The Control Committees (CC) are mandated by the Federal Assembly to exercise parliamentary oversight of the activities of the Federal Government and the Federal Administration, the Federal Courts and the other organs entrusted with tasks of the Confederation. This role is set out in Article 169 of the Federal Constitution (Cst; RS 101) and Article 26 of the Parliament Act (PA; RS 171.10).
Mandate and objectives
Parliamentary oversight is a political control of the executive and judicial bodies carried out by parliament, through which the latter assesses the management activities of the federal authorities and makes recommendations for the future. The aim is to ensure the democratic accountability of the federal authorities, to achieve greater transparency, to increase public confidence in the authorities, to help to correct and/or prevent any shortcomings and dysfunctioning that are identified and to instigate a learning process that will help the authorities solve their problems.
The Control Committees focus on verifying:
- that the activities of the federal authorities comply with the constitution and legislation, that the tasks entrusted to them by the legislative body are properly carried out and that the aims that have been set are achieved (legality control);
- that the measures taken by the state are appropriate and that the Federal Council makes proper use of its decision-making powers (control of appropriateness);
- that the measures taken by the state bear fruit (efficiency control).
The scope of the committees’ control is vast. It covers all the activities of the Federal Council and the Federal Administration as well as the Federal Courts, with the exception of the tasks that are related to their juridical powers. The CC also exercise parliamentary oversight of public and private law organisations and of physical and moral persons mandated by the Confederation (e.g. the Swiss Post, the Swiss Federal Railways, and the cantons). In this respect, the CC focus on the way in which the Federal Council monitors these bodies (indirect parliamentary oversight) rather than on their activities per se.
With the exception of the subjects have to be monitored by law (e.g. the Federal Council’s annual report), the CC are free to decide on the areas of their inquiries. In order to do this they draw up an annual programme to define their controlling priorities in relation to each sector of the administration. It may also happen that the Committees are given mandates by parliament or that the public submit suggestions. The CC keep the Federal Chambers and the public informed of their activities through an annual report as well as specific reports on the inquiries they have carried out.
Procedures and available means
In fulfilling their mandate the CC comply with the principles of action that they have drawn up themselves. They fulfill their monitoring duties:
- by carrying out inspections themselves with the assistance of the secretariat;
- by mandating assessments and expertises, in particular to the Parliamentary Control of the Administration (PCA);
- by examining the Federal Council’s annual report, the reports on the activities of the Federal Court and the Federal Insurance Court and the annual reports of other bodies which are mandated
- by the Confederation (Federal Bank Commission, Federal Institutes of Technology, etc.);
- by visiting various units of the Federal Administration;
- by addressing requests sent in by third parties;
- by following up the recommentations and parliamentary interventions that they submit to the Federal Council.
The rights and obligations of the CC are set out in Arts. 26-27, 52-55 and 153-158 of the PA. They are entitled to ask all the federal authorities, as well as external persons or offices, such as cantonal authorities or private individuals (Art. 153 PA), for information and to demand to see documents. The Committees decide themselves who they wish to interview. Everyone who is employed by the Confederation is obligated to provide full and accurate information and to indicate all documents that may be useful (Art. 156, § 1, PA). With only a few exceptions, the CC may override professional and military secrecy. For their part, the Committees guarantee the confidentiality of their work until publication has been officially approved (Art. 153, § 5, in combination with Arts. 8 and 47, PA). They attach particular importance to protecting their sources and take all possible steps to ensure that no federal employee suffers in any way because of having given evidence before a CC (Art. 156, § 3, PA).
The active means available to the CC concerning the bodies that they monitor are political. Generally the Committees present the results of their investigations in the form of reports which contain recommendations on which the relevant authorities are bound to comment. Through their work the Committees thus oblige the authorities to be accountable for their actions. In turn, the CC cannot force the bodies they monitor to take any measure or to cancel or change a decision, nor take a decision on behalf of the institutions they control. They can only use persuasion. If necessary they can also make use of parliamentary tools (table a motion, a postulate or a parliamentary initiative), notably to achieve a modification of the law.