15 – 21 January 2015
Much of the business of the Chamber of Deputies (the elected house of parliament) has been put on hold this week as MPs continue to prioritize work on the Government’s 2015-2018 Action Plan, which sets out the priorities of Government business for the next four years. Meanwhile, the Shura Council (the appointed house of Parliament) has rejected a controversial bill for strengthening the rights of Bahraini workers.
Government Action Plan
(For further background to the Action Plan, see the previous Week in Parliament and the Fact-File below)
Following a second meeting between ministers, officials and members of the parliamentary committee for debating the Action Plan; it seems that the sides are gradually moving closer to reaching consensus. Further meetings between Cabinet members and MPs are expected to continue discussing details of the Plan.
On 20 January, Parliament voted for a 12 day extension for studying the Action Plan before it is put to a vote. This extension was hotly debated among those who were concerned that the period was too short for addressing the “fundamental shortcomings” of the Plan; and those who worried that the debate was consuming too much parliamentary time.
Many of the recommendations that were recently proposed by MPs have been incorporated into a revised Action Plan, although a handful of key demands were either revised or rejected.
However, many MPs are still saying that the Action Plan cannot be approved by Parliament unless it is accompanied by a detailed document giving a precise timetable for the implementation of each proposal, details of how the project will be conducted and the budget for each project.
At the present time there has been no indication from the Cabinet that it is willing to publish this level of detail. However, Ministers have said they are ready to sit with parliamentarians and discuss the Action Plan in as much detail as they desire.
“The Plan in its current form is terrific, if it gets implemented. But where are the details of the projects and time limits for implementation?” – MP Abdulhalim Murad
“The details which deputies are requesting will all come in the budget. Therefore the Budget will constitute the biggest battle” – Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ghanem al-Buainain
Meanwhile, several MPs have been outspoken in criticizing the latest draft: “It is still under-ambitious and not up to the expectations of citizens,” said MP Mohammed al-Ammadi (Minbar) who echoed the comments of many of his colleagues in complaining that the draft lacks “figures and criteria for evaluation”.
Ali al-Muqla (Asalah) also criticized the “generalities and theoretical pleasantries” found in the report, saying that “fundamental clarifications and additions would be needed” in order for the proposals to be approved. Al-Muqla said that the drop in oil prices needed to be accounted for so that the public properly understood how this impacted Government activity, “especially when 86% of the Government’s general revenue comes from oil industry incomes”.
However, head of the parliamentary committee for the Action Plan Ali al-Aradi spoke positively about the latest meeting with ministers, saying that “most of what was raised in yesterday’s meeting was agreed on by both deputies and the Government… We have dealt with most of the points raised and the remaining segments are mainly concerned with standards of living”.
As a result, it remains unclear whether Ministers can go far enough in order to reach a consensus with the majority of MPs, or whether a protracted stand-off may be inevitable.
Citizens for Bahrain comment: A new phase for democracy in Bahrain
The 2012 constitutional amendments requiring parliamentary approval of the Government’s four-year plan is already fundamentally altering the role of Parliament.
Parliamentarians have demonstrated that they are not willing to rubber stamp a document of “pleasantries” and “generalities” – arguing that if they are to fulfil their mandated role of overseeing the work of government they must be presented with a clear programme which presents transparent criteria for evaluation and monitoring.
In the short term this has thrown up many complications and ambiguities: How much detail are Government ministries obliged to show to MPs in advance? Does it make sense that the budget only be approved after MPs have signed off on the Action Plan? What should happen if MPs reject successive drafts of the Plan?
However, once we get beyond these early difficulties, we are left with a much more effective mechanism for monitoring the business of Government and holding ministers to account.
So, yes it is worth holding out for the best and most detailed Government Action Plan possible, in order that Bahrainis and our representatives can know exactly what we can expect from governmental departments over the coming four years. It is good to see both Ministers and deputies engaging so positively in this process. Well done to MPs for making good on their promises to take their monitoring and oversight role seriously. We hope to see this continue.
Shura Council rejects preferential treatment for Bahraini workers
The Shura Council has rejected a controversial proposed bill for enforcing preferential treatment for hiring and firing Bahraini workers. The proposed measure would force an employer to choose a Bahraini over a non-Bahraini worker “with comparable skills”; while ensuring that if workers had to be made redundant, non-Bahrainis would be the first to lose their jobs.
Shura Council committee members who recommended the rejection of the bill agreed with the Government recommendation that such measures “infringed the rights of Bahraini employers” in hiring those most suitable for the job, while contravening international law prohibiting discrimination on grounds of race.
Shura members added that the proposals were perhaps unenforceable in court because, as Shura member Saeed Hussain put it: “How can competencies be measured? Expertise and abilities cannot be measured in numbers”.
However, the General Federation for Bahrain Trade Unions said that such a move took away opportunities from Bahrainis who were the most deserving of these positions; criticizing the Shura Council for going along with the Government “while neglecting the interests of workers”. Head of the Federation, Salman al-Mahfoudh, said that this “amounted to a blank cheque for public and private sector institutions to fire Bahrainis without any protection.
Interview with head of Parliament
Al-Watan conducted an in depth interview with the new head of the Bahrain Chamber of Deputies, Ahmed al-Mulla. Here are some of the key quotes:
Government Action Plan
“This is the first Chamber of Deputies to engage with the Government’s programme following the 2012 constitutional amendments and the results of the agreements made in the National Dialogue. This has given the Chamber of Deputies wide powers, implementing the aspirations of our wise leadership and the nation.”
“We are faced with an important national challenge and a new experience that we are working to accomplish, in order to implement parliamentary principles governed by the constitution for the benefit of the common good.”
2015-2016 budget in the context of lower oil prices
“Deputies will engage with the Budget in the context of the current situation in order to achieve the desires of citizens. We will aim for a moderate and realistic deal from parliamentarians.”
Financial oversight and corruption
“Deputies’ handling of the Financial Audit Bureau report in the current legislative period will be completely different from in the past… The role of deputies is to ensure accountability and oversight in a determined and strict manner when debating this and preparing the report. All parliamentary tools at our disposal will be used if violations and offenses are discovered, in order to protect public funds.”
“We are dissatisfied with what went on previously. We are working to develop parliamentary performance in all areas.”
“We are confident that deputies have responsibility and integrity in going about their duties. However, I will not compromise at all in implementing the recommendations against whoever is negligent or whoever delays work of committees and projects. We may even publically publish the names of absent deputies.”
MPs vote on 39 bills postponed from previous Parliament
As is provided for by the regulations governing the Parliament; on 20 January MPs took a vote on all the 39 bills that had been postponed by the previous Parliament. They rejected 14 proposals, including several bills concerned with additional penal laws and restrictions on rallies and public demonstrations.
MPs agreed to continue work on the remaining 25 bills, including a key piece of legislation for guaranteeing financial support to those of limited incomes.
MPs voted to continue working on the setting up of an institution for fighting corruption.
Despite the widespread condemnation of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, many MPs have reacted angrily to the offensive cartoons of the Prophet published in the Charlie Hebdo magazine. The Chamber of Deputies has issued a statement condemning the cartoons, but some MPs are demanding further action, such as direct interventions with senior French officials or action at the UN General Assembly for banning offensive representations of religious figures.
Government Action Plan fact-file
See Citizens for Bahrain’s profile on key themes from the Action Plan.
What is the Action Plan?
The Government Action Plan is the four-year vision of the new Bahraini Government, outlining its policy priorities in all key areas. The Prime Minister made history on 6 January 2015, when for the first time he submitted the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan directly to parliamentarians, reflecting the increased power of Bahrain’s elected deputies to approve or reject the Government’s policies.
Why is Parliament’s role important?
The power of MPs to reject the Government’s Action Plan is a new measure included in the 2012 parliamentary amendments. So this is the first time MPs have had the chance to exercise this right.
What are the six sections of the 2015-2018 Action Plan?
∑ Sovereignty and rule of law
∑ Economy and finance
∑ Human development and social services
∑ Environment and urban development
∑ Government performance
What is the current situation?
After extensive discussion by parliamentarians of the Action Plan, many MPs are unhappy at the lack of detail given by the Cabinet regarding the policy proposals, making it unclear whether the current draft of the plan – if it came to a vote – would be approved by MPs.
On 13 and 19 January Cabinet ministers held meetings with the parliamentary committee for debating the Action Plan. Ministers reportedly gave details of the Action Plan proposals, including how separate priorities would be budgeted.
MPs have submitted proposals for amendments to the Action Plan, some of which have been incorporated into a revised draft by the Cabinet.
However, many MPs have indicated that the Action Plan will not be passed by the Parliament, unless it is accompanied by a supplementary document clarifying timescales, details and costings for each of the Government programmes. It is not yet clear whether the Government is willing to publish this level of detail.
The committee of MPs responsible for studying the plan has had its period of work extended until the beginning of February at which point it must present its evaluation of the Action Plan to the entire Parliament. The Parliament would then vote on the Action Plan on around 3 February.
What is the Constitutional position regarding approval of the Plan?
Parliament has until February 6 to vote on the Action Plan. If Parliament fails to take a vote then the Plan is automatically passed. If MPs do vote to reject the plan, the 2012 constitutional amendments provide for them voting up to three times on subsequent versions of the Plan. If the Action Plan is rejected three times it is up to the King to decide whether to dissolve the Cabinet or Parliament.
How does the State Budget fit into this picture?
Shura Council sources say they have been told by Government sources that they will receive the State Budget in early March “after confirmation of the Government Action Plan”, hinting that if the Parliament rejects the Action Plan, then the Budget will be delayed.
This Budget would normally have been submitted to the elected Council of Deputies and the appointed Shura Council in January, if not for the new parliamentary role in approving the Action Plan. The Constitution states that the Budget should be issued two months before the end of the financial year in April.
Once the Budget is submitted, it is discussed by a joint meeting of the Financial Committees of the two houses of Parliament, after which each committee must make a detailed report back to its respective chamber. The Council of Deputies then debates the bill and passes it on to the Shura Council. Either chamber may make changes or additions in coordination with the Government. If the new Budget isn’t passed by the end of the financial year, the previous year’s Budget continues as the point of reference.With the enhanced parliamentary role in approving the Action Plan, there is a degree of ambiguity regarding how the Action Plan and the Budget should interact
MP Adel Abdulhamid criticized the “vagueness of the 2015-2018 Action Plan and the prospect of specific Government projects only being announced after the Budget had been agreed. He said that it made more sense for the specific policy vision to come first, after which the budget would be agreed for implementing these policies.