary system they are typically coordinated through an official or unofficial ‘shadow cabinet’ in a Westminster tradition.

   Oversight through the committee system

The most systematic method for oversight of the executive is by parliamentary committees which track the work of individual government departments and ministries, and conduct specific investigations into particularly salient aspects of their policy and administration. Many parliaments have reformed their committee systems to enable them to parallel the respective government departments and their members to develop appropriate expertise accordingly. In many countries these are joint committees of both chambers of parliament. Although even specialist committees are unable to be comprehensive in their coverage of the respective department’s work, it is sufficient for accountability that the department knows that they could investigate any aspect and do so rigorously, even if in practice they have to be selective.

Here is how the South African Parliament describes its reformed committee system:

Some tasks, particularly those involving detailed consideration of matters, are best performed by a smaller group than the House sitting in plenary, and it is in this respect that committees can play a vital role in exercising oversight of executive action. Since 1994 the committee system has seen extensive changes that have facilitated committees in exercising oversight. The old system of thirteen committees, whose role, principally, had been to sit in secret in order to ‘rubber-stamp’ the legislation of the National Party government, has given way to a committee system that is vibrant, active and independent of government. In the National Assembly there is a committee for each government department, while in the National Council of Provinces committees broadly correspond with government departmental clusters. They have extensive powers, including the power to summon people to give evidence or produce documents…

The Swedish Parliament, in its submission, notes that nowadays more and more emphasis is being put on Parliament’s oversight function. ‘This is due to central government activities no longer being governed by detailed legislation and budget provisions, but by general targets and result-centred demands. Parliament’s task becomes that of subsequently checking that these targets and demands are being met…Here the work and priorities of the Riksdag committees will take centre stage.’

By definition, oversight is only possible if committees are able to decide for themselves which aspects of government activity to investigate. In the Philippines House of Representatives, these are decided by a majority of committee members:

Aside from the House’s Standing Committee on Oversight, the other committees of the House may undertake, on their own, a review of the performance of the government agencies pursuant to their authority to conduct hearings and inquiries on issues and concerns falling under their functional jurisdiction, upon the call of the majority of all their respective members. For instance, certain agencies and departments of the executive branch were probed on procurement systems and awarding of contracts, thereby ensuring transparency and paving the way for policy reforms.

The Norwegian Parliament, by contrast, has recently decided that ‘a minority of members of the Standing Committee on Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs (one third of the members) may initiate proceedings of the Committee. This rule is essential for the protection of minority factions in Parliament.’

Crucial to the effectiveness of committee investigations is the power to require ministers and civil servants to appear and answer questions, and to produce relevant documents. Access to information is a key to effective accountability, including access to classified information. Freedom of Information legislation which allows extensive exemptions or a ministerial veto on disclosure may well be mirrored by and reinforce limitations on parliament’s own access to sensitive information. The practice of closed sittings for certain categories of information is one method which a number of parliaments use to circumvent such limitations.

It is in the context of detailed oversight work by committees that the issue of resources is particularly pressing. Even in many well-established parliaments and legislatures the level of committee staffing is insufficient in comparison with the expertise that a government department can call upon. Various forms of supplementation to a committee’s own staff are called on to meet this shortfall, most commonly the engagement of outside specialists from civil society and academia for particular investigations, or as an ongoing advisory panel to a committee. The UK House of Commons has recently established a Scrutiny Unit, which can provide specialist support for individual committees at points where their workload is particularly demanding.

The outcome of a committee’s investigations typically takes the form of a published report, addressed to the government with recommendations, which is laid before parliament as a whole. It is then up to parliament to decide its priority for debate, and how the government response is to be followed up. The Indian Parliament has recently tightened up its procedure for following up recommendations by Departmentally Related Standing Committees (DRSCs), since it found the government often dragging its heels in implementing recommendations which it had itself accepted.

Under the existing procedure, after a Report on a subject selected by the DRSCs is presented to the House, the Government furnishes its Action Taken Notes within three months on the recommendations made therein. Implementation of recommendations accepted by the Government is generally not complete with regard to a number of the recommendations. To infuse a sense of seriousness and ensure timely implementation of the recommendations made by the DRSCs, the Speaker, Lok Sabha, and the Chairman, Rajya Sabha, issued directions in September 2004 providing that the Minister concerned shall make once every six months a statement in the House regarding the status of implementation of recommendations contained in the reports of DRSCs. It is expected that this will make a significant difference in the timely and qualitative implementation of their recommendations.

Further online reading about oversight through the committee system:

Gay, O and Winetrobe, B (2003). Parliamentary audit: the audit committee in comparative context. A report to the audit committee of the Scottish parliament <http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/committees/historic/audit/reports-03/aur03-legacy-02.htm>

Krafchik, W. and Wehner, J. (2004). Legislatures and budget oversight: best practices <http://www.revenuewatch.org/reports/kazakhstan_parliament_budget_forum.pdf>

National Democratic Institute (1996). Committees in legislatures: a division of labor <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/030_ww_committees.pdf>

   Oversight by and over non-governmental public agencies

In respect of parliamentary oversight, two broadly different types of non-governmental agency should be distinguished. First are those agencies which are themselves designed to contribute to the oversight of government, such as the Ombudsman, Human Rights Commission, Anti-corruption Commission, Auditor General’s Office, and so on. The last two will be treated more specifically under the theme of financial control later in this chapter. Here only the general point should be repeated that was made in Chapter 4, that oversight is more likely to be effective if the membership of such bodies is approved by parliament and they are accountable to it rather than to the government. By virtue of their specialist expertise, and their links with civil society organisations, such agencies are invaluable in complementing the oversight work of parliamentary committees. The submission from the Norwegian Parliament, for example, mentions four independent agencies which it regards as ‘crucial in the scrutiny functions of the Storting’: The Office of the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Public Administration, the Committee for Monitoring of Intelligence, Surveillance and Security, and the Ombudsman for the Armed Forces. With the exception of the last of these, whose reports are reviewed by the Defence Committee, their reports are reviewed by the Standing Committee on Scrutiny. Another agency contributing to parliamentary oversight in many countries is an Office for National Statistics. Given the opportunities for ‘massaging’ statistics to show government policies in a favourable light, the independence of a statistics office is best ensured by making it accountable to parliament rather than the government, as has recently been proposed in the United Kingdom.

A second type of independent agency comprises those which carry out some of the executive and regulatory functions of government itself. Rather than their being part of the parliamentary regime of oversight, as the first type are, the issue is more how to exercise effective oversight over them, when they do not form part of any government departmental structure. It is an increasing practice in many countries for governments to devolve public functions, such as regulatory activities or the delivery of front-line services, to independent agencies. These can include public corporations such as a central bank or public broadcasting service; regulatory bodies for health and safety, the major utilities, and so on; agencies delivering services with public money in transport, housing, education, urban regeneration, the penal system, etc., sometimes as public-private partnerships replacing local government control and responsibility.

A number of problems are raised by the increasing use of independent agencies of this type. One, raised in the submission from the Greek Parliament, concerns the issuing of normative acts by independent authorities, ‘thus shifting the decision-making process on the normative level from parliament to the independent authorities.’ Another lies in the weakening of lines of responsibility and accountability. In theory, an independent agency may fall within the purview of a government department, but it is designed to be an arms-length process, which makes it difficult to secure effective parliamentary oversight, even if significant sums of public money, with considerable distributional consequences, are involved.

Further online reading about independent oversight bodies:

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002). Relations between supreme audit institutions and parliamentary committees <http://appli1.oecd.org/olis/2002doc.nsf/linkto/ccnm-gov-sigma(2002)1>

World Bank (2001). Features and functions of supreme audit institutions <http://www1.worldbank.org/prem/PREMNotes/premnote59.pdf>

   Oversight through parliamentary questions and ‘interpellations’

In parliamentary systems and others where ministers are also members of the legislature, the parliamentary questioning of ministers on a regular basis, both orally and in writing, forms an important mechanism of oversight. Oral questions in plenary session can often turn into a party dogfight generating more heat than light, with questioning by ruling party members bordering on sycophancy, and replies degenerating into point-scoring against the opposition. Written replies can also be carefully crafted by civil servants to avoid revealing anything substantial. Nevertheless, when working properly, parliamentary questions are a significant investigative and oversight mechanism. For ministers to have to explain and justify their policies to parliament on a regular basis, and to answer publicly for any shortcomings, is a salutary discipline and an important contribution to accountability, as this comment from the Zambian Parliament confirms:

The purpose of the questions in the House is first to give an opportunity for Members to solicit information on matters of public importance. Secondly, questions press for Government action – that is, through a question in the House, the Government is called upon either to start or complete a project, to provide certain facilities or to take action on any public affair. Other salient features about parliamentary questions include allowing Members a chance to put across the views and mood of the public to the Government, especially on current issues, thereby testing the calibre of Ministers and their officers by the way they handle questions especially supplementary ones. Questions force Ministers to be more alert for fear of exposing their failures; and questions generally help to keep the Government on its toes.

These aims are more likely to be realised, the more systematically the process of questioning is organised. Here, for example, is the procedure for the Irish Dail:

The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) answers questions of which notice has been given (and supplementary questions asked without notice) for 90 minutes each week; and also answers questions from the leaders of the parties in opposition without notice for a further 40 minutes each week. Other members of the Government answer questions in rotation for 210 minutes each week. Approximately, 1,900 questions were answered on notice in 2004. In addition, a further 26,000 questions were the subject of written answers.

In the Parliament of Senegal, parliamentary questions to ministers are organised in the form of a debate, with a quite precise timetable:

During the debate, the following code of conduct applies:
  1. Reading of a question by its author: 3 minutes;
  2. Minister's reply: 15 minutes;
  3. Statement by the author of the question: 10 minutes;
  4. Statement by the majority (can be divided): 10 minutes;
  5. Statements by the minority groups and independents: time proportional to their size, depending also on the time granted to the majority group;
  6. New replies by the Minister: 15 minutes;
  7. Author of the question takes the floor again: 3 minutes;
  8. Final reply by the Minister: 5 minutes,
This refers to a quick form of oversight over the Government, by the National Assembly, on a specific point.

Other parliaments have a variety of forms of intervention for the scrutiny of ministers, which work to complement the procedures of a formal question time. In the Zambian Parliament, private members motions are described as ‘the most popular and effective way of scrutinising executive activities’. The Indian Parliament has a longstanding procedure of ‘Calling Attention Notices’, described as follows:

Any Member may, with the prior permission of the Speaker or Chairman, call the attention of a Minister to any matter of urgent public importance and the Minister may make a brief statement or ask for time to make a statement at a later hour or date. The process does not involve any censure of the Government as there is no discussion or voting. It helps Members to point out any shortcomings in the actions of the Government in dealing with a matter.

Although presidential systems do not possess the same procedures for the routine questioning of ministers as parliamentary ones, they have a variety of devices for obtaining responses from ministers of state, besides the normal committee procedures. Under its reformed constitution of 1980, for example, the Chilean National Congress can require the attendance of ministers of state at special sessions of either chamber convened to inform members about issues within the competence of the relevant ministry.

   Parliamentary approval of executive appointments

In presidential systems, where ministers are not members of the legislature, an important aspect of oversight lies in the process of approval for executive and cabinet appointments, typically involving lengthy investigations of the appointee’s suitability for public office. Such investigations may also cover judicial and ambassadorial appointments as well as ministerial ones. Some parliamentary systems have also developed procedures for the oversight of important non-ministerial appointments, though this practice is less common.

The other side of the coin is the possibility of removal from office. The legislature’s right to impeach a president by special procedure in presidential systems constitutes a last resort, which typically follows some significant breach of the law or constitution. In parliamentary systems, by contrast, a vote of no-confidence in a premier more typically indicates a loss of support on political grounds, and one which does not have the same potential for executive-parliament confrontation, since the government is sustained by parliament. Some parliaments also allow for votes of no-confidence in individual ministers, without this affecting the composition of the government as a whole.

   Special commissions of enquiry

As a further instrument of oversight, mention should be made of special commissions of enquiry which parliaments may set up to investigate issues of major public moment, typically spanning the province of more than one department, and the remit of more than one of its committees. These should be distinguished from commissions of enquiry set up by governments themselves, in which the government sets its own terms of reference and chooses its key personnel. These latter can sometimes become an instrument for shelving a controversial issue, or blunting potential criticism of the government’s own conduct, and hence not be an effective instrument of oversight at all.

An important element in commissions of enquiry is the protection that is afforded to witnesses through ‘whistleblower’ legislation, although such protection has a wider relevance than just in this context. The following comment comes from the work by NDI on international standards for democratic legislatures:

It is the prerogative of the legislative branch to establish a commission of enquiry into matters of public concern. A corollary to this right is the ability of informants and witnesses, or ‘whistleblowers’ as they are commonly known, to come forth with accurate information with the assurance that their identities will not be disclosed and that they will not suffer any detrimental effects, either personal or professional, as a result of their admissions

Many countries have such legislation, though with varying degrees of protection. Where protection is only afforded to disclosures through prescribed channels, such as to an employer, the procedure may lead to a problem or complaint being quietly shelved. In the United States, in contrast, a ‘whistleblower’ in the federal employment sector is not obliged to make their disclosure through any particular channel, and may enjoy protection even when information is leaked to the press.

Further online reading about parliamentary oversight of the executive:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2006). Parline database module on parliamentary oversight <>http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/parlinesearch.asp>

National Democratic Institute (2000). Strengthening legislative capacity in legislative-executive relations <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/980_gov_legcapacity.pdf>

Pelizzo, R., Stapenhurst, R. and Olson, D. (eds.) (2004). Trends in parliamentary oversight. World Bank Institute <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/TrendsinParliamentaryOversight-FINAL.pdf>

Pelizzo, R., Stapenhurst, R. (eds.) (2004). Legislatures and oversight. World Bank Institute <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTPARLIAMENTARIANS/Resources/Legislatures_and_Oversight.pdf>

   A case-study of oversight: security policy

An area of policy where the issue of parliamentary oversight is currently being much debated is that of security policy. In a Handbook on Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector, published jointly by the IPU and the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (2003), three particular challenges are identified for oversight of this policy area:

  • Secrecy laws may hinder efforts to enhance transparency in the security sector……
  • The security sector is a highly complex field, in which parliaments have to oversee issues such as weapons procurement, arms control and the readiness/preparedness of military units. Not all parliamentarians have sufficient knowledge and expertise to deal with these issues in an effective manner……
  • The emphasis on international security cooperation may affect the transparency and democratic legitimacy of a country’s security policy if it leads to parliament being left out of the process. (p.19)

Two currently troublesome aspects of oversight in this sector can be taken to exemplify the challenges involved. The first is approval for the deployment of a country’s armed forces abroad. The Handbook notes that ‘from a good governance perspective, it is proper and advisable that …..parliament should have the opportunity to participate in the decision of engaging armed forces abroad’(p.118). We should add ‘from a democratic perspective’ also. In actual fact, as the Handbook observes, practice is very variable, from those countries where deploying troops abroad requires prior parliamentary approval, or in emergency approval after the event, to those where deployment is the prerogative of the executive, and parliament is only allowed to debate the issue but not to control the executive’s discretion.

At the former end of the spectrum are countries such as Sweden and Germany. In the submission received from the German Bundestag for this study, it is noted that ‘compared to other countries, the German Bundestag enjoys very extensive rights of participation in these decisions.’ Its right of prior approval for the deployment of armed forces abroad was affirmed in a judgement of the Federal Constitutional Court in 1994, and the precise mechanism for approval, largely based on existing practice, was spelled out in the Act on Parliamentary Participation of December 2004. The approval procedure is described as follows:

The Federal Government must forward its request for approval of a deployment of the armed forces to the Bundestag in good time, prior to the start of deployment. The request must contain details of the mission: the operational mandate, the operational area, the legal bases for the mission, the maximum number of service personnel to be deployed, the capabilities of the armed forces to be deployed, the planned duration of the mission, the anticipated costs, and funding arrangements…The request for approval is referred on first reading – often without a debate – to the committees responsible. At their meetings, the committees prepare the plenary decision by submitting a recommendation for a decision to the plenary. They may only recommend the adoption or the rejection of the request, which may not be amended in any way……
An important exception to this procedure applies to deployments in the event of imminent danger which allow no scope for delay and to operations whose purpose is to rescue persons from particularly dangerous situations. In these cases, it is sufficient for the Bundestag to grant ex post approval. However, the Federal Government must keep the Bundestag informed appropriately prior to and during deployment. The Federal Government must terminate the operation if the Bundestag rejects the request for ex post approval.

The Act also states that the Bundestag may revoke its approval for a deployment of armed forces at any time.

A distinctive example of the exercise of parliamentary control over the decision to deploy troops abroad is provided by the submission from the Turkish Parliament, and relates to the government petition on the use of military troops in Northern Iraq which was debated on 1st March 2003 in the Grand National Assembly:

The first Article of the Petition was about sending Turkish military troops abroad, and the second one, to allow foreign military troops in Turkey……Under normal conditions, the Parliamentary Group of the party in power supports the proposals and rejects the amendments. However, in this case, many deputies of the party in power voted against this petition. Undoubtedly, the anti-war manifestations organized by the NGOs had important effects in this process……The rejection of the petition sent by its own government and the fact that a quarter of the members of the party in power voted against this petition proves the effect of the Parliament on political decisions.

   Anti-terrorist legislation

A second currently difficult issue is that of anti-terrorist legislation, which raises for democratic societies the problem of where the right balance should be struck between security and the protection of civil and political freedoms, where these conflict. That they do not necessarily do so has been well expressed by Kofi Annan in a speech of November 2001: ‘The danger is that in pursuit of security we end up sacrificing crucial liberties, thereby weakening our common security, not strengthening it – and thereby corroding the vessel of democratic government from within.’ In developing his comment, the Handbook on Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector insists that ‘it is absolutely essential that balancing liberty and security should not be the exclusive responsibility of the executive and that, as a representative and guarantor of people’s rights, the parliament should exercise close oversight in this respect.’ It makes a number of suggestions about what parliamentarians should do with regard to combating terrorism, among others:

  • Follow a broad approach against terrorism not only focusing on protection and security, but also addressing its root causes……
  • Make sure that your state is a party to the relevant international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism……
  • Work towards the adoption of legislative measures allowing for compensation of victims of terrorist acts, as an expression of national solidarity.
  • Ensure that anti-terror legislation maintains a proper balance between security requirements and the enjoyment of civil and political rights…

Among the provisions of regional and international human rights conventions which cannot be made subject of such a balance, or be derogated from under any circumstances, is the absolute prohibition on the use of torture, including the deportation of asylum seekers or other foreign nationals to countries where torture is practised, or the use of a country’s airspace for such a purpose. Parliaments have a special responsibility to investigate such practices, and to oppose them where they are shown to occur.

Further online reading about parliamentary oversight of security policy:

Inter-Parliamentary Union, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (2003). Parliamentary oversight of the security sector principles, mechanisms and practices <http://www.dcaf.ch/oversight/proj_english.cfm?navsub1=12&navsub2=3&nav1=3>

National Democratic Institute (2005). Democratic oversight of police forces, mechanisms for accountability and community policing. <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1906_gov_policing_080105.pdf>

Budgetary scrutiny and financial control

A central function of parliaments has always been to exercise control over the raising and spending of public revenue. The familiar slogan ‘no taxation without representation’ implies that only the express consent given by elected representatives can make the compulsory exactions of government acceptable to citizens. Parliamentary oversight of government finances can be separated into two broad phases: consideration and approval of the government’s plans for the raising and spending of revenue ex ante, through consideration of its proposed budget; and the monitoring of expenditure ex post, to ensure that it has conformed to the terms which parliament has approved. Naturally, the outcome of the latter phase will affect the former in the next round of the annual cycle, so the whole can be seen as a continuous process. For purposes of analysis, however, the two phases can be considered separately.

   Budgetary scrutiny

It is a task of the executive to draw up detailed annual budget proposals for the raising and expenditure of revenue by government. In Westminster-type systems the tradition has been for the budget to be presented for parliamentary scrutiny on an appointed day as a complete package, with little room for parliament to make substantive policy changes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer or equivalent might receive submissions from various social and economic interests during the process of budget formulation, but parliament itself would not be consulted or informed of the contents prior to the presentation of the budget on budget day. Thereafter parliament’s role would be to debate the broad terms of the budget proposals in plenary session, and identify potential inconsistencies and possible savings through detailed analysis of the estimates for expenditure in finance committee. The account of the function of the Committee on Estimates in the Indian Parliament is clearly consistent with this conception: it is ‘to make scrutiny of the expenditure by the Government proposed in the annual financial statement and to report what economies, improvements in organisation, efficiency or administrative reform consistent with the policy underlying the estimates may be effected.’

This rather restricted conception of parliament’s role in budget formulation is now becoming increasingly the exception rather than the norm. As a survey by the World Bank reports, ‘legislators in most member states of the OECD are presented with the budget between two and four months in advance of the new fiscal year.’(Results of the survey on Budget Practices and Procedures, OECD/World Bank, 2003). This timeframe enables parliament to play a much more substantial part in influencing the policy content of a final budget, whether in pre-budget discussions and negotiations, or during the scrutiny stage of the government’s proposals. The contribution of parliament in this respect is particularly developed in Norway, where negotiations on overall expenditure and the distribution of the budget between different headings take place in parliament itself. The tendency of such a process to inflate expenditure limits so as to accommodate the preferred schemes of the different parties was addressed in a budgetary reform of 1997:

The new budgetary process has widely been seen as an improvement. In this process which in the Storting runs in the autumn, the political parties start by negotiating a majority agreement on the total budgetary expenditure, and on the total amount in the various budgetary areas allocated to the standing committees. Only afterwards do the standing committees negotiate the details, but they must remain within the total budgetary allocation of their respective areas. Previously, the total budgetary framework was agreed upon only towards the end of the process, and this led to numerous unrealistic proposals for budgetary increases from the various political parties, which clearly could not be adopted within the necessary total budget allocation.

In Sweden a similar reform was instituted the previous year for similar reasons, so as to ‘make it more difficult for various unstable majorities to increase appropriations without the necessary funding’. The revised budgetary process is described as follows:

The reform means that a comprehensive and unified budget proposal is presented to the Riksdag by the Swedish Government at the beginning of the autumn when Parliament assembles and is considered for three months. The budget proposal contains a proposed expenditure ceiling for central government spending. The budget is approved in two stages. In the first stage the Riksdag approves the expenditure ceiling and spending limits for 27 expenditure areas on the basis of proposals submitted to it by the Committee on Finance. In the second stage, the Riksdag approves appropriations for various purposes within each expenditure area on the basis of proposals submitted by the various specialist committees. The sum total of appropriations in each expenditure area may not exceed the previously determined limits.

In Senegal, an increased measure of parliamentary influence over the shape of the government budget has been achieved since 1998, with the introduction of a procedure for debate on the budget’s main features prior to the presentation of a full budget to parliament. This example below is based on an innovation introduced in the French Parliament two years previously:

The budget orientation debate is held during the session preceding the one that adopts the budget. It is an opportunity for parliamentarians to influence the choices made by the Government. It takes place as follows:
  1. The Finance Committee debate. The Minister of Finance reads and submits an introductory report on budget orientation in the Finance Committee. After the debate in the Finance Committee, a deputy draws up a report for the plenary of the National Assembly.
  2. The plenary debate. The plenary considers the report and then holds a general debate on the deputies' concerns regarding the budget allocations. The deputies try to put forward their priorities, which are not necessarily the same as the Government's.

In Zimbabwe, parliament’s scrutiny process is divided into a pre-budget phase of review by committees of the spending bids of the individual ministries, and a phase after the budget is formally presented, when, in addition to further review by sectoral committees, the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee prepares a composite report on the budget’s macroeconomic framework and overall priorities. Before the reforms of 1998 which introduced this procedure, ‘Parliament dealt with the budget in an ad hoc fashion. The budget was crafted by the Executive and passed by Parliament without any involvement of civil society organisations or the public.’ The new procedure allows these to be involved in an open and transparent way:

During the pre-budget phase Portfolio Committees consider bids or sectoral priorities from ministries. The Committees consult with the public through written submissions and public hearings and then make recommendations to the ministries. In the second phase, which is the post-budget phase, the Portfolio Committees analyse the votes of the ministries they shadow. They also hold consultations with the public, line ministries and civic organizations in reviewing the proposed budget figures and programmes.

Where parliament has a more substantial role in pre-budget debate, it is possible for the distributional impact of the budget on different social groups to be discussed in a manner that can influence the shape of the budget package which is eventually presented to parliament. This has happened, for example with the gender budgeting initiatives already discussed in Chapter 4. In Uganda, it was a coalition of parliamentarians and extra-parliamentary groups around gender budgeting which helped effect a change in the law giving parliament a new role in the early stages of budget formation.

One crucial aspect of the national budget which parliaments in many developing countries have had great difficulty in exercising any influence over has been the amount and terms of repayment of loans from international bodies such as the IMF, which can shape national budgets for a generation. This important lacuna will be considered in the next chapter.

Further online reading about the budgetary process in parliament:

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (2001). Parliamentary oversight of finance and the budgetary process. The report of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association workshop, Nairobi, Kenya, 10th -14th December, 2001 <http://www.cpahq.org/uploadedFiles/Information_Services/Publications/CPA_Electronic_Publications/parliamentary%20oversight%20of%20finance%20and%20the%20budgetary%20process.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, United Nations Development Programme, World Bank Institute and United Nations Fund for Women (2004). Handbook: Parliament, the budget and gender <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/budget_en.pdf>

National Democratic Institute (2003). Legislatures and the budget process. An international survey <http://www.accessdemocracy.org/library/1651_gov_budget_093103.pdf>

Santiso, C (2005). Budget institutions and fiscal responsibility: parliaments and the political economy of the budget process in latin america. World Bank Institute <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/Budget_Institutions_and_fiscal_responsibility_FINAL.pdf>

Wehner, J (2004). Back from the sidelines? Redefining the contribution of legislatures to the budget cycle. World Bank Institute <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTPARLIAMENTARIANS/Resources/Back_from_the_Sidelines_Joachim_Wehner.pdf>

   Monitoring government expenditure

The post hoc monitoring of government expenditure is carried out in most parliaments by a Public Accounts Committee or equivalent body, typically chaired by a member from a non-governing party so as to enhance its independence. Effective monitoring encompasses issues such as the following:

  • Has public money been spent on the purposes for which it was assigned?
  • Has it been spent efficiently, and without waste?
  • Has spending been kept within the budget allocation?
  • Is there evidence of fraud or misappropriation, or other irregularities?

Some parliaments have recently shifted the focus of monitoring from a detailed tracking of expenditure flows to an analysis of outcomes and achievement of performance targets, within much broader budgetary categories. The French budgetary reform of 2001 provides an example of this shift:

This new nomenclature is at the same time aimed at giving the managers more room for manoeuvre (as they can make freer use of allocations within their programmes) and to make possible oversight of government action aimed at the objectives and results of the policies funded by the state budget. Results-based budgeting is supposed to make it possible to move from a culture based on means to one based on performance assessment.

In carrying out their financial monitoring, most parliaments are assisted by the office of an independent Auditor General, whose role is to audit all government accounts, including in many countries the accounts of public corporations and non-governmental bodies spending public money. In Malta, for example, the mandate of the Auditor General, whose appointment requires approval by at least two thirds of Members of Parliament, prescribes ‘a full annual financial and compliance audit of all Government Offices and other public entities’. In an Act of 1997 this mandate was extended to include:

independent advisory and investigative powers; examination of any matter concerning the use of public funds; performance/value for money evaluation audits of Government Offices and public entities and companies where Government is a major shareholder. These audits are conducted on NAO’s initiative, upon request by the Public Accounts Committee, or as requested by the Minister of Finance.

In the Republic of Korea, the lack of an independent organisation to assist the National Assembly in its monitoring of government accounts was rectified in 2003 by the establishment of a National Assembly Budget Office directly under the Speaker.

The National Assembly Budget Office consists of around 80 non-partisan experts where they not only analyze budget and accounts but also calculate costs arising from the formulation or amendment of bills including that of the legislative. Through NABO, the National Assembly can help keep legislative activities within a reasonable cost boundary preventing the enactment or amendment of bills that could impose an excessive burden on the national budget.

Specific systems to prevent corruption are an important element in monitoring government expenditure in many countries. The South African Public Finance Management Act of 1999, for example, holds senior officials of government departments accountable for the misuse of public money, forcing them to ‘put in place systems and controls in their departments that would prevent abuse of state money. The Act also places an obligation on all government departments to design and submit anti-corruption and fraud strategies to the Treasury within stipulated time frames.’ A number of countries also have independent Anti-Corruption Commissions with investigatory and enforcement powers, which report to parliament, reinforcing the work of the Auditor General and Public Accounts Committee.

Further online reading about scrutiny of public accounts and anti-corruption strategies:

Global Organization of Parliamentarians against Corruption (2005). Controlling corruption: a parliamentarian’s handbook <http://www.gopacnetwork.org/Docs/CCH FINAL Aug 05 ENG.pdf>

Global Organization of Parliamentarians against Corruption <http://www.gopacnetwork.org/>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2001). The role of parliaments in the fight against corruption <http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/hague01-bkgr.htm>

Pelizzo, R., Sahgal, V., Stapenhurst, R., Woodley, W. (2005). Scrutinizing public expenditures: assessing the performance of public accounts committees. World Bank <http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDS_IBank_Servlet?pcont=details&eid=000090341_20050516071440>

Promoting national integration through democratic processes

Among the most important but least noticed work of parliaments is promoting national integration through their support for democratic processes and institutions throughout a country’s territory. In a number of countries this is a specific function of an Upper House, most obviously in federal political systems. The submission from the South African Parliament describes the role of its National Council of the Provinces (NCOP) in these terms:

As the second chamber of South Africa’s national Parliament, the NCOP represents provincial (and to some extent local government) interests in the national sphere. Its role must be seen within the context of co-operative government, which means that national policy must be sensitive to local and provincial needs and concerns. It also means that municipalities and, particularly, provinces should not act alone or in isolation; they must be deeply integrated into the national political process.

The Indian Upper House or Rajya Sabha (Council of the States) is composed of representatives elected by the elected members of the Legislative Assembly of each State or Union Territory, and, like the South African NCOP, has special responsibility for coordinating national policy and legislation across the territory of the Union. A Conference of Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies at Centre and State levels is held annually to exchange ideas and practices. ‘The object of the Conference is to see that the parliamentary system of government grows on proper lines, that proper conventions and traditions are developed in that direction and that, as far as possible, uniformity is established in the practice and procedure in Parliament and State Legislatures.’

This coordinating role is not confined to the second chamber in federal systems. In France, the Senate has a similar role in relation to the other elected bodies throughout the territory:

As the representative of local interests, i.e., citizens in their communes, departments and regions, the Senate holds "Estates General of Local Elected Officials". These events bring together all locally elected officials with the President of the Senate to deal with the problems faced by the decentralized collective bodies whose interests the upper chamber represents. The last such event was devoted to intercommunal relations.

In a similar manner, the Parliament of Ukraine has established an Advisory Board on local self-government under the Chairman of the Parliament, in order to ‘strengthen local self-government, to develop a society of self-governed communities according to the European Charter of Local Self-government and to act as a mediator on legislation between parliamentary committees and local representative bodies.’ Examples of this coordinating role can be found in many parliaments.

   Conflict resolution

A distinctive aspect of parliament’s role in promoting national integration lies in the contribution it can make to conflict resolution. Parliaments constitute a key site for resolving political disagreement through the democratic means of dialogue and compromise. As such, they have a valuable role to play in helping resolve wider disagreement and conflict within society at large. Of course such conflicts may be reflected and even intensified by the party competition within parliament, especially where this takes on a strongly partisan or ‘winner-take-all’ character. Here especially there is a responsibility on parliaments to take the lead in demonstrating the possibility of treating alternative points of view with respect and engaging in serious dialogue with them.

The significant contribution of parliaments both to preventing conflict and to post-conflict resolution is recognised in the International Guidelines for Strengthening the Role of Parliaments in Crisis Prevention and Recovery (2006) jointly developed by UNDP and IPU. The Guidelines point out that the introduction of elections in post-conflict situations is too often seen as a sufficient as well as a necessary condition for peace building, while the potential long-term role for parliaments is often overlooked:

Legitimate and representative governance – that is effective, based on the rule of law and respecting peoples’ fundamental rights and freedoms – is in itself the most effective means for societies to prevent, manage and recover from conflict. Parliaments often manage conflict in the political space, thus avoiding violent conflict; however, in many democratic societies, we are generally unaware of parliaments’ contributions unless they fail. Parliamentary debate, agreements between political parties, interaction between parliament and constituents and civil society, informal exchanges among parliamentarians, and compromises on resource allocation, all contribute to keeping the peace…..Experiences from recent post-conflict situations demonstrate that assistance by external actors often underestimates the productive role that parliamentary institutions and elected representatives themselves can play.

This potential of parliaments is exemplified in a contributing paper by Mr. Cyril Ndebele, former Speaker of the Zimbabwean Parliament and a member of the IPU working group, to a UNDP/IPU conference on Strengthening Parliaments in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations in June 2005. As the paper points out, ‘Since the 2000 General Election, intense and often acrimonious relations between the two main political parties and their supporters have characterised the political landscape…..At a time of growing tension in Zimbabwean society, the role of Parliament as a national forum for inclusive national dialogue assumes ever-greater importance.’ This responsibility has been addressed, through the good offices of the UNDP, by involving all major stakeholders, including government, in a Conflict Transformation Programme. The core of the Programme has involved training key players, especially parliamentarians, in conflict transformation and mediation skills, through workshops and other capacity-building initiatives. The Programme recognises that ‘as representatives of diverse interests, MPs have a particularly important role to play in conflict mitigation in society at large. The paper describes the Programme’s rationale and impact in this way:

Parliament is being provided with negotiation, mediation and conflict handling skills needed to deal with the extreme polarization of the society, the deteriorating economy, and the crisis in agriculture, which, among other challenges, have placed the country on the edge of an outbreak of violence. As a key player, Parliament’s role as a forum for national dialogue on national governance and development issues requires that it be a model of conflict management and peace building. Raising the visibility and profile of Parliament as the representative governance institution and demonstrating that peaceful dialogue and resolution of differences can prevent conflict and violence, is critical to national conflict resolution and peace building……
An Impact Assessment Study of the Conflict Transformation Project quotes an example of one participant Member of Parliament who is using his new skills within his constituency. He commended the programme and claimed that his own non-partisan behaviour towards constituents who were not members of his own party had positively influenced the attitudes of party members. He reported a new open-mindedness and mutual respect……Other powerful testimony to the profound effect the CTP has had on individual Members relates to the more cordial and collaborative atmosphere in committees……There is substantial evidence that informal dialogues, some on critical issues such as constitutional reform and the conduct of elections, have been taking place across party lines.

The paper acknowledges that much remains to be done, and that the attitude of party leaderships in Parliament remains crucial. Yet it envisages Parliament as having a key role in helping spread training in conflict transformation skills throughout the country through the newly created parliamentary constituency offices.

Mali is another country where the Parliament has been taking a lead in conflict resolution activity within the country. Its role can best be described in the words of the submission made for the present study:

In young democracies such as Mali's, the maintenance of peace and social stability are a basic concern for the national authorities. Therefore, in addition to adopting laws and overseeing government action, the National Assembly has also assumed the role of ensuring social cohesiveness and of consolidating the national conscience.
The adverse effects of globalization, the inexorable advance of the desert and social changes have often led to existential crises between communities, fuelling inter-ethnic and community conflicts, uprisings and even civil wars. Since 1992, a great deal of importance has therefore been given to the Malian parliament's role as an intermediary.

Each time the peace has been threatened or the consensus on national unity has been jeopardized, deputies have assumed the duty to propose to act as intermediaries to solve the conflict in question. For example, in handling the third Tuareg rebellion which broke out in 1990 and 1991, the deputies of the first legislature, which sat from 1992 to 1997, designated a delegation led by the President of the National Assembly to meet all the parties involved (the rebel factions, the army and civil society) to bring about dialogue and consultation. Experience has shown that this approach was decisive for the return to peace in the northern part of Mali. The same methods have been applied with more or less success to other kinds of conflicts (such as religious, land and grazing disputes).

A different example is provided where a parliament is able to take the lead in resolving a deep-seated conflict which has broken out at the constitutional level. The submission from the Ukrainian Parliament points out the key role played by the Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) in resolving the crisis of November/December 2004 during the ‘Orange Revolution’. Before this time the Verkhovna Rada had been actively involved in discussions on constitutional reform which would redistribute power between President and Parliament to the advantage of the latter. This reflected a popular swing against the ‘super-presidential power’ and ‘heavy hand’ typical of the immediate post-Communist period. When the popular protests began about the flawed elections of late October 2004, Parliament was able to act as the catalyst in ‘directing a boisterous stream of public protest into a legitimate resolution of the social crisis’, which included the completion of the constitutional reform programme.

The events in the Parliament adequately reflected what was going on among the people. In the moment of the most deteriorated situation after the run-off elections on 21 October 2004 when the people took to the streets protesting against systematic breaches of the Constitution, current laws and one of the fundamental rights to free expression, the Verkhovna Rada adopted the famous Resolution on the political crisis in the country. The Parliament declared invalid the outcomes of the run-off elections and expressed a no-confidence vote in the Central Electoral Commission…..Finally the idea of the political reform came to the surface again when the situation seemed to be developing into a stalemate. On 8 December 2004 the Parliament approved by 402 votes (out of 450) the Law of Ukraine ‘On Amendments to the Constitution’. According to the law the parliamentary-presidential form of government will come into force on 1 January 2006. This almost unanimous decision by the people’s deputies resulted in the abatement of tension paving the way for a final resolution of the conflict.

These different examples underline the close relation between what seem at first sight like technical matters of parliamentary organisation (autonomy, legislative organisation, oversight, budgetary control) and the delivery of outcomes which are relevant to societal needs, whether in terms of legislation, budget priorities, or the capacity to intervene effectively at points of national crisis and emergency.

Further online reading about parliamentary involvement in conflict resolution:

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (2004). Role of parliament in conflict-affected countries <http://www.cpahq.org/default.aspx?id=7464>

Inter-Parliamentary Union, International IDEA (2005). Making reconciliation work: the role of parliaments <http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/reconciliation_en.pdf>

O’Brien, M (2005). Parliaments as peacebuilders: The role of parliaments in conflict-affected countries. World Bank Institute, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/PARLIAMENTS_AS_PEACEBUILDERS-FINAL.pdf>

United Nations Development Programme (2006). Initiative on strengthening the role of parliaments in crisis prevention and recovery <http://www.parlcpr.undp.org/>


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