Last week, the Departmentally Related Standing Committees were reconstituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha. In this context, we discuss the functioning and role of Standing Committees.
The visible part of Parliament’s work takes place on the floor of the House. Parliament meets for three sessions a year i.e., the Budget, Monsoon, and Winter Sessions. This part of Parliament’s work is televised and closely watched. However, Parliament has another forum through which a considerable amount of its work gets done. These are known as Parliamentary Committees. These Committees are smaller units of MPs from both Houses, across political parties and they function throughout the year. These smaller groups of MPs study and deliberate on a range of subject matters, Bills, and budgets of all the ministries.
During the recently concluded first Session of the 17th Lok Sabha, Parliament sat for 37 days. In the last 10 years, Parliament met for 67 days per year, on average. This is a short of amount of time for MPs to be able to get into the depth of matters being discussed in the House. Since Committees meet throughout the year, they help make up for this lack of time available on the floor of the House.
Parliament deliberates on matters that are complex, and therefore needs technical expertise to understand such matters better. Committees help with this by providing a forum where Members can engage with domain experts and government officials during the course of their study. For example, the Committee on Health and Family Welfare studied the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 which prohibits commercial surrogacy, but allows altruistic surrogacy. As MPs come from varying backgrounds, they may not have had the expertise to understand the details around surrogacy such as fertility issues, abortion, and regulation of surrogacy clinics, among others. The Committee called upon a range of stakeholders including the National Commission for Women, doctors, and government officials to better their understanding of the issues, before finalising their report.
Committees also provide a forum for building consensus across political parties. The proceedings of the House during sessions are televised, and MPs are likely to stick to their party positions on most matters. Committees have closed door meetings, which allows them to freely question and discuss issues and arrive at a consensus.
After a Committee completes its study, it publishes its report which is laid in Parliament. These recommendations are not binding, however, they hold a lot of weight. For example, the Standing Committee on Health made several recommendations to the National Medical Commission Bill in 2017. Many of these were incorporated in the recently passed 2019 Bill, including removing the provision for allowing a bridge course for AYUSH practitioners.
There are 24 such Departmentally Related Standing Committees (DRSCs), each of which oversees a set of Ministries. DRSCs were set up first in 1993, to ensure Parliament could keep with the growing complexity of governance. These are permanent Committees that are reconstituted every year. They consist of 21 Members from Lok Sabha, and 10 Members from Rajya Sabha, and are headed by a Chairperson. The DRSCs primarily look at three things: (i) Bills, (ii) budgets, and (iii) subject specific issues for examination. Other types of Standing Committees include Financial Committees which facilitate Parliament’s scrutiny over government expenditure. Besides these, Parliament can also form ad hoc Committees for a specific purpose such as addressing administrative issues, examining a Bill, or examining an issue.
To ensure that a Bill is scrutinised properly before it is passed, our law making procedure has a provision for Bills to be referred to a DRSC for detailed examination. Any Bill introduced in Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha can be referred to a DRSC by either the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Over the years, the Committees have immensely contributed to strengthen the laws passed by Parliament. For example, the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, overhauling the 1986 law, was recently passed during the Budget Session. An earlier version of the Bill had been examined by the Committee on Food and Consumer Affairs, which suggested several amendments such as increasing penalties for misleading advertisements, making certain definitions clearer. The government accepted most of these recommendations and incorporated them in the 2019 Act.
Besides Bills, the DRSCs also examine the budget. The detailed estimates of expenditure of all ministries, called Demand for Grants are sent for examination to the DRCSs. They study the demands to examine the trends in allocations, spending by the ministries, utilisation levels, and the policy priorities of each ministry. However, only a limited proportion of the budget is usually discussed on the floor of the House. In the recently dissolved16th Lok Sabha, 17% of the budget was discussed in the House.
Committees also examine policy issues in their respective Ministries, and make suggestions to the government. The government has to report back on whether these recommendations have been accepted or not. Based on this, the Committees then table an Action Taken Report, which shows status of the government’s action on each recommendation.
While Committees have substantially impacted Parliament’s efficacy in discharging its roles, there is still scope for strengthening the Committee system. In the 16th Lok Sabha, DRSCs examined 41 Bills, 331 Demands for Grants, 197 issues, and published 503 Action Taken Reports.
However, the rules do not require that all Bills be examined by a Committee. This leads to some Bills being passed without the advantage of a Committee scrutinising its technical details. Recently, there has been a declining trend in the percentage of Bills being referred to a Committee. In the 15th LS, 71% of the Bills introduced were referred to Committees for examination, as compared to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
With the DRSCs now constituted for the first year of the 17th Lok Sabha, they will soon begin their meetings to select the subjects they are going to examine. Some Committees already have Bills to examine that were referred to them during the 16th Lok Sabha. Some of these Bills are: (i) the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2019, (ii) the Allied and Healthcare Professions Bill, 2018, and (iii) the Registration of Marriage of Non- Resident Indian Bill, 2019. So far in the 17th Lok Sabha no Bill has been referred to a Committee yet.
On October 18, it was reported in the news that the central government has been given more time for framing rules under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The President had given assent to this Act in December 2019 and the Act came into force in January 2020. Similarly, about two years have passed since the new labour codes were passed by Parliament, and the final Rules are yet to be published. This raises the question how long the government can take to frame Rules and what is the procedure guiding this. In this blog, we discuss the same.
Under the Constitution, the Legislature has the power to make laws and the Executive is responsible for implementing them. Often, the Legislature enacts a law covering the general principles and policies, and delegates the power to the Executive for specifying certain details for the implementation of a law. For example, the Citizenship Amendment Act provides who will be eligible for citizenship. The certificate of registration or naturalization to a person will be issued, subject to conditions, restrictions, and manner as may be prescribed by the central government through Rules. Delay in framing Rules results in delay in implementing the law, since the necessary details are not available. For example, new labour codes provide a social security scheme for gig economy workers such as Swiggy and Zomato delivery persons and Uber and Ola drivers. These benefits as per these Codes are yet to be rolled out as the Rules are yet to be notified.
Timelines and checks and balances for adherence
Each House of Parliament has a Committee of Members to examine Rules, Regulations, and government orders in detail called the Committee on Subordinate Legislation. Over the years, the recommendations of these Committees have shaped the evolution of the procedure and timelines for framing subordinate legislation. These are reflected in the Manual of Parliamentary Procedures issued by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, which provides detailed guidelines.
Ordinarily, Rules, Regulations, and bye-laws are to be framed within six months from the date on which the concerned Act came into force. Post that, the concerned Ministry is required to seek an extension from the Parliamentary Committees on Subordinate Legislation. The reason for the extension needs to be stated. Such extensions may be granted for a maximum period of three months at a time. For example, in case of Rules under the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, at an earlier instance, an extension was granted on account of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To ensure monitoring, every Ministry is required to prepare a quarterly report on the status of subordinate legislation not framed and share it with the Ministry of Law and Justice. These reports are not available in the public domain.
Recommendations to address delays
Over the years, the Subordinate Legislation Committees in both Houses have observed multiple instances of non-adherence to the above timelines by various Ministries. To address this, they have made the following key recommendations:
Are all Rules under an Act required to be framed?
Usually, the expressions used in an Act are “The Central Government may, by notification, make rules for carrying out the provisions of this Act.”, or “as may be prescribed”. Hence, it may appear that the laws aim to enable rule-making instead of mandate rule-making. However, certain provisions of an Act cannot be brought into force if the required details have not been prescribed under the Rules. This makes the implementation of the Act consequent to the publication of respective Rules. For example, the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Act, 2022 enables the police and certain other persons to collect identity-related information about certain persons. It provides that the manner of collection of such information may be specified by the central government. Unless the manner is prescribed, such collection cannot take place.
That said, some other rule-making powers may be enabling in nature and subject to discretion by the concerned Ministry. In 2016, Rajya Sabha Committee on Subordinate Legislation examined the status of Rules and Regulations to be framed under the Energy Conservation Act, 2001. It observed that the Ministry of Power had held that two Rules and three Regulations under this Act were not necessary. The Ministry of Law and Justice had opined that those deemed not necessary were enabling provisions meant for unforeseen circumstances. The Rajya Sabha Committee (2016) had recommended that where the Ministry does not feel the need for framing subordinate legislation, the Minister should table a statement in Parliament, stating reasons for such a conclusion.
Some key issues related to subordinate legislation
The Legislature delegates the power to specify details for the implementation of a law to the Executive through powers for framing subordinate legislation. Hence, it is important to ensure these are well-scrutinised so that they are within the limits envisaged in the law.
See here for our recently published analysis of the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Rules, 2022, notified in September 2022. Also, check out PRS analysis of: