Friday, December 9, 2022

Protect the House

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The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and Speaker of the Lok Sabha have stressed the need for confidentiality over committee proceedings as these are privileged and should not be revealed to the media.

By Vivek K Agnihotri

M Venkaiah Naidu, vice-president and chairman of the Rajya Sabha, has asked chairpersons and members of parliamentary standing committees to refrain from providing to the media confidential information related to their panel meetings. He reminded them that these proceedings are confidential and it was not permissible for a member of the committee or anyone who has access to its proceedings to communicate, directly or indirectly, to the media any information regarding its proceedings. These include any part of the report or any conclusions arrived at by the committee, finally or tentatively, before the report has been presented to the House. Such action is tantamount to breach of privilege of the House.

Naidu expressed deep concern about the media quoting the proceedings of the committees related to legislative bills under the consideration and examination of the committees. He urged the members to strictly adhere to the existing provisions/directions relating to confidentiality and refrain from premature divulgence of any information to the media.

This communication came a day after the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Om Birla, in another context, had inter alia drawn the attention of the members of that House to the fact that the proceedings of the committees are treated as confidential.

As far as the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the two Houses are concerned, Lok Sabha Rule 266 provides that “the sittings of a Committee shall be held in private”. And since “confidentiality” is a two-edged sword, a second proviso to Rule 270 states that the “government may decline to produce a document on the ground that its disclosure would be prejudicial to the safety or interest of the state”.

Direction 55 of the Directions by the Speaker, Lok Sabha, more specifically enjoins that the proceedings of a committee shall be treated as confidential and it shall not be permissible for a member of the committee or anyone who has access to its proceedings to communicate to the press any information regarding its proceedings, including its report or any conclusions arrived at before the report has been presented to the House.

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Direction 65 further provides that verbatim proceedings of the committees shall be treated as confidential and shall not be made available to anyone without the orders of the Speaker.

As far as the Rajya Sabha is concerned, sub-rule (3) of Rule 86 states that the evidence given before a select committee shall not be published by any member of the select committee or by any other person until it has been laid on the Table. According to Rule 275, the rules relating to select committees on bills are applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the department-related standing committees, whose chairpersons were cautioned by the Chairman, Rajya Sabha.

Further, Direction 40 under the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha states that the chairman of a committee shall read out, for the benefit of the members present, the following before the start of every committee meeting, particularly when evidence of a witness is to be taken: “The Proceedings of a Committee shall be treated as confidential and it shall not be permissible for a Member of the Committee or anyone who has access to its proceedings to communicate, directly or indirectly, to the media any information regarding its proceedings including its report or any conclusions arrived at, finally or tentatively, before the report has been presented to the House.”

Moreover, Chapter XXV (Rules 248-252) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha lays down the procedure for “Secret sitting of the House”. On a request made by the Leader of the House (read Prime Minister, usually), the Speaker shall fix a day for the sitting of the House in secret. Disclosure of the proceedings or the decisions of a secret sitting by any person in any manner shall be treated as a gross breach of privilege of the House. However, holding in-camera meetings of the parliamentary committees, or the parliament per se, is not a singularity.

In the United Kingdom, the first meeting of a committee takes place in private, which means only committee members and House staff can attend. At that meeting, almost without exception, a committee will agree to admit the public to its future oral evidence sessions. Committees have no power to admit the public to their private meetings and this exclusion extends to MPs’ staff.

Committees use private meetings to choose and plan inquiries and consider reports and other matters. Public sessions must be used only for questioning witnesses. Committee members must not debate matters between themselves or deliberate in public. Public sessions are all webcast and sometimes broadcast. It is important to be aware when a private session ends and a public session begins because of the risk of private discussions inadvertently being broadcast.

The proceedings of a commitee are privileged, which means that words spoken in a public or private formal meeting are subject to the same level of protection from legal action or criminal investigation as words spoken in the Chamber. The same protection (for slightly different reasons) applies to anything formally published by a committee under an order of the House.

In the US, “secret” or “closed door” sessions of the House of Representatives and the Senate are held periodically to discuss business, including impeachment deliberations, deemed to require confidentiality and secrecy. The authority for the two chambers to hold these sessions appears in Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution.

Both the House and the Senate have supplemented this clause through rules and precedents. Members and staff who attend these meetings are prohibited from divulging information. Violations are punishable pursuant to each chamber’s disciplinary rules. Members may be expelled and staff dismissed for violations of the rules of secrecy. Transcripts from secret sessions are not published unless the relevant chamber votes to release them during the session or at a later time. The portions released then may be printed in the Congressional Record.

It cannot be gainsaid that the committee system is the backbone of parliamentary democracy. The main functions of a democratically elected Parliament avowedly are legislation, oversight of the Executive, discussion, debate and representation. In a country of continental proportions like India, given the time constraint, it is nearly impossible to do complete justice to all these functions in the full/open Houses of the Parliament. This has led to the conceptualisation of an elaborate committee system over the years to assist the main body of the Parliament.

The Indian Parliament and its two Houses thus have a large variety of committees. There are Standing Committees, some of which are joint committees of the two Houses. Among these joint committees, the Department Related Standing Committees are uniquely equipped to perform almost all the functions of both Houses of Parliament, particularly when they examine bills referred to them for examination and report. There are certain standalone standing committees of the two Houses, which are identical in nature, but function independently and comprise their respective members. In addition, there are ad hoc committees, House-specific as well as joint, established from time to time to look into specific issues of current importance.

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In modern democracies, it is considered vital that citizens are able to access full records of what is said and done in their parliaments. From this premise, it follows that both Houses of Parliament and their respective committees should be open to the public. Especially when it is claimed that the real work of the Indian parliament gets done in its committees as parliamentary proceedings are often disrupted. Moreover, given the limited time available during the scheduled sittings of the Parliament, which number approximately 60 to 70 in a year, not much official business can be transacted in the full Houses.

The arguments advanced for not allowing access to the public in the committee meetings, though, are quite logical in the Indian context. The anti-defection law does not apply to such meetings because no whip is issued or is enforceable. Unfettered by party ideology or political alliances, the members speak freely and vote at their discretion. Government witnesses too are encouraged to offer their free and frank personal views instead of simply toeing the government line.

The paradox of the Indian Parliament is that what people get to see, does not always work and what “works”, they are not allowed to watch. One way out is to take a reverse cue from the British system. Thus, the first meeting of each committee at the start of each session may be open to the public and the media (for some time) so that they get to see, at least briefly, even if virtually, the august and iconic institution of committees at work.

—The writer was Secretary, Parliamentary Affairs from 2003-2005 and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha from 2007-2012

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