In conversation with Her Excellency Ihsan Barakat: evidence use in the Jordanian Parliament

15 February 2024
SERIES Voices of evidence users

This is one of four conversations between Farah Al Hadid and Jordanian parliamentarians. The series comes at an exciting time: the Jordanian Parliament is on the cusp of transformational change.

In 2021, the Royal Committee to Modernise the Political System submitted its recommendations for political reform, including amendments to the political parties and election laws. The amendments, which were adopted by Parliament, will increase the involvement of political parties by increasing their share of parliamentary seats, as well as incentivise more women and young people to participate in elections. 

Amid these changes, parliamentarians in Jordan are also working to strengthen the parliament’s legislative and oversight functions by introducing evidence-informed policymaking. Effective evidence-based policies require the use of evidence during all stages of policymaking, including statistics and research, to equip decision-makers with the necessary skills to identify effective and beneficial evidence. 

In this conversation, Farah Al Hadid, talks with Her Excellency Ihsan Barakat to discuss her experience with evidence-based policymaking in the parliament. Barakat has served as a Senator since 2020. She is a member of the Legal Committee, the Women Committee and the Freedom and Rights of Citizens Committee. She is also the Jordanian Senate Representative to the Arab Parliament. She is a decorated judge and was the first female to become a judge on the Court of Cassation in Jordan. 

In your view, what is the role of scientific research and statistics in the legislative process?

Research, particularly statistics, are very important to the legislative process because they help you understand the potential impact of a proposed law on the lives of our citizens. As part of our job, we have to thoroughly evaluate any law proposal that comes our way, assessing all the positives and negatives of laws, in order to establish their reason for being. 

For example, when I objected to the cybercrimes law, I objected on the basis of national statistics. Particularly, I was referencing the average income levels of Jordanian households and how this would reflect on the monetary value of punitive measures codified in the law. When national statistics showcase that the average salary of a Jordanian individual ranges between 280 to 300 JDs per month, then it would be unreasonable for a penalty such as the one in the cybercrimes law to be set at 50,000 JDs. We cannot overstate the penalty when setting a punishment. 

Where do you get your information, are they available at the Senate?

The Senate staff has some researchers, but their numbers are limited, and given the vast scope of the work of the Senate, we often have to rely on other or our own resources to retrieve information. 

Many senators, myself included, exert a lot of personal effort to gather information on a wide variety of topics. I am constantly amazed by the breadth of my colleagues’ background knowledge, but I know that they did not get that information from the Senate, but rather by using their own networks. There is also a reliance on government agencies for information, like the Department of Statistics.

The Senate is supposed to be a ‘House of Expertise’ as it is tasked with the responsibility of reviewing all pieces of legislation across all issues – energy, agriculture, housing, civil, religious law, etc. As such Senators have to be extensively informed, or at least know how to access that information to support their decision making – whether in support or opposition to various bills. A Senator’s rejection or support for a bill must be based on that evidence. 

What are the main obstacles or challenges for the establishment of a research unit within the Senate?

I do not think there are any major obstacles for the establishment of a research unit within the Senate. In my view, this is the responsibility of the Secretary General and should be given utmost importance in the upcoming phase. 

We need to enhance the capacity of the staff with training or appoint more capable staff to conduct research. One idea is to assign specialised researchers to each committee to provide them with the right research. For example, under the Women Committee, it is essential to have gender experts providing information on gender issues with policy ramifications, such as women’s access to the labour market or information about women’s’ educational attainment levels, etc.  

Around the world, Senators and Representatives usually have a support staff, they have researchers and writers, and there is a need to replicate a similar structure in the Jordanian Senate. 

What evidence do you think senators need in the Committee to begin debating a bill?

Senators need two types of evidence when evaluating a new bill: evidence of similar bills from different countries for benchmarking purposes and evidence of data on the topic discussed. 

Senators must firstly be aware of the components of the bill being discussed. Secondly, it would be helpful to have examples from legislative systems close to our own, for benchmarking reasons. 

This is also important not only in the drafting phase but also in the implementation phase of the law as benchmarks can help us see how similar countries were able to roll-out the law. This allows us to make a comparison to see if we have the right infrastructure to pass the law in question.

For example, it would be helpful to see how another Arab country, with a similar legal structure, approached and implemented a cybercrimes law. And third, we need the research and statistics that paint a picture of where we are as a country on the issue at hand. For example, if we are discussing the agricultural law, I need to have information from various entities, like the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment as well as the Department of Statistics to understand where the agricultural sector was in 2005 and 2010 and 2020. I need at least three time periods, so I can see the effect of a law over time. 

It is then imperative that these two types of evidence are presented to committee members with analysis on how the draft bill at hand differs from regional benchmarks and how it might affect our population specifically. 

What kinds of evidence does the Committee currently use in its meetings?

The Committee relies on a range of secondary data collected from various sources such as the Department of Statistics and other government agencies. Furthermore, we call in experts on the topic at hand so that they can share their knowledge and expertise. For example, for the land ownership bill, we called in experts like the Head of the Lands Department, other relevant representatives from the private sector, and lawyers with experience regarding ownership, etc. Such debates help us understand the matter further. 

Of course, every government agency looking to pass a bill will defend it extensively, but it is my job as a Senator to consider the evidence and see assess the effect of the bill as well as evaluate how the bill fits within the context of the entire legal structure in order to avoid any contradictions with existing laws. 

What are the challenges facing evidence-informed policymaking at the Senate?

We have the capability to institute truly research and evidence-based policy at the Senate if we can overcome three challenges. First, we have a capacity and human resources challenge. We need more staff members who can support Senators by providing the research that we need to do our jobs better. Second, we need the technical support and infrastructure to sustain a research capability at the Senate. This means a dedicated research unit that has access to the needed technology and subscriptions to databases among other things. Third, Senators need to have access to credible sources of information. 

Senators are the King’s eyes (the word Senator in Arabic is the same word for eye), as such, we should have access to the latest and most credible information to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. 

I sit here in this office, in this institution, to serve King and country. I know that with access to the right information, Senators can produce laws and policies that are evidence-based and honour this institution.