The debate in the Senate on the Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Bill ended at about 3 a.m. on Wednesday. When the motion for the third reading was moved (effectively that the bill be passed) the question was then put by the Senate President to senators. Apparently there were no or no audible “nays” and the President then pronounced “the ayes have it” and deemed the bill approved.
Since then members of the Opposition have claimed that it was plain that PNM senators did not support the bill, judging from their contributions. While most of the Independents did not clearly oppose the bill it appears that one of their number wished to record his non-agreement to some aspects of it. There was in the event a late call for a division and the implied suggestion is that the President of the Senate rushed the vote.
The Hansard records of the Parliament show that the “bill reported, without amendment, read the third time and passed”. Thereafter there was a motion to adjourn the Senate to September 20.
It was then, according to the Hansard, that a senator asked, “we cannot get a division?” Someone remarked that it was a simple majority and the date of the adjournment was then fixed. At this point Senator Prescott got to his feet saying, “... I had anticipated that there might be a division on this because I have a certain position. Am I on the right track at all?” The Senate President’ response was, “It seems not. You could have been, but I put the question to the Senate, there were no “Nos” and no request for a division. I then proceeded to the next step”.
It is apparent from the Hansard that there was no call for a division. According to the Standing Orders after the result of the vote is declared any senator may challenge the opinion of the chair by calling for a division. This is done by simply saying “Division”. It is not as of right and it does not occur after the bill has been deemed approved and the chair has moved on to another item of the agenda.
It is probable however that at 3 a.m. in the morning the Opposition senators may have missed the call through tiredness or sleepiness, although the records also show participation in discussion at the committee stage by a number of senators just before the vote. Nonetheless a question does arise as to whether it is fair to all that sittings of Parliament should run over 15 hours, until 3 a.m.
The President of the Republic had raised this in his address at the opening of Parliament. He had suggested, I believe, that sittings could begin at 8 a.m. Many persons jumped on this suggestion, whether in general support of the President or to show their disapproval of what they perceived were “lazy” MPs who usually began their sittings at 1.30 p.m. Those who are of the latter opinion are simply ignorant of the demands on an MP’s time.
An elected MP has obligations to his constituency and according to a survey by Parliament, most spend an average of 20 hours per week on constituency business. These constituencies extend miles and whenever there is an emergency in any place the MP is expected to hot foot it to the specific area. Even non-elected MPs — senators — are assigned constituency obligations by their parties.
Both our Houses sit every week except for some weeks off, twice a year. In addition, at budget time and whenever there is complicated legislation there are several sittings in the week, beginning at 10 a.m. Members it is reported spend an average of 10 hours in sittings per week and ten hours preparing for the debate, research; preparing their contribution; and the like. They have no research assistants. Add to this the fact that most members are members of at least two or three parliamentary committees.
For the privilege of working as an MP an elected member according to Parliament papers receives an annual base salary of about US$27,000, more or less on par with Barbados and Jamaica. While parliamentarians in Jamaica sit as often as those in Trinidad and Tobago in Barbados there are fewer sittings — roughly 25 per year.
In neither of these countries do sittings begin at 8 a.m. and being an MP is not a full time occupation, partly because they are not paid as full time MPs. In the UK where members spend most of their time on parliament business, although they may work privately, MPs are paid four times what ours are paid. In Canada, where being an MP is said to be full time, members are paid six time more while in the Cayman Islands, where legislators only sit about 20 times a year they are paid more than four times ours.
All of this talk of Parliament sitting at 8 a.m. is wholly unrealistic in the context of Trinidad and Tobago where most of our non-ministerial MPs have to support themselves through full time jobs. MPs who are ministers are paid a different salary but this is clearly because they have to be are paid for their full-time job of being a minister. I read in the newspaper a letter writer adjuring ministers to heed the President’s call and get to work at 8 a.m. From what I know most ministers work more than 12 hours and are often on the job before 8 a.m., whether it is at meetings or at a conference or at their office until after dark.
Something may have to be done about the late sittings of Parliament, yes, but it certainly will not be accomplished by requiring MPs, who are made up of ministers and persons with full-time jobs, to get to Parliament by 8 a.m.
They simply have other serious obligations while they still continue to sit as MPs until the early hours to get the job done.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former independent senator