Both the houses of Parliament now have a permanent standing committee on ethics. While their job is to oversee moral & ethical conduct of the members, these committees have fallen short of global standards both in scope & work.
Lok Sabha has a new permanent Standing Committee on Ethics which came into force on 12th August, 2015. Until now, the ethics committee in Lok Sabha has been an ad hoc one. The question that arises is, whether the standing committee on ethics is empowered enough to enforce the necessary code of conduct on the Members of Parliament? How do ethics and parliamentary standards committees in different other democracies function?
Ethics Committees in the Indian Parliament
Rajya Sabha was the first among the two Houses to form an ethics committee, with a full standing committee status, on 30th May, 1997. Lok Sabha, in contrast, formed an ad hoc ethics panel in 2000 and has been operating as one until August 2015 when it was given a permanent standing committee status.
Ethics committees function to uphold the standards of the Parliament and thus its functions are twofold:
- Formulate a Code of Conduct for members and suggest amendments to it from time to time.
- To oversee the moral and ethical conduct of the Members
- To examine the cases referred to it with reference to ethical and other misconduct of the Members
The ethics committee in the Lok Sabha has 15 members chaired by LK Advani, while the Rajya Sabha has 10 members chaired by Dr. Karan Singh.
What do Ethics Committees do?
As mentioned above, ethics committees formulate, enforce and oversee the moral and ethical conduct for members of Parliament.
While a certain form of code of conduct on speech, conduct and behaviour of members of parliament has existed in most Parliaments in the world, recent years have seen a great thrust on separation between the public and private interests of the MPs. Central to this principle is the obligation of the MPs to declare their personal financial interest to the parliament and for such information to be made public in the form of ‘Registers of members’ interests’. Some parliaments have also adopted an independent authority that maintains these registers and also conducts inquiries into the misconduct of MPs.
Even while being two Houses of the Indian Parliament, there is a significant degree of variation on the rules and procedures of the ethics committees in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. While both focus on codes of conduct for Members of Parliament, where they differ is the declaration of members’ pecuniary or financial interest.
Rajya Sabha has explicitly provided for a ‘Register of Members’ Interest’, where MPs have to declare their interest in 5 categories: remunerative directorship, remunerated activity, majority shareholding, paid consultancy and professional engagement. In addition to that, members are required to declare any financial interest on an issue that is being debated in the House or under consideration by any other standing committee and hence refrain from taking part to avoid conflict of interest.
Lok Sabha does not maintain such a registry of members interests and apart from disclosing their assets and liabilities, MPs are not obliged to declare other financial interests that might be in direct or indirect conflict with their role as public servants.
Another significant point of difference between the two Houses is that while Rajya Sabha’s Ethics Committee acts both on complaints as well as takes up issues suo motu, Lok Sabha’s committee acts only on complaints made either by any member of the public or any other member of the House.
The Rajya Sabha’s registry though is not openly available on its website and can be accessed only through an RTI application.
Ethics Committees in other Parliaments
In most mature democracies in the world, ethics committees have a much more expanded and active role, chief among them being the maintenance of MPs ‘Register of Interests’ and inquiring and acting upon complaints of their misconduct.
Investigation and adjudication into MPs conduct and irregularities usually follow two models: self-regulation and a Hybrid model.
In self-regulatory systems, with no external input, investigation and adjudication functions are usually carried out by parliamentary Committees, with the whole House needed to confirm sanctions. In hybrid systems, external bodies such as Commissioners (UK, Australia, Canada) or the Office of Congressional Ethics( USA) conduct investigations and a parliamentary committee acts as adjudicator.
The United Kingdom is perhaps one of the best examples of a good ethics and standards process. The ‘Committee on Standards’ as it is known in the UK, maintains a comprehensive register of member’s financial and material interests that might influence an MPs public function. This has 10 categories including employment, earnings, shareholdings, land and property and even family members engaged in lobbying.
It has a Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards, whose job it is to act on complaints. The Standards committee oversees the work of the commissioner and takes up issues or complaints raised by her. All current and past enquiries are openly listed on their website.
Australia and New Zealand Parliaments also provide for members registries with up to 14 categories listed under which declarations have to be made. In Australia, this extends to MPs families as well, while in New Zealand, it applies only to MPs.
In Australia, the oversight committee is the Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests, assisted by the Registrar of Members’ Interests (currently the Deputy Clerk of the House).
In Canada, apart from all of the above categories, there is a prohibition on gifts and sponsored travel, unless undertaken as part of their MP duty, in which case it has to be disclosed. All assets above $10,000 have to be disclosed as are the private interests of family members. The Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is ‘responsible for helping appointed and elected officials prevent and avoid conflicts between their public duties and private interests’
The House of Representatives in the United States also mandates its members to disclose in all of the above mentioned categories as well as embargo on gifts and sponsorships. They are required to separate official and campaign funds, extra-parliamentary income. Family members interests need to be disclosed as well. The House follows a process of self-regulation system through two offices : the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and the House Committee on Ethics.
The US Senate goes a step further and prohibits senators from participating in commercial activities as well as sitting on non-fiduciary advisory bodies. The Code is administered and enforced by the Select Committee on Ethics, which is non-partisan and has three members from each party.
The Israeli Knesset also mandates its members to declare their own as well as their family members’ interests to the Ethics committee.
How empowered are ethics committees in Indian Parliament?
Judging by global standards, Indian Parliament falls considerably short in how the ethics committees function. One of the major shortcomings of Lok Sabha is the failure to mandate and maintain MPs register of financial interest. This violates the principles of transparency and accountability, in that, there is no separation of a members’ public and private roles. In addition to this, potential conflicts of interest remain hidden from public scrutiny and often may influence legislation and policy.
While the Rajya Sabha does provide for the maintenance of members register of interest, it mandates disclosure only in five categories as opposed to global standards of at least ten. Besides, the registry is not open to public by default.
Apart from the one case in 2005, where 10 members were expelled for taking money for questions, Lok Sabha does not maintain a list of complaints or enquiries, nor does the Rajya Sabha. This either means that there is poor data management and disclosure or that no complaints have been made to the ethics committees nor have cases been taken up suo motu. This despite the fact that several clear conflicts of interests exist between members private interests and parliamentary functions as this report shows.
Until there is a register of interests maintained and cases actively monitored and taken up suo motu by the ethics committees, their credibility is questionable. In the absence of independent commissioner or any other body that looks into complaints and investigates as in other mature democracies, self-regulated ethics committees as in India do not have the potential to go too far in ensuring MPs accountability nor maintain high Parliamentary standards.