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28 january 2013

27, 28, 29 ... (or the number of parliamentary committees in Ukrainian)

Written by Alexander Banchuk

Those who closely followed the activities of the new Parliament before the New Year had an opportunity to see how it steadily increased the number of new committees. Why? Maybe the MP’s were concerned about the quality legislation and wished to focus their energy on improvements? Or perhaps it was to adopt a system change within Ukrainian laws? Or perhaps some other noble goal?

Unfortunately, I believe their reasoning was in fact trivial. The formation of additional committees was a banal attempt to create more jobs and assign them to their personal deputies. Each new committee requires a new staff in addition to the committee chairs, including their deputies, secretaries, sub-heads and more. This is an old Ukrainian (or Soviet) practice in obtaining positions and increasing an individual MP’s sphere of influence.

The government, the opposition and the "it is not clear which position we are, it depends on whose asking" Communists all play this game. As a result the number of committees in Parliament increased to 29 without further discussion. 

With its 29 standing committees the Ukrainian Parliament has achieve the upper echelon in Europe. Anyone visiting the web pages of other European legislative bodies will quickly come to the same conclusion.

Look at our neighbors: Moldova has 10 standing committees, and Georgia has 15. The parliaments of some EU member states look about the same: Romania - 19 standing committees, Bulgaria - 18, Czech Republic - 18, Slovakia - 19, Belgium - 11, Sweden - 15, Finland - 16, etc., etc. 

Critics may argue that these countries are small and have fewer deputies in comparison to Ukraine. But look at other EU countries with larger populations: France - 8 standing committees, Italy - 14, Spain - 17. These countries have elected more MPs to Parliament than Ukraine and yet their number of committees is fewer.

Why is bad for Ukrainian society that there exists a large number of parliamentary committees? 

First there are budgetary considerations. Every creation of a separate committee means the need for financing from the state budget for staff (salaries and other payments to government officials, service jobs pay communications and postal correspondence). Tax-payers money is better spent on other social needs than providing for the ambitions of individual MPs.

Second, past experience has taught us that within the large number of committees there inevitably arises a large disparity in work load. If the Budget Committee acted, and will act as principal for hundreds of bills, then certain specific committees (Culture and Spirituality, Families, Youth, Sports and Tourism) might only be involved in a few dozen. But the maintenance of these marginal committees are almost the same, not matter how much they achieve. Employees work and receive their salaries regularly. 

Third, more committees often means more conflicts between the laws that are adopted by Parliament. Each committee is isolated in terms of its membership, which practically guarantees that seperate bills will reflect different approaches to solving the same issue. For example, instead of a single committee concerned with legal issues (as is the case in all European parliaments) Ukraine has instead five separate committees: legal policy, rule of law and justice, human rights, national minorities and interethnic relations, the fight against organized crime and corruption, and legislative enforcement activities.

If the need arises to amend the law on the judicial procedure for authorizing wiretapping of citizens, a bill proposal has the potential being presented by each of the above committees. This means that it will contain ideas the necessary ideas, but in separate bills: the full protection of the rights and interests of persons in one bill and the interests intelligence in another and the interests of judicial authorities in a third. The merging of legislative committees would align the interests of multi-vector segments of society already at the beginning of the draft law. And this in turn simplifies the final decisions that are made by Parliament. 

Fourth, the simplification of committees also increases the chances of lobbyists, and the legislators that they influence, to push for legislation that can be passed without essential parliamentary examination. One example of this is the amendment to the Law on Prosecutors from September 2012.

This bill was criticized by representatives of the EU, the Council of Europe and the U.S. Embassy. Realizing the difficulty of passing this bill through the relevant committee on Legislative Support of Law Enforcement, the authors were able to take it to the Committee on the fight against organized crime and corruption, where it successfully passed all readings and became law. It is very unlikely that it would have passed if there had existed a unified legal committee within the Ukrainian parliament. 

Fifth, the number of committees may lead to difficulties to the collaboration with European colleagues. For example, in early 2012, there were inter-parliamentary meetings between the leaders of the legal committees of the German Bundestag and the Parliament. One of the main issues was to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the then draft Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) and the ability to fix its problems.

The Germans, perhaps naively, did not realize that the leadership of the legal committee had no more opportunities to influence the process of finalizing the CPC than they had. The reality was that the project was subject to the jurisdiction of the Committee on Legislative Support of Law Enforcement (whose counterpart in Germany does not exist) and not the legal committee (as in Germany). 

A particular problem is in the situation with regards to the "economic" committees, which total 5: Economic Policy, Entrepreneurship, regulatory and antitrust policy, Tax and customs policy, Industrial and investment policy, Finance and banking.

The goal of cleaning up the domestic legislation in order to align it with international standards is not possible without reforming parliamentary committees. Reform will continue to be hampered as long as the formation of committees is based upon the personal interests of individual MP’s and not on the actual needs for the functioning of Parliament.