This report looks at the work of Parliament over the past parliamentary season (October 2015 – June 2016), with particular emphasis on evaluating the effectiveness of elected MPs.

The report is divided into two halves:

Working effectively: Looking at how effectively MPs interact with each other; between the two chambers and with Government.

Use of powers: How MPs have used the powers at their disposal to fulfill their duties of overseeing the work of Government and serving the public.

The report ends with a summary of all the key recommendations, section-by-section.

Throughout this report there are hyperlinks to Citizens for Bahrain’s supplementary reporting on political developments which further inform the findings summarized here. See below for the full list.

 

Executive summary

Working effectively

The grouping of elected MPs into rival blocs over the past year has improved coordination between individual deputies; but has resulted in parliamentary polarization on many issues, in particular between the conservative blocs (Accord, National & Asalah) and the more progressive National Participation Bloc. Political societies meanwhile have been consigned to near irrelevance.

There is a mixed picture on the work of committees, with the Shura Council criticizing delays in processing of key bills by the Permanent Committees of the elected chamber. This may partly result from major changes in personnel in some committees at the beginning of the season, which took time to consolidate. Delays became less noticeable as the season went on. The Women’s Committee came in for particular criticism for devoting an inordinate amount of time to its opposition to the CEDAW bill, which was ultimately approved.

The subsidy reform issue has been a source of tension with the Government, with MPs demanding increased consultation. However, the Government was clearly frustrated by successive delays to the meat subsidy reforms as a result of lengthy negotiations with MPs and effectively sidestepped Parliament on later electricity and petrol subsidy reforms.

MPs remain caught between the contradiction of demanding higher spending on public benefits and services; while demanding that the Government reduce borrowing. A lack of clear vision at a time of budget crisis caused by plunging oil revenues has led to MPs broadly sidelining themselves on economy and financial governance issues.

MPs should recognize that poor attendance of parliamentary sessions and unseemly disputes among deputies have done a great deal to undermine their status in the eyes of the public.

 

Use of powers

Questions for ministerial departments have been an effective way of making Government business more transparent and raising public and media awareness of the work of these departments.

A lack of clear strategic vision has negatively impacted many of the principle powers used by MPs. There has been an overuse of private bills, most of which have been ignored by the Government because lack of budget for implementation. We cannot fault the desire of MPs to be seen to be fighting for better facilities for their constituents, but in the current climate additional bids for funding are often doomed to failure. This focus on private bills has invited media criticism.

The failure of MPs to agree on interrogating a single minister has probably been the single issue which attracted most criticism over the past year. The onerous conditions for approval of an interrogation which require the agreement of most MPs is an obstacle, but in many cases the ministers in question have left their posts by the time the issue comes up for discussion, making interrogation somewhat futile. For the sake of MPs’ credibility, this process is in urgent need of reform.

Most committees of inquiry have gone well beyond their allotted time period and their conclusions have attracted criticism. Arguably MPs must take a more strategic approach to such committees, to avoid diverting their time towards issues which are not in the public interest.

Elected MPs have a mixed record on rights and freedoms: The doomed campaign against the CEDAW convention illustrated how influential an Islamist minority could be and the same elements are also responsible for a consistent pattern of regressive measures.

On the contrary, the unified position by both chambers on legislative amendments to protect rape victims and preventing the exploitation of religion for political ends show Parliament working at its best.

 

 

Full report: A year in Parliament

 

Working effectively: Parliamentary blocs

After a first parliamentary season when almost all elected MPs acted as independents, at the commencement of the second season (October 2015) there was furious activity to establish a number of blocs. The conservative National (6 MPs) and National Accord (5 MPs) blocs are generally quite similar in orientation and at times there have been indications that they would merge. These groupings have consistently found themselves in opposition to the more diverse and moderate National Participation bloc (8-9 MPs). There are also around six Islamists associated with the Asalah and Minbar societies. This leaves around 15-20 MPs with no clear affiliation.

This has led to a rather polarized and confrontational Parliament at times. Certain bills, such as a proposal for encouraging a higher proportion of Bahraini teaching staff, seem to have been blocked as a result of these increasingly partisan tendencies. A particular issue of friction was a number of proposals to interrogate government ministers, which the two conservative blocs strongly backed, but the National Participation bloc opposed.

There are certain issues which have tended to unite all MPs such as guaranteeing continued services to the public; ensuring that citizens will not be adversely affected by subsidy cuts; and protecting retirement benefits. Nevertheless, the staunch support for these issues often makes MPs reluctant to engage in soul-searching about what public services are and aren’t affordable in the current climate.

Efforts have been made to coordinate positions so as to present a united front in the Council of Representatives and avoid unnecessary divisions. A Joint Coordination Committee was announced in March to discuss and agree on legislation ahead of weekly parliamentary meetings. It is not yet clear the degree to which this is a functioning and effective mechanism.

 

Recommendations

  • The Joint Coordination Committee should play a strong role in encouraging segments of Parliament to align more closely on key issues; to prevent tit-for-tat disagreements on legislation and make better use of parliamentary time. Where possible, Parliament should speak with one voice on issues which benefit the public. There is no harm in blocs compromising with each other to reach agreement on legislation, as long as this is done transparently and as long as the result is in the public interest.

 

Working effectively: Political societies

Due to their weakness in the Council of Representatives and a slump in public support, political societies have been almost entirely absent from the political process and many societies have been in a state of crisis resulting from lack of funds and low levels of activity. Only the Salafist Asalah society with two registered MPs in Parliament has been active on political issues – notably in failed attempts to block the CEDAW convention on women’s rights and Twitter campaigns on other social issues.

 

Recommendations

  • The most prominent political societies have Islamist agendas and are closely associated with the polarized situation of Bahraini politics in 2011. There is an urgent need for middle-ground political societies which pragmatically represent the aspirations of ordinary Bahrainis and which distance themselves from ideological agendas.

 

Working effectively: Committees

In October and November 2015 the process to re-elect committee chairpeople turned out to be quite traumatic, with elected MPs forcing a purge in the membership of the Finance Committee after previous members hadn’t been judged to be sufficiently rigourous in scrutinizing the 2015-16 Budget. The Human Rights and Women’s Committees also saw significant changes in personnel.

Early on during the second parliamentary season, there was a lot of criticism from the Shura Council and other entities that Council of Representatives committees were not processing draft legislation quickly enough, leading to delays in bills being passed on to the full Parliament and then the Shura Council. For a time after that there appeared to be a faster rate of activity.

This second parliamentary season (Oct 2015 – June 2016) has seen less major set-piece legislation than the previous season (Nov 2014 – July 2015; Govt Action Plan, 2015-16 Budget, public debt legislation etc) which has meant that there has been less of a spotlight on specific committees. However there have been many occasions where the Council of Representatives has voted against the recommendations of a particular committee, such as on CEDAW and the proposal from banning clerics from politics.

It is common for there to be accusations that committees haven’t sufficiently consulted with all the institutions relevant to a particular bill or experts in a specific field. For example, on the legislation banning clerics from membership of political societies the Legal Committee was accused of not properly consulting the societies themselves. However, the Chairman Ali al-Atish not-unreasonably pointed out that the “urgent” marking on the bill gave insufficient opportunity for such a process.

Towards the latter parts of the season there have been renewed complaints that some committees have been delaying important bills. In mid-May MP Adel al-Asoumi accused several committees of leaving draft bills locked up in drawers, without naming names.

There has been criticism aimed at several of the committees of inquiry (see below) which, despite requiring multiple extensions, were perceived to have come up with final reports which added little to the issue in question. The Quranic Verses Committee in particular, continued for around a year, but many of its recommendations were simply repetitions of actions taken by the Ministry of Education months before, and the Ministry claimed that information in the report was incorrect.

The smaller committees in some cases have come to be dominated by particular blocs. In the case of the Youth and Sports Committee, for example (members mainly form the National Participation Bloc), this has not been an obvious problem. However, the domination of the Women and Children’s Committee by Islamists undermined the very ethos of having a committee to champion women’s issues, and in consequence the Committee spent most of the year waging a campaign against the bill for amending ratification of the UN Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

 

Recommendations

  • It should be recorded on the Parliament website what bills and legislation are pending for each Committee; what they are currently working on (meetings held, who they met etc); what they have completed and what their conclusions are. This will make the legislative process more transparent.
  • Members of the human rights, youth and women’s committees should be allocated positions based on their demonstrated commitment to promote these agendas. Members or associates of any political society which rejects the participation of women in politics should be automatically barred from membership of the Women’s Committee.

 

Working effectively: Relations among MPs

This has been a notably divisive parliamentary season, after the first 2014 Parliament season passed with relatively few conspicuous tensions. As well as frictions between the key political blocs, there has been a number of long-running disputes centred around Khaled al-Shaer and allied MPs on one side; and members of the Women’s Committee on the other.

This dispute first came to the surface at the beginning of the parliamentary season where Al-Shaer and three colleagues responded to a newspaper article by Rua al-Haiki, accusing her of paranoia and inventing confrontations. Al-Haiki is pursuing a legal complaint in this regard which is still pending. When Al-Haiki became chairwoman of the Women’s Committee, she and a number of Islamist colleagues (notably Sunni cleric Anas Buhindi) waged a campaign against CEDAW which exacerbated confrontations with Al-Shaer and the more secular MPs. This culminated in the final session discussing CEDAW when Al-Shaer accused Al-Haiki’s Women’s Committee of taking bribes to oppose CEDAW. These issues gave rise to a number of poisonous confrontations in parliamentary sessions, with Al-Haiki pursuing a demand for the withdrawal of parliamentary immunity from Al-Shaer and three colleagues.

A climate of heightened media and public criticism has arguably contributed to tensions within the Parliament chamber itself. However, manifestations of these tensions have had the unfortunate effect of feeding further media comment and criticism.

A disturbing proportion of elected MPs have been responsible for language unbefitting of public figures and getting into unnecessary confrontations with each other and with other entities. Very public disputes with the Shura Council are just one example. The decision to prosecute a number of social media accounts who used insulting language against the Parliament has proved controversial. Clearly several of these social media figures went beyond acceptable limits, but these tiny pinprick attacks have opened MPs up to the charge that they are limiting freedom of speech – particularly during a period when MPs have used comparable insults against each other!

We should commend several MPs, such as Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla and his deputy Ali al-Aradi for consistently calling for setting a better example and avoiding wasting parliamentary time.

The media have leveled a number of allegations against MPs for improper or corrupt behaviour. In several cases the MPs is anonymous in the media report, but their name is immediately leaked in the social media. In most cases, the MPs in question have vigourously denied the allegations and produced documentary evidence and there is no record of these allegations being taken any further. Al-Watan newspaper was behind most of these allegations (see here for further discussion).

 

Recommendations

  • New codes of conduct need to be rigourously enforced, obliging MPs to behave respectfully to each other and to use language befitting of their positions. Sanctionary measures need to be implemented quickly (e.g.; docked pay, ban from the next session) rather than being dragged out over many months.
  • It should be recognized that members of the public who use offensive language against MPs are mostly discrediting themselves. Legal action should only be taken where attacks are libelous, inciting violence, or illegal for other reasons.

 

Working effectively: Attendance

In recent months several Council of Representatives sessions ended early after a failure for sufficient MPs (over 21 out of 40 for a quorum) to be in attendance for the continuation of parliamentary business. The 24 May session ultimately had to be cancelled because, after waiting an hour for sufficient numbers of MPs to attend, several MPs disappeared at noon prayer time. This led to media and public criticism about numerous MPs taking holidays in the lead up to Ramadan, or simply failing to turn up. During the final session the following week, just over half of MPs attended.

Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla, early on during the 2014 Parliament, warned that non-attending MPs without good cause would have their pay cut and regular absentees could have their names published.

Many elected MPs staged a boycott of one parliamentary session over the subsidies issue – again leading to warnings that they could lose their pay if this happened again.

There have been complaints that numerous committee meetings have been cancelled because of a failure of sufficient numbers of MPs to attend. This seems to have been a particular problem with the numerous committees of investigation, many of which dragged on longer than expected and required multiple extensions.

 

Recommendations

  • Attendance should be fully transparent, with newspapers citing freely-available lists of attendance. There should be transparent measures against those who fail to give adequate grounds for absence, with a reprimand for repeat offenders. At the end of the parliamentary season and attendance chart will rank high and low attendees.

 

Working effectively: Relationship between Council of Representatives and Shura Council

The relationship between the two Parliament chambers got off to a bad start during the Oct 2015 – June 2016 parliamentary season; with accusations from the Shura Council that the Council of Representatives was not processing legislation quickly enough. This led to the Shura Council taking the unprecedented step of cancelling one of their weekly meetings because they said they didn’t have any bills coming from the other chamber to discuss.

This resulted in counter claims from certain elected MPs that the Shura Council was in part responsible for some delays, and that Shura MPs had failed to take the initiative to initiate their own legislative proposals.

The Chairmen of both chambers to some degree succeeded in smoothing over these tensions. However, there have been a consistent pattern of issues over the past where the two chambers where members have taken opposing positions. For example, elected MPs strongly supported proposed changes in the law to allow retirement benefits to go to MPs who haven’t served their full term (with particular regard for MPs who gained their seats during the 2011 by-election in difficult circumstances). Shura MPs blocked this proposal, arguing that it was unfair and that it would lead to over-spending. Shura MPs have also blocked measures coming from the elected chamber for increases to retirement benefits more generally.

The Shura Council in mid-April blocked an amendment by elected MPs obligating Government departments to use Islamic banking – they warned that this could set a dangerous precedent for Bahrain’s banking system.

 

Recommendations

  • Parliament only operates efficiently when the two chambers have an effective working relationship, because the assent of both parties is necessary for the passage of most legislation. Many recent tensions could have been avoided by increased liaison by the respective committees of both chambers, with occasional attendance at each other’s meetings and consultation about key legislation. Private meetings between representatives of both sides should amicably iron out any disagreements.

 

Working effectively: Relationship between elected MPs and the Government

One issue more than any other has defined the relationship between elected MPs and the Government over the last 12 months – the issue of subsidy reform. When proposals for abolishing meat subsidies emerged at the end of the previous parliamentary season (July 2015), MPs angrily protested that they hadn’t been consulted; that the tiny compensation payments to citizens were insufficient; and that the plan was ill-considered.

Anger increased when it became clear that the Government was going ahead with a more comprehensive reform of subsidies, in the light of the substantial budget shortfall caused by collapsing oil revenues.

A joint committee between MPs and officials was put together to address subsidy reform, but this process was aborted early in the new parliamentary season when new measures on petrol and electricity were announced, again with minimal consultation with MPs.

For the Government, the priority was implementing rapid responses to address the budget shortfall and reduce expenditure. MPs were more concerned with a comprehensive debate of the issue and ensuring that each step was carefully studied and achieved consensus. MPs repeatedly stated that citizens must not be adversely affected, in a financial climate where it was difficult to conceive that the public could avoid being impacted.

This lead to abortive attempts to interrogate ministers (see below) and the boycott by many MPs of one parliamentary session. Parliamentary debates were also held looking at how the meat trade and other sectors would be affected by subsidy reforms. However, MPs ultimately failed to block the Government’s package of subsidy reforms. MPs also failed to get ministers to agree to proposals for a smart card system.

The failure of MPs and officials to find a way of working together on this issue also represented a retreat by MPs from constructive involvement in holistic efforts to address the financial and economic situation. MPs have tended to take a piecemeal approach against both spending cuts and increased borrowing; without themselves having a comprehensive vision for a response to the unprecedented economic challenges.

MPs have vacillated on issues of Government borrowing, notably with their initiative to limit borrowing to 60% of GDP. However, in response to Government warnings that this could lead to cuts in public services, this has led to a retreat by MPs on this issue. In March MPs voted to reject the Government’s closing 2014 budget statement, arguing that key pledges hadn’t been followed through and that not enough had been achieved in diversifying away from oil.

There are only a minority of MPs who have consistently demonstrated confidence and expertise in speaking out about economic issues and Government expenditure. Mohammed al-Ammadi and Ahmed Qaratah are notable voices. Abdulrahman Bu-Ali, current Chairman of the Finance Committee has tended to be relatively low key; and his predecessor Isa al-Kooheji has been a lot less visible than in the previous year.

 

Recommendations

  • MPs must preserve their independence in holding the Government to account, but at the same time, MPs shouldn’t act as a de facto opposition. In particular, specialist committees should as a matter of routine work more closely with related Government departments, so there is a better understanding of each other’s objectives and priorities; and to facilitate greater consensus and less adversarial handling of major issues like subsidy reform.
  • MPs should play a central role in Bahrain’s economic direction. Greater expertise is needed among MPs and each bloc should have a clear vision on public spending issues which balances commitments to expenditure with the need to manage borrowing levels.

 

Working effectively: Relationship with the public

There is a genuine crisis in public confidence towards elected representatives. On one level, this is part of a national tendency to vote a batch of deputies into power and then spend the next four years complaining about their shortcomings. The fact that only 10 MPs from the previous Parliament retained their seats shows that there were already significant levels of discontent towards politicians.

However, a combination of issues have contributed to undermining the public standing of MPs:

  • MPs’ ineffective position over subsidy reform in which they were sidelined by the Government, opened them up to criticisms of inaction vis-à-vis measures which decreased the public’s spending power.
  • There was criticism of Parliament’s lack of clear vision for the wider economic crisis which faced Bahrain over the past 18 months.
  • Newspapers like Al-Watan have mercilessly criticized MPs over excessive reliance on ineffective private bills or apparently irrelevant pieces of legislation (e.g.; tattoo ban); Al-Watan also leveled a number of misconduct allegations at certain MPs which were denied.
  • In particular the issue of failing to agree on interrogating ministers was seen to symbolize Parliament’s failure to hold the Government to account.
  • Extensive debate over the issue of MPs bonuses and salaries contributed to the perception that MPs were being paid a lot for doing very little.

Most citizens do not follow parliament sessions closely; do not have a detailed idea of ongoing Parliament business; and do not have a clear idea of the constraints and powers of MPs. As a result, when you ask most Bahrainis about the work of MPs, they will not know much of the specifics, but will tell you things like: “They are all out for themselves, but do nothing” – “They love going on TV and sounding tough, but they don’t care about ordinary citizens”.

Thus, much of this criticism is unfair in that it also encompasses the many MPs who have been working very conscientiously. It also fails to recognize that often MPs are simply doing the best they can with the limited powers at their disposal.

However, this also reflects a problem of a lack of tangible achievements that MPs can take back and show to constituents, particularly at a time when the Government is cutting expenditure.

The large number of private bills (see below) from MPs is certainly an attempt to demonstrate to local people that they deputies fighting for youth centres, sports projects, health centres and other proposals with which they could tangibly demonstrate to constituents that they are working on their behalf.

The continual infighting between certain MPs; and poor levels of attendance at some sessions show that some MPs are insufficiently conscientious in demonstrating the seriousness with which they take their roles.

There has been less public engagement over recent months and recent public meetings chaired by MPs have attracted hostile attacks, putting MPs on the defensive. This should be an argument for more rather than less engagement with the public as a consistent programme of activity by all MPs, with MPs in adjacent constituencies supporting each other.

There should also be more coordination with the media in better educating the public about the role of MPs and what is and isn’t possible. Parliament has quite a substantial support apparatus, but there is little evidence of consistent activity to contextualize parliamentary work and raise awareness about the work of MPs.

For the last 18 months, the live video feed of parliamentary sessions hasn’t worked and the CoR website (Arabic only) is of a very poor standard, with outdated information, a lack of information about the MPs themselves and no user-friendly material to help browsers better understand what MPs are doing. The Shura Council’s (English & Arabic) website is better.

 

Recommendations

  • Higher levels of public dissatisfaction should give rise to more effective public engagement. This includes weekly constituency meetings and serious efforts by Parliament’s administrative staff to better communicate the work of Parliament through the media and social media.
  • Live (and recorded) video feed of Parliament sessions should be available in full as a matter of public record.

 

Use of powers: Private bills

Many commentators point out that private bills are the most overused of MPs’ powers. Several MPs have issued dozens of private bills, most of which have been approved by parliamentary colleagues but rejected by the Government. In themselves, many of these proposals are laudable for addressing issues of concern to local constituents, but they are potentially problematic for a number of reasons:

  • The Government has ultimately rejected most
  • These bills take up a lot of parliamentary and committee time. Some weekly sessions have been almost entirely devoted to perhaps 20-30 private bills. However, because of the large number of these bills, there is arguably not enough scrutiny of each individual project.
  • The bills often don’t seem to be approved on merit: Proposals for new youth centres, mosque renovations, sports facilities etc. are simply approved by MPs (and then rejected by the Government) because MPs fear that if they vote against a proposal, then others will vote against when they later submit something. Thus, the system invites voting for personal and partisan reasons, not merit.
  • Because these proposals are submitted outside any clear strategy for prioritizing certain localities or issues, there is no clear criteria for which proposals are the most deserving.
  • Arguably, many MPs are being disingenuous in submitting proposals to benefit their local constituents, while knowing that there is little chance of implementation.
  • These proposals are often used by Islamists for promoting socially-conservative and ideological legislation.

Arguably, there needs to be some kind of agreement between officials and MPs at the beginning of a parliamentary term on priority areas for individual initiatives by MPs – for example, identifying deprived areas of Bahrain which deserve increased funding for amenities; or key segments of society (fishermen, widows, butchers, farmers…) who need specific attention for legislative activity. A proportion of the budget should be set aside for this end. The emphasis should then be on collective efforts by MPs to prepare legislative proposals to address these priority areas.

Such a system shouldn’t prevent individual initiatives by MPs, but ad hoc individual proposals should be the exception rather than the rule.

 

Recommendations

  • There should be less reliance on private bills. MPs should coordinate their approach in advance, in the context of agreement on the Budget; deciding which areas of Bahrain require greatest prioritization and which public services and amenities are of greatest priority. This will give MPs a clearer set of criteria by which to assess the relative merits of such proposals; while recognizing the merit of responding positively to ad hoc initiatives on rare occasions.

 

Use of powers: Questions for ministers

Note that this is different from the “interrogation” option discussed below. In normal parliamentary business, MPs file questions to ministers within their domain of specialization (1 question per MP each month) and in due course the minister comes to Parliament to respond to the specific questions and discuss the issue further.

This power seems to have been used effectively over the course of the year, with an average of one-two ministers attending Parliament most weeks to respond to a range of question which have recently been submitted.

With the establishment of parliamentary blocs, there is more evidence that MPs are coordinating questions, to avoid repetitions of the same question being asked and so that a range of questions are directed at the same minister.

This makes for interesting sessions about hot issues, which are widely reported in the media and often lead to significant amounts of information being put into the public domain about that issue – particularly as ministers tend to release a written response and associated statistics to the media ahead of the session.

 

Use of powers: Open parliamentary debates

There were several fruitful debates during the first season of the 2014 Parliament. For example; a debate on support for youth and sport; and a debate for how to support the fishing industry.

However, it has been hard to avoid the suspicion that more recent debates on subsidies and the impact of rainwater have been talking-shops, which give MPs the opportunity to espouse their opinions at great length, but do not lead to tangible outcomes.

 

Recommendations

  • Arguably, MPs should be careful how much time they devote to such debates. Open debates in workshops and events separate from the Parliament weekly session may sometimes be a more appropriate forum.

 

Use of powers: Interrogating ministers

No ministers have been interrogated by the 2014 Parliament – however, this has been a hot issue for MPs. The power to interrogate ministers is seen by many as a tangible signal of MPs’ readiness to play a tough and challenging legislative role – so certain MPs have been very vocal about their readiness to use this power.

The problem is that on occasions when interrogation motions have been submitted, there hasn’t been sufficient consensus to reach the high 2/3 majority required for an interrogation. Each time this has happened, the process attracted public and media ridicule against MPs.

The problem is that because certain ministers have tended to move in and out of positions quite regularly, it is often the case that when MPs want to question a particular ministry about a particular issue (e.g.; shortcomings in the Financial Audit Bureau report) the relevant minister is no longer in position, meaning that an interrogation would not be holding the right person to account.

It could certainly be argued that too often the threat to interrogate ministers has been more about burnishing personal credentials, and that opposing MPs are right to reject such a measure in circumstances when an interrogation would not be appropriate.

There are ongoing discussions about how to reform the system; e.g.; making the conditions for an interrogation less onerous; allowing the interrogation of ex-ministers; or establishing a more flexible system in which questioning ministers is not necessarily seen as the nuclear option.

This is an important issue to resolve, because (rightly or wrongly) it has come to be seen as a key test of parliamentary effectiveness in holding ministers to account.

 

Recommendations

  • Reform of the ministerial interrogation process should be a matter of priority, perhaps requiring a threshold of 15-20 MPs voting in favour (it shouldn’t be made too easy). The process should also be seen less as a witch-hunt against specific ministers and more as a tool for in-depth investigation of issues of concern. It should be possible to summon ex-ministers and senior officials, but there need to be a range of criteria for the degree to which they can be held accountable.

 

Use of powers: Committees of inquiry

A number of committees have been formed by elected MPs over the past 18 months. For example, the investigation into the affairs of Mumtalakat; the import of meat unfit for consumption; the tendering process for advertising contracts; the improper recitation of Quranic verses during a school talent contest; and the issue of unregistered workers.

To date, there is little evidence that such probes have led to specific action. Experts have commented on a number of problematic aspects with these committees:

  • Most of these committees have requested repeated extensions to their 3 month terms, meaning that they end up taking up a lot of parliamentary time. Sometimes the extensions are arguably unavoidable because of delays from officials in submitting key information. However, there have been accusations that some probes have been pursued with insufficient urgency.
  • When the Mumtalakat and Quranic verses inquiries submitted their final reports, they were criticized on a wide range of grounds by relevant officials; for incorrect information; recommendations which had already been implemented; findings which failed to move the issue forward; or for entirely misrepresenting the issue.
  • Arguably, several of these probes seem to have been launched on the whim of a small number of MPs with little regard for the wider strategic benefits resulting from a substantial investment of parliamentary time. Even several Islamist MPs criticized the Quranic Verses probe as a complete waste of time.

As a result, it is fair to say that these investigations don’t always enjoy high levels of public confidence and aren’t seen to have led to tangible results which benefitted the public.

 

Recommendations

  • There should be a clearer idea what committees of understanding are supposed to achieve, with acknowledgement that for the most part these shouldn’t be set up for single issues which suddenly grab the public’s attention. The Parliament Minister should act as an intermediary to ensure Government cooperation in passing on information, and in return the investigation should work alongside these departments (while ensuring that MPs retain ownership of the investigation) to ensure that there isn’t a fundamental disconnect between the viewpoints of MPs and officials.
  • Arguably, there should be a full-time committee for follow-up on the Financial Audit Bureau report, working hand-in-hand with the Finance Committee, which allows for long-term monitoring of recurring short-comings and which can cooperate with ministries and the public prosecutor in ensuring that action is taken.

 

Use of powers: Parliamentary oversight

During the final 31 May session of the parliamentary year, the Financial Committee submitted its recommendations concerning the annual Financial Action Bureau report concerning allegations of mismanagement, wasteful expenditure and corruption.

Committee Chairman Abdulrahman Bu-Ali noted a substantial fall in the number of allegations compared to previous years and commended Government departments for having addressed past failings. He noted a number of failings which deserved ministerial interrogation, but acknowledged that because the ministers concerned had moved on, interrogation measures would not be possible. However, Bu-Ali has called for a parliamentary committee of inquiry to be formed to follow up on his recommendations. MP Ibrahim al-Hammadi said that previous Parliaments had failed to make effective usage of such reports as a result of MPs trying to win concessions from ministers.

There is certainly a determination amongst MPs to be playing a major role in implementing Financial Audit Bureau report recommendations, but there is a lack of consensus as to the best way forward – referring cases to the Public Prosecutor, interrogations, or specific investigations by MPs themselves. There needs to be more effort towards reaching agreement on a mechanism that will give the public the confidence that corruption and mismanagement will be adequately and transparently addressed and officials can be held accountable.

 

Recommendations

  • There needs to be closer parliamentary consensus over how to energize its oversight role, particularly in the context of follow-up on Financial Audit Bureau reports. A full time committee to monitor this issue and liaise with Government departments has been discussed above.

 

Use of powers: Legislation to secure rights and freedoms

Several Islamist MPs have been instrumental in trying to introduce measures which limit social freedoms. A proposal for banning tattoos in particular drew a lot of ridicule from the public and the media. Likewise, there have been many proposals by elected MPs whose net result would have been to limit social freedoms. These have mostly been held up at the Shura Council or Government level. However, such bills arguably go against the tolerant and progressive spirit of the constitution and are a waste of parliamentary time.

The Council of Representatives had great difficulty in passing a bill for enhancing Bahrain’s implementation of the UN CEDAW convention on women’s rights, with strong opposition from the Women’s Committee which was mandated with processing the legislation. The bill only passed after opponents failed to get a clear majority. On the contrary, the bill passed through the Shura Council with ease after strong support from many deputies.

The ban on the membership of political societies for serving clerics was first initiated by members of the Shura Council, before being taken up by the Government and passed by both chambers, with only minor opposition from Islamists and clerics.

At the end of the legislative period there have been two proposals in play (one from the Shura Council and one from the CoR) to prevent rapists escaping justice by marrying his victim. During the closing 31 May parliamentary session co-sponsor of the proposal Mohammed al-Maarifi argued that society had changed and that both religious figures and the public agreed that such a loophole should not exist.  Mohammed al-Jowder also questioned: “Is it reasonable that someone assaults a woman and we reward him with marriage?” A majority of MPs approved the proposal and we can hope to see it pass into law over the coming months.

 

Recommendations

  • Islamists have benefitted from an organized lobby outside the Parliament to win support for ideological agendas and attack legislation which gives greater freedoms to Bahraini citizens. There should be support to empower moderate civil society groups in helping raise public awareness of reforms and progressive legislation and raise understanding about why this benefits them.

 

 

Recommendations: Working effectively

Parliamentary blocs

  • The Coordination Committee should play a strong role in encouraging segments of Parliament to align more closely on key issues, to prevent tit-for-tat disagreements on legislation and to make better use of parliamentary time. Where possible, Parliament should speak with one voice on issues which benefit the public. There is no harm in blocs compromising with each other to reach agreement on legislation, as long as this is done transparently; and as long as the result is in the public interest.

Political societies

  • The most prominent political societies have Islamist agendas and are closely associated with the polarized situation of Bahraini politics in 2011. There is an urgent need for centre-ground political societies which pragmatically represent the aspirations of ordinary Bahrainis and which distance themselves from ideological agendas.

Committees

  • It should be recorded on the Parliament website what bills and legislation are pending for each Committee; what they are currently working on (meetings held, who they met etc); what they have completed and what their conclusions are. This will make the legislative process more transparent.
  • Members of the human rights, youth and women’s committees should be allocated positions based on their demonstrated commitment to promote these agendas. Members or associates of any political society which rejects the participation of women in politics should be automatically barred from membership of the Women’s Committee.

Relations among MPs

  • New codes of conduct need to be rigourously enforced, obliging MPs to behave respectfully to each other and to use language befitting of their positions. Sanctionary measures need to be implemented quickly (e.g.; docked pay, ban from the next session) rather than being dragged out over many months.
  • It should be recognized that members of the public who use offensive language against MPs are mostly discrediting themselves. Legal action should only be taken where attacks are libelous, inciting violence, or illegal for other reasons.

Attendance

  • Attendance should be fully transparent, with newspapers citing freely-available lists of attendance. There should be transparent measures against those who fail to give adequate grounds for absence, with a reprimand for repeat offenders. At the end of the parliamentary season and attendance chart will rank high and low attendees.

Relationship between Council of Representatives and Shura Council

  • Parliament only operates efficiently when the two chambers have an effective working relationship, because the assent of both parties is necessary for the passage of most legislation. Many recent tensions could have been avoided by increased liaison by the respective committees of both chambers, with occasional attendance at each other’s meetings and consultation about key legislation. Private meetings between representatives of both sides should amicably iron out any disagreements.

Relationship between elected MPs and the Government

  • MPs must preserve their independence in holding the Government to account, but at the same time, MPs shouldn’t act as a de facto opposition. In particular, specialist committees should as a matter of routine work more closely with related Government departments, so there is a better understanding of each other’s objectives and priorities; and to facilitate greater consensus and less adversarial handling of major issues like subsidy reform.
  • MPs should play a central role in Bahrain’s economic direction. Greater expertise is needed among MPs and each bloc should have a clear vision on public spending issues which balances commitments to expenditure with the need to manage borrowing levels.

Relationship with the public

  • Higher levels of public dissatisfaction should give rise to more effective public engagement. This includes weekly constituency meetings and serious efforts by Parliament’s administrative staff to better communicate the work of Parliament through the media and social media.
  • Live (and recorded) video feed of Parliament sessions should be available in full as a matter of public record.

 

Recommendations: Use of powers

Private bills

  • There should be less reliance on private bills. However, MPs should coordinate their approach in advance, in the context of agreement on the Budget; deciding which areas of Bahrain require greatest prioritization and which public services and amenities are of greatest priority. This will give MPs a clearer set of criteria by which to assess the relative merits of such proposals; while recognizing the merit of responding positively to ad hoc initiatives on rare occasions.

Open parliamentary debates

  • Arguably, MPs should be careful how much time they devote to such debates. Open debates in workshops and events separate from the Parliament weekly session may sometimes be a more appropriate forum.

Interrogating ministers

  • Reform of the ministerial interrogation process should be a matter of priority, perhaps requiring a threshold of 15-20 MPs voting in favour (it shouldn’t be made too easy). The process should also be seen less as a witch-hunt against specific ministers and more as a tool for in-depth investigation of issues of concern. It should be possible to summon ex-ministers and senior officials, but there need to be a range of criteria for the degree to which they can be held accountable.

Committees of inquiry

  • There should be a clearer idea what committees of understanding are supposed to achieve, with acknowledgement that for the most part these shouldn’t be set up for single issues which suddenly grab the public’s attention. The Parliament Minister should act as an intermediary to ensure Government cooperation in passing on information, and in return the investigation should work alongside these departments (while ensuring that MPs retain ownership of the investigation) to ensure that there isn’t a fundamental disconnect between the viewpoints of MPs and officials.
  • Arguably, there should be a full-time committee for follow-up on the Financial Audit Bureau report, working hand-in-hand with the Finance Committee, which allows for long-term monitoring of recurring short-comings and which can cooperate with ministries and the public prosecutor in ensuring that action is taken.

Parliamentary oversight

  • There needs to be closer parliamentary consensus over how to energize its oversight role, particularly in the context of follow-up on Financial Audit Bureau reports.

Legislation to secure rights and freedoms

  • Islamists have benefitted from an organized lobby outside the Parliament to win support for ideological agendas and attack legislation which gives greater freedoms to Bahraini citizens. There should be support to empower moderate civil society groups in helping raise public awareness of reforms and progressive legislation and raise understanding about why this benefits them.

 

 

Week in politics

Clerics barred from politics: 12 – 18 May 2016

Continued reform efforts: 5 – 11 May 2016

Social media attacks: 20-27 April 2016

Shura Council rejects “Islamicization”: 7-13 April 2016

CEDAW victory: 31 March – 6 April 2016

MPs reject budget statement: 24 – 30 March 2016

Pensions dispute: 17 – 23 March 2016

Committees of inquiry: 10 – 16 March 2016

Protection for Shia families: 3 – 9 March 2016

Political societies in decline: 25 Feb – 2 Mar 2016

Lebanon travel restrictions: 19-24 Feb 2016

Constitution celebrations: 11-18 Feb 2016

Russia State visit: 4-10 Feb 2016

Raising the debt ceiling – again: 3 – 9 Dec 2015

Combatting terrorism: 26 Nov – 2 Dec 2015

Clash over debt law: 12 – 18 Nov 2015

Tattoos & sorcery: 5 – 11 Nov 2015

Raising meat payments: 30 Oct – 4 Nov 2015

Anger over subsidies: 22 – 29 Oct 2015

New political alliances: 15 – 21 Oct 2015

A new beginning: 8 – 14 Oct 2015

 

 

Links to other Citizens for Bahrain parliamentary publications

How Bahrain’s Parliament functions

Political blocs in the Bahrain Parliament

Committees in the 2015-2016 Bahrain Parliament

Bahrain’s political societies

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