ISLAMABAD: The parliamentary leaders in the National Assembly on Wednesday ruled out the option of holding a virtual session of parliament in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and agreed that the government should convene a physical session of the assembly in a routine manner.
The decision was taken by parliamentary leaders of all political parties at a meeting of the Special NA Committee on Virtual Session, presided over by federal Minister for National Food Security and Research Syed Fakhar Imam.
According to an official announcement of the National Assembly Secretariat, the parliamentary leaders were of the view that the parliament embodied the will of the people and, therefore, it should be made functional to continue its role of parliamentary oversight on the executive. They extended their complete support to Speaker Asad Qaiser in conduct of the session of the assembly in the presence of the pandemic.
Participating in the meeting through a video link, parliamentary leader and chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said that there was a need to call the session of the National Assembly whether actual or virtual to take up pertinent issues concerning the people.
The PPP leader called for ensuring health SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) in the wake of the pandemic for safety of lawmakers and the parliamentary support staff.
According to a handout issued by the PPP, Mr Bhutto-Zardari during the committee meeting said that it was unfortunate that the federal government had failed to ensure a functional parliament during the crisis.
The PPP chairman said his party was willing to work with the speaker’s office to ensure both oversight and safety, adding that lengthy debates could be limited in the session but there would be no compromise on voting rights for legislations.
He said that his party was also in favour of virtual sessions of smaller durations of the National Assembly to hold limited debates on key issues, mainly the coronavirus pandemic. He said that a meeting of the PPP’s Committee on Economy had already demanded fair distribution of the foreign relief aid received from international financial institutions among the provinces to enable them to cope up with the situation.
Parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Khawaja Asif and former NA speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, while taking part in the discussion, supported the idea of a physical session of the assembly keeping in view the inadequate IT (information technology) facilitates in the parliament.
The PML-N leaders were of the view that the virtual session would erode the dignity and sanctity of the parliament and the essence of the participatory democracy. They said the agenda, the number of members to be present in each sitting of the assembly and other issues could be decided in consonance.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and federal Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination Dr Fehmida Mirza said actual session of the assembly might be convened with adoption of health guidelines so that the health safety of the members and the staff was not compromised.
They said it was heartening to note that all the political forces were on the same page during the present crisis.
Mr Qureshi said that suggestions put forth by the parliamentary leaders were practical and further modalities might be made in light of these suggestions.
Advisor to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Dr Babar Awan apprised the Committee on the pending legislation with both the houses of the parliament and standing committees. He said the assembly session would help expedite the pending legislation.
The chairman of the committee, however, decided to convene a final meeting of the committee next Wednesday to finalise its recommendations which would be presented to the speaker for his consideration.
Members of other parties, including the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Jamaat-i-Islami and Balochistan Awami Party also supported the idea of physical session with strict observance of health SOPs.
The committee was constituted by the speaker with a mandate to suggest amendments to the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the National Assembly, if any, for holding virtual session of the National Assembly during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the previous meeting of the committee on April 21, a general consensus had emerged that the sittings on a video link would not be possible without changing the rules and amending the Constitution.
The PML-N had categorically rejected the idea of virtual sessions, and even dubbed such a move a “conspiracy to usurp constitutional rights of the people, their representatives and the country’s democratic institutions”.
The PML-N had stated that its members would not become a part of any virtual session nor would they support any move to call the parliament session without physical appearance of the members.
PML-N’s Khawaja Asif had suggested that the National Assembly hall had a capacity of 450 people and this capacity could be further enhanced to 800, if the ground floor galleries were also included.
Similarly, the Senate Committee on Rules and Procedure had held its meeting on the same issue last week and a majority of its members, including former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani, had also ruled out the option of holding the virtual session of the Senate citing a number of technical, legal and constitutional hitches and political ramifications.