ISLAMABAD: Almost one month after his decision to cancel all meetings of the National Assembly committees amid criticism from opposition parties and other sections of society for making parliament redundant during the coronavirus crisis, Speaker Asad Qaiser has allowed holding of meetings of the committees through video link.
According to a spokesman for the National Assembly Secretariat here on Saturday, the speaker had directed the secretariat staff to make special arrangements for holding of meetings of committees through video conferencing.
The decision by the speaker, he said, had come in order to revive the non-legislative business of the National Assembly. This decision would facilitate standing committees, Public Accounts Committee and special committees to hold meetings through video conferencing.
The Information Technology Wing of the National Assembly Secretariat has been mandated to provide video conferencing facilities in the committee rooms of the Parliament House, he said, adding that the decision of holding meetings through the video conferencing had been taken in view of the threat of spread of Covid-19 disease.
Secretariat staff told to make special arrangements for the purpose
Mr Qaiser cancelled all meetings of the house committees till further order on March 14 as part of measures taken by the government to fight the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.
The directives to cancel the meetings had been issued a day after the first meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC), headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, which had taken a number of decisions, including closure of educational institutions and a ban on all kinds of public gatherings.
Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani had cancelled meetings of all standing and functional committees even before the NSC meeting.
The speaker’s decision affected meetings of 25 committees that were scheduled to be held from March 16 to March 31. Similarly, the Senate chairman cancelled meetings of 18 various committees which were scheduled to be held between March 16 and 26.
At present, more than 150 government and private members’ bills are pending before various NA committees which had been constituted very late by the speaker due to a row between the government and the opposition over the nomination of the Opposition Leader and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif as chairman of the all-powerful Public Accounts Committee.
Last week, parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the Senate Sherry Rehman had called for convening the parliament in extraordinary times like the current coronavirus emergency, stating that “the parliament’s urgent role of scrutinising the government, authorising spending, making laws and providing leadership during these testing times cannot be pushed aside”.
“The need of the hour is that the parliament should adapt itself to extraordinary circumstances and ramp up e-tech capacity to temporarily shift towards a virtual parliament. These are very trying times for the whole country, and the parliament is the best platform to shape unified response that address urgent needs of our people, while coordinating an evolving situation across Pakistan,” she said.
Ms Rehman was of the view that essential committee meetings such as health, finance, planning, IT, interior, law and others must be convened online to make future strategies. The committee on health, she said, must start figuring out “how we will provide for upcoming emergencies, protect our health professionals on the frontline, and get on with pooling our resources to fight this pandemic”.
Ms Rehman said that many countries in the world were innovating fast to meet the needs of their peoples while keeping them safe and were creating online parliamentary spaces that could mobilise democratic tools to re-order many priorities.
Stressing the importance of creating fresh protocols for parliament staff, the PPP senator suggested that telework facilities could be organised for the parliament staff as Senate staff comprised 1,115 people while NA had 2,200 staff, including the Capital Development Authority officials posted there during sessions.
She had appealed to the Senate chairman and the NA speaker to take these tasks into their hands as parliaments all over the world could not be exempt from exploring urgent innovations to conduct crucial business.
Similarly, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) a network of local civil society organisation working to strengthen electoral, legislative and local governance, had also urged the federal and provincial governments to immediately convene sessions of the National Assembly and Senate as well as provincial assemblies, through teleworking or other means to avoid physical congregation, for deliberating and finalising proposals and plans to tackle the looming health, economic and administrative challenges.
Fafen had also observed that Pakistani legislatures’ engagement in shaping the governmental response to the Covid-19 pandemic had been lacklustre so far, especially if compared with legislatures of other countries facing the same problem.
Quoting examples, it had stated that seven of the worst-hit democratic countries had their parliaments in session, which were debating and voting special measures to handle the emergency.
Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2020