Opposition welcome all-party management of National Assembly
Call for more members' days

Stabroek News
April 29, 2001

An all-party mechanism to manage the business of the National Assembly could help make it more effective, according to opinion in the opposition parties.

President Jagdeo and Leader of the Opposition Desmond Hoyte last week agreed that as soon as the National Assembly convened political parties would meet to establish a mechanism for the management of parliamentary business.

Speaking with the Stabroek News last week, one of the newcomers to the nation's highest forum, ROAR Guyana leader, Ravi Dev, told this newspaper that in the past not enough emphasis had been placed on the legislature for redressing grievances.

"If they could give importance to the parliament, it could be used to fashion a bigger agenda than the issues brought to the parliament by the government."

Dev believed that with the new dispensation to be ushered in when the proposed constitutional amendments were enacted, such as those relating to standing committees and the expanded role for the Public Accounts Committee, the legislative arm could become more effective.

The United Force parliamentarian, Manzoor Nadir, also believed that the new parliament could be more active if it was to complement the trend towards constructive dialogue set in the Jagdeo/Hoyte engagements.

Nadir stressed that this would require broadening the role of the parliament as well as increasing the resources available to parliamentarians, the quantum of which now depends on the generosity of the executive.

He contended, however, that with the proposed changes to be made to how the National Assembly functions, parliamentarians would need to be full time. "We can't have part-time parliamentarians any more," he said.

Nadir maintained that one of the first things that the all-party mechanism for managing the affairs of parliament should introduce, should be the provision of more time for private members' bills. The rules at present provide for these to be discussed on Wednesdays, but very few of these sessions were convened during the Sixth and Seventh Parliaments.

The agenda of the parliament was another area the proposed management mechanism should address, since at present it was set by the Speaker and the Leader of Government Business. Nadir observed that during the eight years he had been a parliamentarian, the National Assembly met on average every six to eight weeks, and at times did do so for what he described as "very frivolous" reasons.

Nadir contended that a pro-active legislature, an independent judiciary as well as an independent media which taught the people how to lobby for their interests rather than resort to violence were necessary to complement the move towards the resolution of problems through dialogue.

Eusi Kwayana, of the GAP/WPA alliance and a former parliamentarian also welcomed the agreement, which should give the National Assembly a more active role.

Among the things he would like to see introduced would be a provision for parliamentarians to be given the opportunity to speak for a given time before the official business of the session on a topic of their choice, with ministers having the right of reply.

Kwayana said that this would allow issues of the day to be aired in the parliament as against the time when the National Assembly was called to discuss issues of no relevance to the problems then exercising the minds of the society.

Another function that the mechanism should address is the distribution of the Assembly's time between government business and that reserved for backbenchers.

One of the measures he would like to see re-introduced would be the practice of releasing to the media questions to ministers five days after they had been submitted and placed on the Notice Paper. He recalled that a lot of questions during his time in the House had not been answered and said that this had been the experience of his comrades who followed him.

Like Nadir, Kwayana also wanted to see the re-introduction of Members Day, which is reserved, for motions tabled by backbenchers to be debated. However, he admitted that under the party list system, backbenchers had rarely displayed any initiative in bringing matters of interest to the assembly other than those agreed by their parties.

This he conceded could have been due to the quality of the backbenchers as much as to their having no responsibility to a constituency or to the quantity of resources made available to them.

He recalled that as a parliamentarian he had no official telephone even though he had provided the required information, and that in earlier times parliamentarians used to be provided with official telephones.

Stabroek News has learnt from the Clerk of the National Assembly that at present backbenchers are reimbursed for official calls to local numbers when they submit their bills. He said too that the allowance paid for telephones was $20 a month, which at the time it was introduced was more than adequate for the purpose.

Discontinued too, according to Kwayana, was the practice of providing every parliamentarian with a complete set of the laws of Guyana and he would like to see this re-introduced, although he admitted that it would be difficult to access a set which was up to date.

This newspaper has been informed that the practice was to make the volumes available to members during their period of office, after which they were required to return them.

However, the practice had been discontinued because of the high cost involved, although parliamentarians were given copies of the acts passed during their membership, and where they were available, those enacted before they entered the assembly.

Kwayana would also like to see the number of standing committees increased and their powers more defined so that they would have the authority to call persons to advise or to give evidence before them.

The mechanism he felt should also address the question of the reliance on Mays' Parliamentary Procedures, the authority on issues not covered by the Standing Orders.

Another measure which would be required was one which would take seriously incidents where members, be they ministers or backbenchers, misled the National Assembly.

Ralph Ramkarran SC, who is tipped to be Speaker of the House when it is convened on Friday, was a member of the last parliament and also welcomed the agreement on an all-party mechanism for managing the business of parliament, which he recalled was one of the measures suggested in the Herdmanston Accord process.

Like Nadir and Kwayana, he would like to see more members' days, which had not been a regular feature during the last parliament. Like them too, he envisaged a bigger role for the Standing Committees.

The Constitution Reform Commission, which Ramkarran chaired, recommended the establishment of Standing Committees on the four major sectors of the economy and the legislative amendment to put this into effect has already been agreed.

Ramkarran also felt that there should be a mechanism in place to support the work of the twenty-five regional parliamentarians who now had constituencies to which they must account. Fourteen of the 25 regional MPs are on the opposition benches.