Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) has demanded a through review of rules of procedures to make it in line with the democratic traditions. The rules of procedures of Pakistani assemblies, including the Punjab Assembly, are part of Common Law originating primarily in the practice of House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Whereas UK assemblies have introduced some revolutionary changes in the working of the House and many commonwealth countries have followed it; Pakistani assemblies are still lagging behind in term of efficiency, accountability and transparency. For example, an MP can expect answer to question submitted in House of Common within 2 days; his counterpart in the Punjab Assembly has to wait for 12 months and in some case for 24 months to get answer of the submitted questions. Similar observations can be made for general discussion, working hours, number of working days, budget sessions, quorum, and attendance of the MPAs and legislation process.
The attendance of the MPAs in the assembly session has long been the classified information. With strong Right to Information legislation in the province, it has at last become possible to get such information. However, there are still some issues attached with the transparency. Whereas the average attendance of the assembly, as shown on its website, is 180, the independent sources has not confirmed it. CPDI has suggested to install biometrics system at the gates of the assembly hall to take the attendance of the MPAs.
CPDI has also proposed electing one speaker and 4 Deputy Speakers at the first sitting of the assembly after the general election. Two speakers should be from government side and the other two from opposition. The deputy speakers from opposition should be ready to take the chair if speakers and deputy speakers from government side are absent. In this way, there will be a constant pressure on the government that in case of absence, opposition will get the chance to preside the session.
Rule 24 of rules of procedure clearly says that meeting time of the assembly is 9am to 2pm but this timing is seldom observed. The average meeting time per sitting is not more than 2.5 hours. There are also serious issues of punctuality attached to our assemblies. Due to this, it very common that all agenda item on order of the day cannot be taken up. CPDI has also suggested increasing the working hours from 9am to 5pm. It will give sufficient time on the disposal of speaker to complete the agenda. At the same time, it is also suggested to increase the quorum of the house from 25% to 50% to make it truly representative.
Question hour is one of the most futile exercises of the Punjab Assembly. It is futile in the sense that a question submitted by a member can take 2 years to fetch the answer. One of the important functions of MPAs is the executive oversight; question hour is a very important tool for this oversight. CPDI has suggested that all questions submitted by MPAs should be answered at the floor of the house during the next session. This is the only way to make this exercise meaningful. The Chief Minister Question Hour could not be started in our assemblies. All modern democracies have this practice where leader of the house answer the question once in a week about his/her recent engagement. The Punjab Assembly should take lead in this very important initiative.
Legislation in our assemblies is done in a very secret manner; whereby law department drafts a bill and it is first presented in the cabinet for approval before lying at the floor of the house. It is a classified document until it is presented in the house. Even after that there is hardly any mechanism of taking feedback of the stakeholders on it. The bill should be discussed in the public domain and it should be made mandatory for standing committees to take feedback of the stakeholders. The procedure for private member bill should also be changed and private members should also be allowed to present money bill. If the government is of the opinion that bill should not be legislated, it can be defeated during voting. Maximum time limit for enacting or otherwise of a bill should also be fixed. Similarly, civil society organizations should also be allowed to table a bill in the assembly for legislation.
Approval of budget is one of the very important functions of our assemblies but it is done in post haste. For example, there are only two clear days between presenting a budget and start of general discussion in the assembly. As we know, budget exercise is done in total secrecy and members do not have any information about it before the budget speech, the two days given to members to start discussion on it are too small a period. These intervening days should be increased to seven. Similarly, the discussion on budget, cut motions and supplementary budget demands more time and focus. For this, CPDI has proposed to change the budget calendar and present the budget during the last week of April instead of June as is customary in Pakistan.
There are in total more than 60 rules that need to be amended. These proposed amendments after taking the feedback from stakeholders would be presented to Punjab Assembly this month.