x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

FNC's influence is already felt, but responsiveness is the key

For the FNC to be more effective there must be a mechanism so ministries seriously consider members' recommendations, and are held accountable if they do not.

Hoor Ahmed Al Naqbi, a 7-year-old Emirati girl, died in 2008 after doctors tried to remove her tonsils at Al Kalba Hospital in Sharjah. The first doctor used medical instruments intended for adults, which caused severe bleeding. In an attempt to stem the bleeding, another doctor punctured her right lung. A third doctor put her under anaesthesia for more than 20 hours, which led to her death.

As Hoor was suffering under the hands of these three doctors, members of the Federal National Council were discussing the wider trend of recurrent medical errors. What the FNC has since done to deal with medical malpractice, which threatens patients' lives and harms trust in the health-care system, is one of the strongest examples of the Council's national relevance.

In 2008, the Cabinet referred a proposed Ministry of Health law on medical responsibility to the FNC, and a specialist committee examined it for months before suggesting substantial changes. The recommendations included articles requiring punitive measures against negligent doctors and the hospitals that employed them. It also fine-tuned definitions for medical responsibility and liability, among other changes. The recommendations were approved and the law is now widely cited as one of the FNC's major achievements.

The Council is sometimes described as an ineffective quasi-parliament; it is, after all, an advisory body lacking legislative powers. But this is not entirely fair; the FNC has a track record of achievements ranging from suggesting new laws and amending existing ones to questioning ministers about the performance of their portfolios. Although Council decisions are not binding, almost every federal law is discussed in its chambers.

In the 62 sessions held since the first elections in 2006, the Council approved 68 draft laws out of the 73 referred by the Cabinet. The Council's suggested amendments to eight of those laws were dismissed; the rest were approved and 40 laws were eventually passed.

Examples include anti-smoking legislation, the establishment of the Marriage Fund, and protections for people with special needs. In one case relating to amendments to the 1999 Federal Electricity and Water Authority, the Council insisted that the private sector comply with prevailing environmental standards to prevent violations. These are just some of the laws that affect Emiratis and residents on a daily basis.

Another key role played by the Council is discussing budgets with ministers, an important facet of its responsibility to revise and monitor Government spending. As part of its mandate since 2006, the Council made 38 formal recommendations to ministers.

Because it lacks binding legislative powers, the FNC's effectiveness in its current form depends on this supervisory role. As important as legislative review is, the FNC's work should not be restricted to suggestions about new or existing laws. What is more important for the FNC's influence is whether authorities take it seriously when members raise issues in these question-and-answer sessions.

That is the key to the FNC's success, but when members reviewed the 2010 ministerial agendas, some said that none of their recommendations had been incorporated.

There are three important examples where FNC members have identified problems that need to be addressed. First, budgets for both the health and education ministries are considered to be insufficient. As much as 80 per cent of the Education Ministry's budget is spent on salaries for its 35,000 staff, and the remainder is not enough to cover basic expenses, let alone educational programmes. Nearly a third of a public university's budget is spent on foundation courses for first-year students.

The lack of resources has led many Emiratis to leave the profession: less than 650 Emirati men teach at schools across the country. Similarly FNC members have also said that the Health Ministry's insufficient budget has led many doctors to find jobs elsewhere. It is also blamed for shortages of medicine and medical instruments in some hospitals and clinics. A shortage of medical staff, particularly specialist doctors, leads many patients to go abroad for treatment.

In both the medicine and education, FNC recommendations on financial incentives for staffing levels have not been answered to their satisfaction.

A second set of issues concerned rehabilitation centres for drug addicts. In 2007, of the 327 drug users who were arrested or turned themselves in, 214 were Emiratis. At least 30 per cent are known to have returned to drugs after being released from jail.

FNC members said that families were often reluctant to hand over drug users for fear of strict jail sentences; some Emiratis left the country for treatment as a result. More rehabilitation centres and less of a focus on punitive measures, members argued, would curb the problem.

A third area of concern came out of numerous Emirati complaints about utilities, and ended in a sweeping recommendation about governance. Delays in the installation of water and electricity, private companies that were not accountable for property damage, and unenforceable federal guidelines were all subject to complaints. As a result, FNC members asked for a law that would require every ministry to review and update relevant regulations periodically.

Those recommendations were the result of research and field interviews conducted by members of the FNC's eight committees. That fact-finding process, which in some cases lasted as long as a year, is a vital element of governance so that policymakers not only amend law, but amend it in light of facts on the ground. In this next session, for the FNC to be more effective, there has to be a mechanism so that ministries seriously consider members' recommendations, and are held accountable if they do not.