Budget: is parliament relevant?

Published June 16, 2022
The writer is the president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
The writer is the president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

BOTH Houses of our national parliament, and the four provincial assemblies, have been holding their budget sessions. This yearly ritual reserved for the month of June will be over in the next one to two weeks. Formally, the national and provincial assemblies will be credited (or blamed) for passing the budget, but do the elected Houses have anything to do with the formulation, scrutiny or review — the essential steps prior to approval — of the budget?

Primarily, authorising the estimates of revenue and expenditure for the next year and receiving a report on the actual receipts and spending for the closing year are two of the most important responsibilities of parliament. Since the budget reflects the policies and priorities of a government and dictates policy actions for the year, it is extremely important for legislatures to have an effective role in shaping and finalising the document.

Read more: NA begins ‘lacklustre’ debate on federal budget

Despite two rather recent improvements in the parliamentary budget process at the national level and two at the level of some of the provincial assemblies, the role of legislatures in the budget process is rather limited and ineffective in Pakistan.

The first development at the national level, which improved the parliamentary budget process, was in the form of two amendments in the National Assembly Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business. Sub-rules 6 and 7 were added to Rule 201 in 2013 and 2016 respectively. The ministries-related standing committees were empowered through sub-rule 201(6) to be briefed by the ministries or divisions concerned on the proposals for the Public Sector Development Programme for the next budget year, with the committees sending their recommendations for inclusion in the PSDP.

Unfortunately, a budget passed by parliament can be altered without the latter being informed.

Through sub-rule 201(7), each ministry and division was required to submit a report to their respective standing committee about the status of inclusion or otherwise of their recommendations in the federal budget, and the reasons if the recommendations were not included. These two powerful amendments allow the parliamentarians to influence the development programme, provided the ministries concerned brief the committees in a timely fashion and members of the committees do their homework, send their recommendations in time and then follow up for the inclusion of these recommendations in the coming budget. Sadly, there is not much information in the public domain on the subject for a common citizen to ascertain the level of implementation of these two important amendments.

The second improvement in the budget process was introduced through the Public Finance Management Act, 2019, which, for the first time in the country’s history, formally defined the budget-making process. According to the Act, the finance minister has to brief the standing committees on finance in the Senate and National Assembly about the budget strategy paper which serves as the basis of the subsequent budget-making. Again, it is not public whether any ideas flow from the committee to the ministry for improving the budget.

At the provincial level, the provincial assemblies, in general, have amended their rules of procedure to provide for a pre-budget discussion to facilitate MPAs to present their proposals regarding the next budget. The assembly secretariats compile the recommendations and forward them to the finance departments, although the department officials are generally present to take notes of the speeches. Finance departments are required to report back to the assemblies about the incorporation or otherwise of the recommendations into the budget.

In addition, the Sindh Assembly had introduced a system requiring the provincial finance department to submit quarterly budget execution reports to the assembly. Time is also allocated for discussing the report in the assembly. This is a very useful provision which not only needs to be regularly followed in the Sindh Assembly, but also in the other provincial legislatures.

There are three major weaknesses in the parliamentary budget process at both the federal and provincial levels, and urgent attention needs to be paid to rectify them. The time to debate the budget in the legislatures is rather short. The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency has been monitoring the parliamentary budget process for the last 21 years and its report on the federal process indicates that an average of 47 working hours spread over 14 days were allocated from budget presentation to its passage. Realising that the budget is contained in very comprehensive and voluminous documents spread over thousands of pages, and that it takes considerable time to make sense of all these documents, and also keeping in mind that the National Assembly comprises 342 members, many of whom may want to make their contributions through speeches, the allocated time is not sufficient. Even if only 50 per cent of the members speak on the budget, all that each may expect to get is four minutes of talk time. The time allocated for budget debate in the provincial assemblies is even less.

Read more: Lawmakers address ‘empty seats’ on 2nd day of budget debate

The second major weakness is that the budget of the respective ministries is not referred to the standing committees concerned for proper scrutiny, and all the deliberations are confined to large preliminaries. In contrast, the Indian parliament allocates about 75 days for the Union budget, and budgets are referred to committees for detailed reports.

The third, and probably the greatest, weakness in the parliamentary budget process is that the budget passed by the National Assembly can be altered at any time in any way the executive likes, without even informing parliament. Many people may find this piece of information shocking and hard to believe but our executive has been using the powers granted to it through Article 84 of the Constitution to alter passed budgets for the last 49 years. There can’t be a greater affront to a sovereign parliament than undoing its passed budget by the executive. Pakistan is one of the, perhaps, three countries in the world where such a provision exists. It is about time that this unfair provision was rationalised and other weaknesses addressed.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
president@pildat.org
Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2022

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