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LESS TALKING TIME FOR MPs

Parliament report approves new Standing Orders

By Ria Taitt Political Editor

For the first time since 1961, MPs’ speaking time in the House of Representatives is to be cut down—from 75 minutes to 30 minutes. If the MP speaking so requests, he may get a ten-minute extension. 

 In addition to cutting down the speaking time, the House can impose time limits on an entire debate on the measure by agreement between the Leader of Government Business and the Opposition Chief Whip. If, for instance, the House decides to debate a measure for six hours, the Speaker has to divide the time equally “among the parties represented in the House, provided no member is unfairly disenfranchised”.

 These are among the major proposals of the Standing Orders Committee of the House of Representa-

tives. The First Report of the Stand­ing Orders Committee was tabled yesterday in the House by Government leader Dr Roodal Moonilal. Moonilal said he was very pleased to lay the document, which would have to be debated. 

The report has revolutionary proposals. And perhaps the most significant of them is the introduction of a prime minister’s question time. It means that every second Friday in each month, the Prime Minister will be in the firing line as she/he must answer questions on the performance of her Government. MPs would be able, without prior notice, to ask questions during this 30-minute session. The PM question time is one of the hallowed traditions of the British Parliament and the prime minister and the opposition can collect kudos or criticism, depending on how questions are asked and answered. 

Given the fact the Standing Orders Commit­tee, which made the recommendations, is weighted in favour of the Government—four Government members against two Opposition members—the recommendation for the Prime Minister question time points to this People’s Partnership Government’s willingness and app reciation of mechanisms designed to improve accountability in the Parliament. 

In this regard, there is also a provision for “urgent questions”. This would allow MPs to ask questions “on the ground of urgency in the public interest”, providing the question is submitted one hour prior to the commencement of the sitting. Once the Speaker approves the question, the minister should answer. However, the minister may decline to answer “if, in his opinion, the publication of the answer would be contrary to the public interest”.

The third substantial change is the committee has put into the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives the long-awaited provision to implement the Crossing of the Floor Act. The Standing Orders would be amended to include the section: “For the purpose of Section 49 (A) of the Constitution, the Speaker shall recognise as leader of the party in the House of Representatives the person who commands the support of the greatest number of members of such party in the House.” 

There have been difficulties implementing the Crossing of the Floor Act in the past—the one exception being the case of former St Joseph MP Herbert Volney. Now, there would be no doubt of the Speaker’s legal ability to declare a seat vacant, in instances where a member has crossed the floor or resigned from the party. 

Among the other proposals in the First Report of the Standing Orders Committee of the House of Representatives is a formula for electing a Speaker by secret ballot, once there is a contest (where two or more persons are nominated for the position). Furthermore, the report proposed if there is a tie, the Clerk of the House must determine by lot which candidate is to be eliminated. This would prevent a recurrence of the 18-18 impasse during which the Parliament could not meet for one year because there was deadlock between the People’s National Movement (PNM) and the United National Congress (UNC) on the election of the Speaker.

The report provides for a fixed recess. The House must not sit between the first week of the month of July to the first week in the month of September in any year, “unless there are urgent or extraordinary reasons for so doing”.

Traditionally, questions to ministers is a normal item on the Order Paper. But their questions are submitted 21 days in advance and can be delayed for long periods. The last PNM administration habitually asked for deferrals to questions, which sometimes went for an entire session without answer. The report recommends a minister can ask for a deferral once only for a maximum of 14 days. If the minister fails to answer after the expiration of 14 days, the Speaker can write to the minister, asking for reasons for the delay in answering the question. 

The report also recommends significant amendment to the committees of the House. The report has recommended the establishment of a Business Committee, a Committee on National Security, a Committee on Energy Affairs, a Committee on Foreign Affairs and a Committee on Government Assurances.

The Committee on Government Assurances “shall scrutinise the assurances, promises and undertakings given by ministers from time to time on the Floor of the House and report on: a) the extent to which such assurances, promises and undertakings have been implemented; b) when such assurances, promises and undertakings have been implemented and whether such implementation has taken place within the minimum time necessary for the purpose.” the report stated.

There is also a new accounting Committee called the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), which unlike the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Accounts Enterprises Com­mit­tee which are “after-the-fact committees”, the PAAC “shall have the (a) duty of considering and reporting to the House on budgetary expenditure of Government agencies to ensure that expenditure is embarked upon in accordance with parliamentary approval; ( b) budgetary expenditure of Government agencies as it occurs and keeps Parliament informed of how the budget allocation is being implemented; and (c) the administration of Government agencies to determine hindrances to their efficiency and to make recommendations to the Government for improvement of public administration”. 

The members of the Standing Orders Committee, which formulated all the proposals embodied in the “comprehensive review of the Standing Orders and which form the basis of this Report, are: House Speaker Wade Mark (chairman), Dr Roodal Moonilal, Colm Imbert, Jairam Seemungal, Delmon Baker, Collin Partap and Marlene McDonald. The committee was established on September 18, 2013, and had responsibility for considering all matters relating to the Standing Orders. The Standing Orders have been amended once only—in September 2000, the Standing Orders were changed to accommodate the establishment of the De­part­mental Joint Select Committees.

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