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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Ethics Committees of our Parliament: Mallya and Rahul

I am sure many of you may be smiling on seeing Ethics and our Parliament in the same sentence. But believe me, both houses of Parliament have ethics committees and the Rajya Sabha one is oldest. It 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 adhoc ethics panel in 2000 and has been operating as one until August 2015 when it was given a permanent standing committee status.

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. Basically the ethics committee formulates code of conduct for its members and monitors the same and also consider the cases referred to it.

Interestingly, Rajya Sabha’s Ethics Committee acts both on complaints as well as takes up issues suo moto; Lok Sabha’s committee acts only on complaints made either by any member of the public or any other member of the House. Rajya Sabha has explicitly provided for a ‘Register of Members’ Interest’, where MPs have to declare their interest in five 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.

We need to know if Mallya has provided all this information to the Ethics committee. This is all the more important since he seems to have left Bharat with seven pieces of luggage in Jet Airways first class on a diplomatic passport provided by Rajya Sabha as a law maker. It is possible that his luggage may not be checked due to Diplomatic passport. Incidentally, the Rajya Sabha registry of members’ interest is not open to public nor kept on its web page. It can be accessed perhaps by RTI.

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. In other words, Lok Sabha is not concerned about its member’s pecuniary benefits from shareholding etc.

How do other countries ensure ethical behaviour by elected representatives?

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/him. All current and past enquiries are openly listed on their website.

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 member’s interests need to be disclosed as well. The House follows a process of self-regulation 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.

Framework of Code of Conduct for Members of Rajya Sabha; as  accepted by all parties– the report submitted by S B Chavan in Dec 1998

The Members of Rajya Sabha should acknowledge their responsibility to maintain the public trust reposed in them and should work diligently to discharge their mandate for the common good of the people. They must hold in high esteem the Constitution, the Law, Parliamentary Institutions and above all the general public. They should constantly strive to translate the ideals laid down in the Preamble to the Constitution into a reality. The following are the principles which they should abide by in their dealings:

(i) Members must not do anything that brings disrepute to the Parliament and affects their credibility.

(ii) Members must utilise their position as Members of Parliament to advance general well-being of the people.

(iii) In their dealings if Members find that there is a conflict between their personal interests and the public trust which they hold, they should resolve such a conflict in a manner that their private interests are subordinated to the duty of their public office.

(iv)  Members should always see that their private financial interests and those of the members of their immediate family do not come in conflict with the public interest and if any such conflict ever arises, they should try to resolve such a conflict in a manner that the public interest is not jeopardised.

(v) Members should never expect or accept any fee, remuneration or benefit for a vote given or not given by them on the floor of the House, for introducing a Bill, for moving a resolution or desisting from moving a resolution, putting a question or abstaining from asking a question or participating in the deliberations of the House or a Parliamentary Committee.

(vi)  Members should not take a gift which may interfere with honest and impartial discharge of their official duties. They may, however, accept incidental gifts or inexpensive mementoes and customary hospitality.

(vii) Members holding public offices should use public resources in such a manner as may lead to public good.

(viii) If Members are in possession of a confidential information owing to their being Members of Parliament or Members of Parliamentary Committees, they should not disclose such information for advancing their personal interests.

(ix) Members should desist from giving certificates to individuals and institutions of which they have no personal knowledge and are not based on facts.

(x) Members should not lend ready support to any cause of which they have no or little knowledge.

(xi) Members should not misuse the facilities and amenities made available to them.

(xii) Members should not be disrespectful to any religion and work for the promotion of secular values.

(xiii) Members should keep uppermost in their mind the fundamental duties listed in part IVA of the Constitution.

(xiv) Members are expected to maintain in high standards of morality, dignity, decency and values in public life.

Source – http://rajyasabha.nic.in/rsnew/publication_electronic/ethics_committee.pdf

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. Kindly note that this is applicable only to members of RS. One is not sure if all RS members are acting as per these guidelines and if ethics committee under Karan Singh is monitoring it.

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.

For instance, Abhishek Manu Singhvi—leader of Congress party – represented and appeared for Dow Chemicals in 2006  (the company that bought over Union Carbide India Limited, or UCIL) when UPA government was deciding about relief packages to affected victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy caused by UCIL. Hema Malini wanted a tax cut for water purifiers when she was endorsing Kent Water purifiers. The examples are plenty.

This reveals that in Indian context there are only interests and no conflicts exist. As earlier indicated Lok Sabha does not require its members to provide information to any registry. The ethics committee takes up the complaints as and when they arise. A major issue awaits the deliberations and decision of the ethics committee of LS headed by L K Advani.

Rahul Gandhi is alleged to have become a citizen of UK and also secretary of a company in that country. The papers pertaining to it have been published by Dr. Subramanian Swamy. The same has been submitted to ethics committee of LS by a LS member Mahesh Giri from Delhi. Reports suggest that the Ethics Committee headed by L K Advani has sent a notice to Rahul Gandhi to explain his position in the matter. We wait with bated breath about the way this ethics committee headed by L K Advani is going to deal with this serious case.

We feel that transparency is the best source of disinfectant for many of these ethical issues. Both houses of Parliament must keep registers for all members like in UK and it should be available on the net. The deliberations of the Ethics committee must be open to public and experts should be encouraged to give evidence/their views.

As of now, unfortunately, our elected representatives are perceived as a bunch of self-seekers and treasury looters. After 70 years of our democracy we must take steps to rectify such perceptions and then alone younger generation will be less cynical and more respectful of our elected leaders.

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