LAHORE  -   Punjab Assembly’s role as the official watchdog on government departments is the subject of discussion yet again after the issue was buried in the official files some three years back.

But it is encouraging to see that the new Punjab government has shown its determination to empower the provincial legislature by enhancing the powers of its standing committees. 

Currently, the provincial house is performing the role of political oversight through Assembly Question-Hour, adjournment motions and calling attention notices. But these tools of parliamentary control have proved ineffective over the years. It is easy for the provincial departments to hoodwink the House members by submitting wrong answers to their questions they ask about their performance. Also, the assurances given by the government to set the things right would hardly materialize.

Azma Zahid Bokhari of the PML-N raised this issue on the assembly floor the other day. Speaker Ch Parvez Elahi asked the law minister to initiate the process to strengthen the standing committees. He believed that House committees should act as a real watchdog on the working of provincial departments. The speaker also asked the minister to form a committee comprising the opposition and treasury members to make recommendations in this regard.

In the present arrangement, however, the standing committees can make recommendations but they have no real teeth to assert themselves. 

It has been learnt that the proposed committee will pick up the threads left by the previous assembly to make recommendations on the subject.

According to a draft proposal prepared during the tenure of last assembly, a standing committee may examine the expenditures, administration, public petitions and policies of the department concerned and its associated public bodies. The draft also empowers a committee to forward reports of its findings and recommendations to the department and the latter will be bound to submit its reply to the committee.

It has also been recommended that a standing committee will have the power to accept a public petition by any person on an introduced bill or for any matter connected with the business pending in the House. Such petition may also be related to any matter of general public interest which is primarily the concern of the government provided that it is not a matter pending before any court or any other authority performing judicial or quasi-judicial functions.

The proposed new powers also authorize the standing committees to suggest legislation or make recommendations to the assembly on any subject referred to them by the assembly or the speaker.

An assembly committee formed during the last tenure had also recommended suo moto powers for the standing committees with the authority to take up any issue regarding their concerned departments. Currently, these committees can make recommendations only on the subjects referred to them by the speaker.

It is relevant to mention here that standing committees of the National Assembly, the Senate and the KP Assembly have the suo moto powers to take up any issue concerning their departments.

The proposed draft to enhance powers of the standing committees was sent to the then Punjab chief minister Mian Shehbaz Sharif for approval some three years ago. Following strong reaction from the provincial bureaucracy, the draft proposal never returned to the assembly. The then law minister Rana Sanaullah had then told the assembly members that the chief minister had rejected the draft on the plea that Punjab legislators lacked the capacity to exercise the proposed new powers. 

The current move would surely face strong opposition from the bureaucracy this time also. It would be interesting to watch how the PTI government handles this sensitive issue in the days to come.