The Moorish Wanderer

“Can I Have a Minute Time-out?” – “No, You Can’t”

BBC Radio 4 – Today In Parliament, November 7th 2011

Let me adapt it to the Moroccan context: a top official at the Direction des Impôts is heard by the Public Finances parliamentary committee on some tax agreements between his department and a large holding in Morocco. The tax agreement allowed the company to avoid paying a large amount of corporate taxes. The official, reluctant to provide straightforward answers to the Representatives members of the said committee, is compelled to take an oath and then provide answers; the official asks for a moment to make a decision, but they are denied by committee members irritated by the official’s stonewalling. (this is a purely fictional story, that goes without saying)

Don’t laugh, the present framework allows parliament to hear officials. But only on a non-compulsory basis.

Of all the branches of government, parliament, both chambers in fact, is something of an unloved, ugly duckling: understaffed, under-financed and allocated only residual powers. The budget bill is mostly designed by Finance Ministry officials, members of parliament can only attach amendments, and some constitutional requirements actual deny parliament any say in a budget bill their member would find too contentious or controversial to even halt the process and get with the ministry to re-write it. The record of parliamentary misbehaviour of filibuster-like amendments could be an impairment to the business of running a country, but they are, as far as I can tell, the people’s representatives, and this is a very convenient way to veil the discrepancies in liaison between government and parliament. But this is another story.

The background story is simple as it gets: parliament is the boss of government -because the latter needs to be confirmed by the former- government ministers are the bosses of civil services, so nothing legal prevents officials from appearing before parliament to testify when Representatives see it fit. But it is not. The statutory civil service code specifically places officials under the authority of governmental purview:

الباب ثاني: تنظيم الوظيفة العمومية

فصل 8: تحتوي مهمة المصلحة المكلفة بالوظيفة العمومية بوجه خاص و تحت إمرة السلطة الحكومية

And that goes on with Articles 9-12; at no point parliamentary oversight is mentioned; civil service officials are answerable to their ministers, to the Civil Service Department and the Finance Ministry. So unlike that senior lawyer with HMRC questioned by the Westminster Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts, no high official in Morocco is actually answerable to parliament, only to their respective ministers.

Can parliamentarians change something? Sure they can. The government can introduce an organic bill for their supporters to vote on, placing the civil service under joint authority of government and parliament. Even consider some appointments that need to be processed by representatives before these officials get into office. This move prompts the following questions: why would the government do that? how would they circumvent the juggernaut that is the General Secretary of Government office, and finally, will the civil service abide by it once it is implemented?

– Why would the Government Do It? it actually serves a purpose: PJD is the senior partner in this unique brand of government coalition; their caucus has a new intake of enthusiastic representatives, and because there is a certain amount of internal democracy running down its structure, they will be a difficult conference to manage, if no substantial bone is thrown to them; this could actually be it: allow parliamentarians to quiz officials, score good media points by championing the everyday citizen against the discretionary powers of the civil services (and more often than not, the abuses of officials at every level) as for government ministers, that keeps their officials on a tight leash: they toe the line.

– How would the Government circumvent the GSG office? It is known a lot of bills have not been en acted because the GSG blocked them for one reason or the other; writing legislative language is usually the official line.

This is why the Minister Of State without a portfolio needs to get down to business: he is the one with no definitive job description, so he needs to get a team of lawyers or insiders -which might not be as difficult as it seems- and tail the GSG every change he gets, so as to speed up the process. The objective is to make sure among the dozen of Organic Bills needed to pass are speedily processed.

– Will the Civil Service abide by the new regulations? the mutual fear of being demoted, fingered, losing their job, whatever. A top official is answerable to parliament and to their minister. If they do well, their minister could actually stand up to them.

Everybody wins: parliamentarians get an extra load of work that will tie them to the House of Representatives, ministers have an external threat they can use against reluctant officials in their departments, and these civil servants can actually strengthen their relationship with their ‘master’. And the best part, the public actually gets to benefit from it, either because this would lead to a reduction in administrative discretion and abuse.

House Of Representatives - With Commons' Powers.

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