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The Role of Standing Committees in the Monitoring of Government
According to Article 145 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly, “standing committees shall keep the House informed so that it can exercise its function of monitoring the policy of the Government”. Institutional practice, and various reforms of the Rules of Procedure, have gradually provided the standing committees with a direct monitoring power over Government action.
I. – THE DUTY TO INFORM
1. – Hearings
The standing committees may meet with a non-legislative agenda in order to hold hearings with key figures.
Article 5b of the Ordinance of November 17, 1958, provides that an “ad-hoc or standing committee may summon any person whose interviewing it may deem necessary, whilst taking into account, on the one hand, subjects of a secret nature which concern national defence, foreign affairs, the internal or external security of the State and, on the other hand, the respect of the principle of the separation of the judicial authority from that of the other powers”.
These provisions, which were introduced in 1996, grant the standing committees the right to summon any person of their choice (the fact of not replying to a summons is punishable by a €7 500 fine).
Increasingly, the standing committees are using this possibility to interview members of the Government, including the Prime Minister. These interviews may be public and so, open to the press - the bureau of the committee has control over the public nature of its proceedings and may use the means which it chooses to implement this control (article 46). The standing committees also frequently interview experts or representatives of socio-professional circles.
Generally speaking, these hearings take place in the framework of the preparation of a bill, but they may purely and simply be for information reasons, particularly in the case of committees where legislative activity is less frequent (foreign affairs, defence).
2. – Fact-finding missions
Article 145 of the Rules of Procedure provides the standing committees with the possibility of setting-up temporary fact-finding missions. These missions may be individual or collective, they may be restricted to a single committee or be common to several, they may be of a short or longer length of time and they may or may not involve travel within France or abroad. Such missions are sometimes set up in order to prepare the examination of a bill or to monitor the implementation of a law recently adopted.
The fact-finding missions are usually concluded with the presentation of a report, whose publication can be authorized by the committee. Such a report may give rise to a debate without vote in plenary sitting or to a questions sitting.
The reform of the Rules of Procedure of May 27, 2009, strengthened the role of the opposition in these missions. In fact, according to article 145 of the Rules of Procedure, a mission which is made up of two members must include an M.P. belonging to an opposition group. A mission made up of more than two members must ensure that the political configuration of the Assembly is reproduced.
Pursuant to the law of June 14, 1996, the standing committees have the possibility of asking their assembly to take advantage of the prerogatives of commissions of inquiry (the power of examination of all documents, the right of communication) for a specific mission which must not last more than six months. As yet this provision has not been used.
II. – THE MONITORING ROLE
1. – Monitoring the budget and the financing of social security
The Institutional Act of August 1, 2001 concerning finance acts establishes the role of the Finance Committee as regards budgetary monitoring (previously, this role was based on article 164-IV of Ordinance n° 58-1734 of December 30, 1958 pertaining to the Finance Act of 1959). Article 57 of this law states that the finance committees of the National Assembly and of the Senate “must follow and monitor the carrying-out of the finance laws and must assess all questions concerning public finances”. This mission is entrusted to their special rapporteurs (members of the committees who are responsible for the examination of all or part of the funding of a mission) or to several of their members appointed to do so.
In addition, the other committees must also examine the expenditure of the ministerial departments which fall within their field of competence. Thus, they appoint from within their committee, consultative rapporteurs who, nonetheless, do not have the same powers of investigation as their colleagues from the Finance Committee.
The budgetary rapporteurs, both special and consultative, obtain much of the information they need in the replies to the questionnaires sent out at the end of June to the ministries concerned.
The special rapporteur has a twofold mission. On the one hand, during the examination of the budget, he examines the funds allocated within a mission and presents a report on this allocation, firstly to the committee and then in plenary sitting. On the other hand, he permanently follows and monitors their usage.
All year long, the special rapporteurs of the Finance Committee have the right to examine all documents concerning the implementation of the finance act as well as the management of the public companies which come within their field of competence. Since 191 (article 146 of the Rules of Procedure), this monitoring can be carried out in the form of the publication of budgetary information reports.
The Constitution provides that the Court of Accounts must assist the Parliament in the monitoring of the implementation of the finance act and of the law governing the financing of the social security.
To add to this traditional action of the special rapporteurs, the Finance Committee of the National Assembly granted itself, in 1999, a new structure which reinforces parliamentary monitoring of the use of public funds and the efficiency of public expenditure: the Assessment and Monitoring Mission (MEC). Its main role is to carry out, each year, an assessment of the results of different public policies.
In August 2004, the Assessment and Monitoring Mission for the Laws Governing Social Security (MECSS), was set up, on the model of the Assessment and Monitoring Mission.
2. – Monitoring certain appointments
The constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 provided standing committees with an additional power: the right to be consulted on certain appointments and, if need be, to oppose them. Article 13, paragraph 5 of the Constitution provides that an institutional law shall determine the posts or positions, concerning which, on account of their importance in the guaranteeing of the rights and freedoms or the economic and social life of the Nation, the power of appointment vested in the President of the Republic shall be exercised after public consultation with the relevant standing committee in each assembly.
In this case the President of the Republic shall not make an appointment when the sum of the negative votes in each committee represents at least three fifths of the votes cast by the two committees.
The Constitution itself sets down a case in which such new provisions may be applied since appointments to the Constitutional Council, provided for in article 56, should be carried out according to this new procedure. The other posts and positions concerned will be determined by an institutional act.
3. – Monitoring the implementation of laws
Since the reform of 2009, article 145-7 of the Rules of Procedure, reiterating but modifying the terms of Article 86, paragraph 8, states that “at the end of a period of six months following the coming into force of an Act whose implementation requires the publication of regulatory texts, two M.P.s, one of whom must belong to an opposition group and one of whom must automatically be the rapporteur, shall present to the relevant committee a report on the implementation of the said Act. This report shall describe the regulations which have been published and the decrees which have been issued in order to implement the Act, as well as the provisions which have not been subject to the necessary implementation instruments. In such a case the rapporteurs shall appear once again before the committee at the end of a second period of six months”.
Since the beginning of the XIIIth term of Parliament, 17 reports have been published in accordance with these provisions.