Breaking the standstill

April 7, 2024

Functioning standing committees are indispensable for the effective operation of an elected assembly

Breaking the standstill


s the tenure of the 18th Punjab Assembly starts, it is imperative to reflect on the performance of its predecessor, the 17th Punjab Assembly, particularly the functioning of its standing committees.

Under Sardar Usman Buzdar, the then chief minister, the assembly witnessed a peculiar phenomenon. The corridors of power resonated with 181 hasty approvals of legislation. The deliberative discussions in standing committees were far from the norm.

The standing committees have to be formed within 90 days under Sub-rule (3) of Rule 150 of the Punjab Assembly Rules of Procedure. However, the committee system was not respected. More than 40 committees are needed to handle the affairs of the designated departments. However, the government notified the formation of only 21. Even those remained largely inactive due to a deadlock stemming from intense political polarisation.

This impasse occurred mainly because the government resisted and blocked a longstanding parliamentary tradition of letting the leader of the opposition head the Public Accounts Committee.

While the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf routinely challenge each other to debates over media controversies, the question of non-functional standing committees and parliamentary performance is hardly ever raised. This article looks at what the committees accomplished in the Punjab Assembly between 2018 and 2023.

This issue has been mostly muted in our political discourse. Civil society groups too have not adequately addressed it.

A discussion on standing committees’ role remains crucial despite the silence because transparent, participatory lawmaking, primarily conducted through these committees, is fundamental to democratic governance. The performance of the 17th Punjab Assembly underscores the neglect of these standing committees, leaving their potential untapped and resulting in laws enacted through unilateral decisions.

Now that the Punjab has a new government after the recent elections, it is crucial to assess the legacy of the previous assembly (2018-2023), learn from its lapses and consolidate the groundwork for a more robust and participatory legislative future.

To function effectively, the parliamentary system relies on the committees. The collaborative and specialised nature of the committees complements the broader parliamentary structure, contributing to a more comprehensive and nuanced decision-making process.

The committee work began with the emergence of informal advisory councils in medieval England and progressed to the establishment of structured select committees in the House of Commons in 17th-Century Britain.

The trajectory includes the creation of standing committees in the US Congress in the 19th Century, which influenced parliamentary systems globally. Famous examples include the Public Accounts Committee in the UK, formed in 1861, which set a precedent for scrutinising government expenditures.

Reforms in the 20th Century, such as those proposed by Wright Committee in 1979, enhanced committee independence and effectiveness. Thematic committees addressing specific policy areas emerged later, alongside advancements in information technology that significantly boosted committee efficiency. Joint committees, comprising members from both parliamentary houses, have also emerged to tackle issues collaboratively.

The performance of the 17th Punjab Assembly speaks of the neglect of standing committees, leaving their potential untapped and resulting in laws enacted through unilateral decisions. 

The ongoing evolution reflects a dynamic response to technological progress and the increasing complexity of policy matters, reinforcing the leading role of committees in legislative processes and government oversight. During the Covid-19 pandemic, several parliamentary committees, including those in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and the European Parliament conducted their sessions remotely.

Empirical data from the 17th Punjab Assembly indicates that it convened for 44 sessions, comprising 296 actual sittings out of a mandated total of 420. During this period, a total of 181 bills were passed, 138 of those originating from the government. Surprisingly, the most legislative activity occurred in the assembly’s fifth and final year, spanning only two sessions, during which 50 laws were approved.

Notices were issued for 210 privilege motions, of which 121 were admitted and 90 referred to single-party committees. 2,447 adjournment motions were filed, 875 being admitted and 1,667 disposed of. The assembly received 807 notices for Zero Hour questions, of which 613 were admitted and 80 answered. 3,085 resolutions were proposed, 798 were admitted and 142 passed.

Assembly members submitted 9,195 starred questions, of which 5,807 were admitted and 3,902 answered. Additionally, 1,529 un-starred questions were raised, 1,492 admitted and 1,236 answered. There were 1,053 call-attention notices, of which 661 were admitted and 187 answered.

The assembly’s failure to establish and activate its standing committee throughout the PTI government’s tenure raises concerns about the state of democracy in Pakistan. The parliamentary and committee systems are inherently intertwined. The committees have a vital role in ensuring six essential functions of the parliamentary processes: (i) legislative processes, (ii) oversight and accountability, (iii) public engagement, (iv) organisational efficiency, (v) conflict management and (vi) consideration of historical and democratic contexts.

Due to non-functioning standing committees, members of the 17th Punjab Assembly were stripped of their legislative and parliamentary duties. A critical aspect of the committee system is its role in examining proposed legislation, ensuring thorough scrutiny and preventing rushed decision-making. This enhances the overall quality of legislation. The absence of active committees led to diminished legislative quality, as evidenced by the passage of 51 bills in two sessions.

Also missing was oversight and accountability by the committees, which usually investigate policies, expenditures and the implementation of laws and hold the government accountable. The lack of a legislative mechanism allowed the government to operate with curtailed scrutiny and transparency. This exclusion also prevented valuable public participation in lawmaking, as evidenced by the lack of notices for public participation, hampering the inclusivity of the decision-making process and depriving the assembly of diverse viewpoints.

The organisational efficiency of the assembly too suffered as assembly members were deprived of the opportunity to specialise in specific policy areas through committee work. Committees serve as crucial platforms for gaining hands-on experience in addressing complex policy issues, conducting proper examination and making informed recommendations. This explains why political rhetoric in the media often overshadows technically sound and serious discourse in elected assemblies.

The failure to establish active committees also exacerbated conflict within the assembly, as committees provide a platform for negotiation and resolution. Absent this facilitation, conflicts escalated, resulting in embarrassing displays of disorder and sometimes physical scuffles, especially towards the end of the assembly’s tenure.

Proper functioning of standing committees is indispensable for effective operation of an elected assembly. Neglecting their business undermines the assembly’s ability to fulfill its democratic responsibilities.

The writer is a youth and social development consultant. He can be reached at

Breaking the standstill