THE National Assembly of Pakistan is about to go through its annual ritual of receiving and passing the federal budget — without, in all probability, any meaningful scrutiny, or budget-focused debate. Every year in June when the finance minster is about to present the budget to the Assembly, some 2,000 pages of budget documents land at the desks of 342 honourable members of parliament and two days are allowed to study and comprehend these voluminous documents before engaging in a debate.
Even a cursory look of past budget debates indicates that an overwhelming part of the budget speeches is irrelevant to the budget proposals. This is not because the members are not interested in engaging in serious and focused debate on budget proposals. It is mainly because sufficient time is not allowed to the members to study the budget documents before they engage in an informed debate.
Members also lack the assistance of experts who may brief them on the technical aspects of the budget. Many parliaments around the globe have established dedicated budget offices within parliament to assist members and committees analyse the budget and prepare them for a meaningful debate.
MNAs lack the help of experts who can brief them on technical aspects of the budget.
Canada has a very effective independent Parliamentary Budget Officer which works as a part of the parliamentary research service. Even neighbouring Afghanistan maintains a parliamentary budget office to assist parliament in understanding and scrutinising the budget. Pakistan lacks such a dedicated facility.
Research on the past 14 budget sessions of the National Assembly shows that the assemblies discussed the budget for an average of 34 hours (maximum 55 and minimum 9.5 hours) spanning over an average 12 days (maximum 19 and minimum five days) each year. Both the duration and the time spent on budget debate are one of the lowest in the world.
The National Assembly is one of the few parliaments in the world where the budget is not referred to standing committees for detailed examination. The nature of the budget documents and the extensive facts and figures contained in them makes it impossible to examine the proposals in a plenary session attended by 100 to 200 members. Parliamentary committees are the only appropriate fora for serious scrutiny, analysis and discussion on such a serious subject.
It almost seems that the budget process in Pakistan has been designed to deliberately exclude any serious review of the budget by the elected representatives. In stark contrast to the Pakistani parliamentary budget cycle, other countries have budget sessions extending from 45 to 90 days. The Indian Lok Sabha budget session lasts for about 75 days during which each ministry’s budget is referred to the relevant parliamentary committee for in-depth scrutiny and preparation of a report including recommendations on the respective ministry budgets.
Pakistan is one of the three countries (other two being Bangladesh and Denmark) in the world where the government can change the budget in almost any manner it likes after it is passed by the parliament. This ‘privilege’ is somewhat curtailed in the case of Denmark because the prior approval of the parliamentary committee on finance is required to amend the budget. Pakistan is free from any such ‘limitation’. All the government has to do is to present a supplementary budget after incurring the extra expenses during the year at the time of presenting the next year’s budget. It is a mockery of parliamentary supremacy and runs counter to the spirit of democracy that excess spending and other changes in the approved budget are made without the prior approval of the Assembly.
This lack of effective role in shaping, scrutinising and influencing the budget in any meaningful way by the elected legislatures is not restricted to the national parliament only. Provincial assemblies in general and in respect of the budget process in particular are even more powerless. Parliamentary committees in the provincial assemblies, like the National Assembly, do not have any role in scrutinising and passing provincial budgets. Although the provinces are handling relatively large social-sector budgets for education, health etc., the provincial budget does not receive any input from the relevant standing committees. With the exception of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, the rules of all other provincial assemblies do not even allow their committees to meet on their own initiative; they meet only when asked to do so by the speaker.
The previous National Assembly had taken a very small but significant step towards greater and more effective participation of the members in general and parliamentary committees in particular in the budget process. Both the ruling PPP and the opposition PML-N had joined hands to amend the Assembly rules of procedure in January 2013, just 45 days before the Assembly was dissolved for fresh elections.
The amended rule for the first time provided a role to the parliamentary committees in the budget process and asked each federal ministry to submit its Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) to the relevant committee no later than Jan 31 of the preceding financial year and each parliamentary committee was required to formulate and send its recommendations on the the PSDP proposals by March 1.
There had been hardly any implementation of the amended rule during the first parliamentary year of the current Assembly as it had come into being barely a few days before the presentation of the budget. However, it is learnt that at least some committees took up the review of PSDP for the years 2014-15 and 2015-16 and sent their recommendations to the concerned ministries. It is not clear how many of the total 30 committees undertook the scrutiny of the PSDP and what was the ultimate fate of the recommendations.
It is important that this small gain of parliamentary role in the budget process be built on and the duration of the budget session be increased with further enhancement of the parliamentary committees’ role both at the federal and provincial level. No change in the approved budget should be acceptable without prior parliamentary approval.
The writer is the president of Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2015