I continue discussion on the acting President of the Republic's statement on procedures in Parliament in the aftermath of the controversy over Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Bill.
I had discussed his proposals for improved technology in Parliament, provision of professional officers to assist parliamentarians and the recording of assurances given to Parliament during debates and the transmission of these to the President of the Republic.
Opposing views have been expressed by the acting President (who states that there were flaws in the bill) and Independent Senator Elton Prescott (who states that it was a good bill) on Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Bill.
First there is the omission from Schedule 6 of "white collar crimes" from the list of offences that do not allow for application for discharge from prosecution.
Second, there is the issue of whether the time after which discharge can be applied for is counted from the time of being charged or from the time at which the offence was committed. Do the ways in which these two points are dealt with in the legislation amount to "flaws"? In my opinion they do and so I agree with the acting President and disagree with Senator Prescott. Laws are made for the good order of society and not for any inherent quality of their own and it is on that basis that they must be judged.
There is also the fine legal point as to whether in legislation "shall" can mean "may". It seems to me a pity that lawyers cannot use language in a definitive manner—but that might result in unemployment in the legal profession!
I recall an occasion in the Senate when the late senator, Prof Julian Kenny, pointed out that a crab was not a fish (or some such distinction of animal species—I do not now remember the details of the discussion) and he was told that if the law says that a crab is a fish then so it is (at least as far as the courts are concerned)!
The President suggests that we must demand professionalism from our parliamentarians and infers that lack of this attribute is due to the fact that they are part-time. I do not agree. Part-time or full-time they must be professional.
However, I agree that elected parliamentarians should serve full-time (and be appropriately compensated) so that they can carry out efficiently their various responsibilities to Parliament. I do not agree that they should be looking after the day-to-day needs of their constituents; that is the responsibility of Local Government.
The arrangement whereby Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to represent areas is a convenient way of relating the population to Parliament in convenient groups and does not mean executive responsibility by MPs for those areas.
I shall quote from the United Kingdom Parliament website to indicate the responsibilities of members of Parliament under the Westminster system:
"The UK public elects Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent their interests and concerns in the House of Commons. MPs are involved in considering and proposing new laws, and can use their position to ask government ministers questions about current issues.
"MPs split their time between working in Parliament itself, working in the constituency that elected them and working for their political party. Some MPs from the governing party (or parties) become government ministers with specific responsibilities in certain areas, such as Health or Defence.
"Working in Parliament. When Parliament is sitting (meeting), MPs generally spend their time working in the House of Commons. This can include raising issues affecting their constituents, attending debates and voting on new laws. Most MPs are also members of committees, which look at issues in detail, from government policy and new laws, to wider topics like human rights.
"Working in their constituency, MPs often hold a 'surgery' in their office, where local people can come along to discuss any matters that concern them. MPs also attend functions, visit schools and businesses and generally try to meet as many people as possible. This gives MPs further insight and context into issues they may discuss when they return to Westminster."
It should be noted that everything relates to Parliament. When MPs work in their constituencies it is to gather information to take back to Parliament—not to fix matters directly. They do not fix drains or see to garbage collection. Those are the responsibility of Local Government. Unfortunately in this country, over the years, the impression has been given that MPs are directly responsible for all matters in their constituency and the Constituency Fund, which I oppose, takes away from the important duties of MPs in Parliament and undermines Local Government.
Recently I heard the leader of the Congress of the People (COP) on a television programme listing the achievements of the Government. It is ironic that one of the important planks of the COP was strong Local Government and so far there has been no effort on the part of this Government to strengthen this aspect of governance. When the Minister of Local Government speaks his emphasis is on what the ministry does and not what the municipalities do. The system will only operate properly when the Ministry of Local Government is abolished (likewise the Ministry for Tobago Development).
I do not agree that there should be 100 elected representatives (as proposed by the acting President)—this would be a waste of State resources. If there are no other constitutional changes the Prime Minister could (and probably would) just appoint more ministers and there would be no greater number of backbenchers!
An alternative which should be discussed would be to limit the number of ministers—12 would be adequate (there are 15 in the United States) and would ensure a minimum of eight backbenchers.
Another alternative would be to appoint all ministers from the Senate (apart from the Prime Minister) which would be a modification of the United States system where ministers are not appointed from elected MPs.
Discussion on constitutional amendments is urgently needed.
—John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator