Parliament and its many panels

The Indian Express, December 29, 2015

Pradeep Kaushal

What is a standing committee? How is it different from a select committee?
And why do Bills get sent to them?

On December 22, while moving the ?Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2015 Bill? in the Lok Sabha, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said it was an important piece of legislation and it should not ?go from committee to committee? as the ?country cannot wait? for reforms. While parties such as the BJD and Trinamool Congresswanted the Bill to be sent to a parliamentary standing committee, Jaitley said he was willing to refer it to a joint committee of Parliament. The same day, in the Rajya Sabha, as members discussed the Juvenile Justice Bill, the Left parties, DMK and NCP wanted the Bill to be referred to a select committee.

What are parliamentary committees and what do they do?

A lot of parliamentary business gets done in these committees, away from both Houses. The popular perception, that MPs work only when Parliament is in session (three sessions in a year), is a bit uncharitable. Every member of the House is a member of one of the parliamentary committees. The members of these committees discuss every Bill that is referred to them threadbare.

What are different parliamentary committees?

Broadly, they are of two kinds: ad hoc committees and the permanent committees. Ad hoc committees are appointed for a specific purpose and cease to exist when they finish the task assigned to them and submit a report. The principal ad hoc committees are the select and joint committees. There are some other ad hoc committees too, but they handle different issues such as privileges, ethics, security, government assurances and food management.

Besides, Parliament has permanent committees called the standing committees. Most Bills, after their introduction, get referred to department-related standing committees, which are permanent and regular bodies. There are 24 standing committees, each dealing with specific subjects such as commerce, home affairs, HRD, defence, health etc. Each standing committee has 31 members ? 21 from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha ? nominated by the Speaker and the Chairman. Their term lasts a year. The idea behind these committees, first set up in 1993, is that with Parliament working for a limited days in a year, Bills, which deal with technical and policy matters, need to be discussed in detail, after taking the view of diverse stakeholders and experts. While referring a Bill to a standing committee, the Chairman or the Speaker may specify the time within which it has to submit its report. The joint committees and standing committees become defunct after the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

A Bill, which has already been referred to a standing committee and passed by one House may be referred to a select committee by another House. That?s what happened in the case of the GST Bill. After it was cleared by the empowered committee of state finance ministers, it went to the Lok Sabha, where it was passed, and then, to the Rajya Sabha. The Upper House referred the Bill to a select committee. The report of the select committee is out but the Congress has come up with three objections. That?s where it stands.

Who sets up these committees?

They are appointed or elected by either or both the Houses or nominated by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha or both. The committees present their reports to the Houses or their presiding officers or their secretariats.
When is a Bill referred to a select committee?

Under Rule 125 of the Rajya Sabha Rules and Procedures, any member may move, as an amendment, that a Bill be referred to a select committee and, if the motion is carried, the Bill is referred to such a committee.

What happens after a Bill is referred to a committee?

The committee may invite written representations from the public, interested groups and organisations. It may ask government officials for details of policy considerations behind each clause of the Bill or any other information. After hearing and examining the evidence, the chairman puts the Bill before the members and invites their suggestions and amendments on every clause. The committee then formulates its conclusions and if needed, amends it. The minister and government officials concerned attend the meetings of the committee. The committee cannot alter the scope of the Bill or change it to the extent of rendering it contrary to the principle of the Bill referred to it. However, these committees do have very wide-ranging powers and there are instances of committees redrafting a Bill or even changing its title.

Can a Bill go back to a committee?

The House concerned or both Houses will consider the report of the select committee or the joint committee. They can re-commit the Bill to the same committee or to a new committee with the concurrence of the other House.

What happens after the report of a select or a joint committee is submitted to the House?
After the report is submitted in the House, the member in-charge may make a motion that the Bill, as reported by the committee, be taken up for clause-by-clause consideration. In the case of a report of a standing committee, there is no such motion. The reason is that the report of the standing committee ?is based on a broad consensus and has persuasive value to be treated as considered advice?. It is for the minister in-charge of the Bill or any member to move necessary amendments in the House in the light of the recommendations or suggestions made by the committee.

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