National Assembly digital panel to seek parliamentarians’ input for virtual session

Committee members say keeping parliament active and effective in present situation is vital


​ Our Correspondent April 21, 2020
Committee members say keeping parliament active and effective in present situation is vital. PHOTO: APP

ISLAMABAD: As the coronavirus pandemic has virtually disrupted all walks of life, the National Assembly (NA) Special Committee on Virtual Session has decided to invite the parliamentary leaders to discuss the mechanics for convening the session of the lower house.

A meeting of the NA panel on virtual session was held under the chairmanship of Minister for National Food Security and Research Syed Fakhar Imam in Parliament House on Tuesday.

The meeting was attended by Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination Dr Fehmida Mirza, PM Adviser on Parliamentary Affairs Dr Zaheeruddin Babar, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan, MNA Syed Aminul Haq, PTI chief whip Malik Aamir Dogar, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq and Shahida Akthar Ali whereas Syed Naveed Qamar joined the session through video conferencing.

After an in-depth discussion on the terms of reference, the members of the committee developed a consensus to hold the session of the National Assembly in the current situation.

However, the committee decided that risk assessment and management would be carried out before convening the session.

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The panelists were of the view that parliament embodied the will of the people, thus, keeping parliament active and effective in the present situation was vital.

The panel also unanimously decided to invite all the parliamentary leaders to discuss the mechanics for holding the session of the lower house before submitting recommendations to NA speaker.

The committee constituted by the NA speaker has been mandated to suggest amendments in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the National Assembly, 2007, if any, for holding virtual session of the assembly during the coronavirus pandemic; to make recommendations for detailed working to hold virtual session of the assembly; to make other recommendations; and to present a report to the speaker at the earliest.

Under one of the options, a virtual session is being considered which can be attended by MNAs through video links while sitting in halls of provincial assemblies of their provinces. But, conducting a session through video link on Zoom or any other network is considered insecure and could be hacked or interrupted by hackers.

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The use of Zoom App has registered a sharp increase for educational and business purposes since the imposition of lockdowns across the world, but at the same time there have been many reports of interruptions on it.

Media reports said that Singapore had banned the use of video conferencing on Zoom by teachers after some objectionable videos were shown on it.

If virtual sessions turn out to be a success, they can potentially solve the issues of parliamentary attendance and costs.

It is not uncommon for parliamentary attendance to hover around the 50% mark as many lawmakers excuse themselves on account of other political activities.

According to NA officials, if legislators can attend assembly sessions remotely, then they will both have less of an excuse to skip out on them and there will be less of a justification for the travel and lodging allowances out-of-station MNAs avail.

“In addition to a monthly salary of Rs178,000, each MNA costs the national exchequer as much as Rs1.6 million due to air travel alone. They also avail Rs8,250 per day assembly allowance,” one official said.

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“If virtual assembly attendance becomes the norm, then these expenses can be limited to emergencies,” he added.

“Any parliamentarian who is part of a standing committee receives an additional amount of more than Rs8,000 a day along with Rs65,000 for a business class ticket,” Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz MNA Khehal Das Kohistani said.

“We will welcome any step by the government that allows us to attend committee meetings online,” added the lawmaker, who is part of the panel on religious affairs.

 

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