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Transparency without accountability fails to improve attendance of MNAs

By Umar Cheema
December 10, 2015

ISLAMABAD: Although a Right to Information request forced the National Assembly Secretariat to open the attendance record of MNAs, this transparency has failed to make them punctual in the absence of accountability. As a result, members remain absent more than ever before.

The National Assembly Secretariat has different standards for the lawmakers and its employees. The secretariat staff is under legal obligation to mark biometric attendance at the time of entry and exit from office. This is in contrast with the immunity enjoyed by the MNAs whose majority either dislikes attending the assembly proceedings or briefly appears there to mark attendance to claim the daily allowance. The absent lawmakers may be deprived of their daily allowance but certainly not of salary and membership, no matter what the rules say.

Right from the parliamentary leaders to the legislators belonging to all parties, lawmakers have displayed an unimpressive performance — their basic job for which they were voted to the National Assembly, says an analysis conducted by the Fair and Free Election Network.

The NA Secretariat started uploading the attendance record of the MNAs at its website from the 23rd session onwards. This was not a pro-active disclosure.

An RTI request by the  PILDAT under the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 seeking the attendance record failed to get the attention of the assembly secretariat in the beginning as the request was refused, terming the demanded record “private information” of the members.

When a complaint was lodged with the federal ombudsman against the secretariat, it decided in favour of the complainant. The secretariat filed a representation before the president of Pakistan against the ombudsman’s decision; however, the presidency upheld the verdict, leaving no option but to regularly upload the attendance information.

An analysis of the attendance from the 23rd to 26th session has found no major change in the attitude of the lawmakers, publication of their absenteeism notwithstanding.

The ruling party, PML-N, commanding majority in the National Assembly with 189 members, had an average of 39 lawmakers who remained absent during the 23rd session when the data was made public for the first time. Instead of showing restrain due to fear of negative publicity in the future, its lawmakers rather registered an increase. As many as 64 of its members were found absent in the 24th session, 47 in the 25th and 72 in the 26th. Another 13 MNAs of the ruling party remained on leave in the 23rd session, 12 in 24th, seven in 25th and 25 in 26th.

The leading opposition party, PPPP, has not shown an improvement either. Out of its 46 MNAs, 13 were absent in the first session, 17 in the second, 12 in the third and 22 in the fourth.

Another party which claims to be the true opposition, PTI, has 33 MNAs. Of them, five lawmakers on average were not present in the first session, 10 in the second, six in the third and seven in the fourth.

The MQM is the fourth largest party in terms of representation with 24 MNAs. On an average, its seven members were not present in the first session, five in the second, nine in the third and 14 in the fourth.

The parliamentary leaders may largely be held responsible for promoting absenteeism by staying away from the assembly proceedings. Taking the 26th session as a guide, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for example, remained absent for five days, out of the six-day proceedings.

The FAFEN, which started recording the attendance pattern since 2008, found that former PM Yousaf Raza Gillani was the most punctual leader of the house.

As regards Khursheed Shah, he is rather a punctual MNA. In the last session, he remained absent for two days and present for four days.

PTI Chairman Imran Khan is among the most absent MNAs. An earlier report of The News based on the FAFEN analysis found that he attended the assembly for 13 days in 27 months. He has not shown any sign of improvement as he didn’t turn up even for one day during the 26th session.

On the other hand, there is no immunity for the staff of the NA Secretariat in case of prolonged absence. They can’t escape accountability in shape of deduction from salary and dismissal from service if they remain absent like the lawmakers. The secretariat, under the leadership of the current speaker, has formulated rules for them, making it compulsory to have biometric attendance. A visit in the morning or evening will find a long queue of staffers waiting for their turn to deliver a thumb impression for marking their attendance.

When The News asked a top bureaucrat of the NA Secretariat a few weeks ago about the reason for the different standards, he said they could discipline their employees, not the lawmakers.