• 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.
Functions of ethics committees
• 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?
• The ethics committees formulate, enforce and oversee the moral and ethical conduct for members of Parliament.
• The 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.
What are the differences between the two Houses?
• 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 ‘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.
How empowered are ethics committees in Indian Parliament?
• 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.
• 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,
• In 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.
Mains Paper 2: Indian Polity | Historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.
Prelims level: Ethics Committee
Mains level: Role of Ethics Committee