After serving for almost five years on the National Assembly Standing Committee on Finance, legislators admitted on Wednesday that the parliamentary forum was useless in addressing issues of public interest due to cold shoulder given by bureaucrats and powerful economic ministers.
However, members of the standing committee including its chairman realised the ‘ineffectiveness’ of the supposedly powerful panel just three weeks before the end of their term. During the past five years, a majority of the committee members and its chairman enjoyed privileges attached with this membership. They did not use powers to call in the ministers and top bureaucrats and managed the committee’s affairs with the help of second-tier bureaucracy of the finance ministry, the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and the State Bank of Pakistan.
Former finance minister Ishaq Dar hardly attended any meeting and his successor Dr Miftah Ismail has not yet come to the committee’s forum.
“The government is not giving importance to the work of the standing committee and I have taken up this matter with the speaker,” said the disgruntled committee chairman MNA Qaiser Shaikh of the PML-N.
Shaikh said that for the past month, the FBR and the Finance Ministry was stopping the committee from holding a meeting on budget issues. “If the standing committee of National Assembly cannot take decisions on the budget then what is its role,” questioned the chairman. His concerns were shared by other members of the committee.
The committee meeting had been called to discuss budget measures but the FBR sent a grade-20 officer of the Inland Revenue to respond to queries of the committee and the stakeholders. Secretary Finance, the FBR chairman, and the finance minister did not attend the committee meeting.
The standing committees have a critical role to play in performing the oversight function by parliament. These standing committees examine bills that are referred to them. They also examine the expenditure plans of ministries and examine the working of the departments and various schemes of the government.
The Minister of State for Finance gave a commitment to end third tier of cigarettes in budget in order to discourage smoking and recover Rs30 billion taxes but no change was announced in the budget, said Sheikh Fayazuddin of the PML-N.
“If the parliament is supreme then why is the standing committee apologetic before the government departments,” questioned Mohammad Ibrahim, a member of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Ibrahim flew from Karachi in a bid to sway the government’s decision of changing the tax structure for commercial importers from fiscal year 2018-19.
In the budget, the government proposed to collect minimum 6% withholding tax from the importers as against the current regime of treating 6% tax as their final liability. The change is made to collect the actual tax from the importers.
Ibrahim said that it was surprising for the business community that the bureaucracy did not listen to the parliament.
PTI’s MNA Asad Umar also opposed the change in the tax structure for commercial importers. He argued that this change will expose the commercial importers to audit by the FBR.
However, generally, the change in tax regime for the commercial importers is welcomed, as the fixed presumptive tax regimes for a specific class or sector put unnecessary tax burden on other classes.
MQM’s MNA Rashid Godil also complained that the government does not give respect to the parliamentary business.
PML-N’s MNA Khalida Mansoor also admitted that the committee could not perform its role effectively in the last five years.
One reason for giving not due respect to the work of the committee by the bureaucracy was that some members of the committee misused their positions to get undue benefits from the FBR. Some even managed to settle tax notices and raids on their business premises stopped by using their influence. Other got tax concessions for their business.