New rules sharpen parly teeth against ministers

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The Parliamentary Committee on Standing Rules and Orders last week adopted the revised rules of procedure that have been aligned with the new Constitution.

This is a significant development that should help to strengthen parliamentary processes and promote an accountable governance system. By aligning its own regulations with the Constitution, Parliament has certainly led by example in this alignment process.

The rules of procedure, commonly known as the standing orders, regulate the activities of Parliament. Section 139 of the Constitution empowers Parliament to make its own rules. Among others, the standing orders provide for the process of passing draft legislation into law; the appointment and functions of parliamentary committees; the way in which the powers, privileges and immunities of Parliament may be exercised; the questioning of ministers and deputy ministers; a code of conduct for members of Parliament; and the exercise of the right of citizens to petition Parliament.

Section 139 (3) is important to highlight as far as the standing orders are concerned. It says the procedures and processes of Parliament and its committees, as provided for in the standing orders, must promote transparency, must encourage the involvement of members of all political parties in Parliament and the public, and must be fair and just. I like this provision because it fulfils the principle of a democratic Parliament whose key features include accountability, transparency, accessibility and fairness.

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One of the other significant provisions in the revised standing orders is a requirement for ministers and vice-presidents to take parliament business seriously. Pursuant to the provisions of section 107 (2) of the Constitution, the standing orders compel vice-presidents, ministers and deputy ministers to attend Parliament and parliamentary committees in order to answer questions concerning matters for which they are collectively or individually responsible.

The inclusion of this provision in the Standing Orders also follow a notice to ministers and deputy ministers by the Speaker that the House would not allow a situation where some of them neglected their parliamentary duties to continue unabated.

“The chair wishes to further give notice that should this (verbal appeal to ministers to attend Parliament business) not produce the desired effect, the House will be left with no option but to invoke other constitutional powers at its disposal including contempt of Parliament,” the Speaker warned on July 24 2015.

The Speaker has certainly lived up to his promises as failure by ministers to attend and respond to parliamentary business now attracts punitive measures. The revised standing orders now require every minister or deputy minister to respond to a committee report within 10 sitting days. Failure to do so constitute contempt of Parliament after the minister would have been notified of the report. Contempt of Parliament is a criminal offence that attracts a fine. Since no minister is prepared to face public embarrassment, this provision should spur them to respond to committee reports within the stipulated time.

The standing orders also say a minister or deputy minister who is unable to attend the sittings of Parliament under section 107 (2) of the Constitution shall make an application for leave of absence in writing to the Speaker or President of the Senate. A minister or deputy minister who fails to attend Parliament without leave of absence having been granted by the presiding officers shall again be in contempt of Parliament.

Section 141 of the Constitution to do with public involvement in parliamentary business has been incorporated into the Constitution. It is now a legal requirement for Parliament to facilitate public involvement in its legislative processes and meetings of its committees, and consult interested parties about bills under consideration by Parliament unless the consultation is inappropriate or impracticable.

While it is a constitutional requirement for Parliament to conduct its business in a transparent manner and hold its sittings and those of its committees in public, the presiding officers have been granted powers to regulate public access, including access of the media, to Parliament and its committees and provide for the searching of persons and, where appropriate, refuse entry into Parliament or removal of any person from Parliament. These regulatory measures must however be fair, reasonable and justifiable.

The petitioning of Parliament has now been clarified in the revised standing orders in fulfilment of section 149 of the Constitution that grants citizens and permanent resident the right to petition Parliament. Every petition shall be referred to a relevant committee of the House. The relevant committee shall consider and decide on the best way to handle the petition without derogating from the provisions of standing orders. The committee shall consider the petition within 26 days and present its report and recommendations to the House. The House may adopt or reject the recommendations of the committee. The Clerk of Parliament is required by the rules to inform the petitioner(s) of the outcome immediately upon the conclusion of the matter by the resolution of the House.

This petitioning process is borrowed from best practices elsewhere, and is a vast improvement from the previous process that did not clarify what happened to the petition when presented to Parliament. The previous process also gave the leadership of Parliament final decision over petitions.

It is my hope that the streamlined and clarified process will allow more and more stakeholders to petition Parliament on a wide array of public policy matters currently choking the nation.

l John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com