I had intended to conclude this series with the previous article, but confusion in Parliament recently, with regard to the Local Authorities Election (Amendment) Bill, highlighted some problems that require resolution. The main problem that arose was the absence of a Tamil translation of amendments that were to be moved in the Committee stage of the bill, but there were other problems too, all of which can be dealt with easily if some conceptual clarity is brought to the legislative process.

For those who do not understand the process by which legislation is passed – and this includes many Parliamentarians – there are supposed to be three Readings of any Bill before it becomes law. The first is simply the notice to Parliament that a Bill is proposed. There is no vote on this Reading.

Then comes the main decision making process, which is called the Second Reading.  Before this there is usually a debate, and that debate is usually used to make general political points. Whilst a few of my colleagues actually address the provisions of the Bill, in support or in Opposition, most of them simply talk about politics in general. This is not however unusual or regrettable, since this is what might be described as the political stage of the legislative process.

After the Bill is passed at its Second Reading, it has to undergo what is termed the Committee stage. Sadly, in Sri Lanka, the Committee that goes into the Bill is almost always a Committee of the whole House, and the process is seen as a formality. If there are any amendments proposed by Government, they are passed without debate, and if there are amendments proposed by the Opposition, they are voted down if a vote is requested. Then the House is reconvened for what is termed the Third Reading. It is informed that certain amendments have been passed in Committee, and finally the House then votes on the Bill as amended. After it is passed then, it is sent to the President, and subsequently the Speaker informs the House that it has been signed into law.

Since the Committee stage is now seen as a formality, it is desirable that any amendments the Government wishes to propose are available while the debate on the Second Reading is taking place. Thus those amendments too are – in theory at any rate – discussed during that debate, which is why they do not need to be debated in the Committee stage.

However, on April 5th, there had been some delay in formulating the Amendments to be proposed, and the Tamil version was not available in the afternoon. In theory this was not a problem, for what was happening was the Second Reading, and the original Bill had long been available in all three languages. However, it would clearly have been wrong then to treat the Third Reading as a formality, and the Government very properly decided to postpone the Committee stage and the Third Reading. I hope therefore that there will be an extended Committee stage, of at least a couple of hours, so that the Opposition can comment on the amendments, and the Government can respond and clarify as required.

This is essential since some of the Amendments are controversial. However, given that now the Legal Draughtsman’s Department is not as competent as it used to be, it would make sense to have longer Committee stages for all Bills. At present when the Bill is passed it is noted that this is subject to correction of drafting errors. That however should not be a formality left to officials, but should be carefully checked by Parliament, since the final product is the Law of the Land, and Parliament must take responsibility for this.

An instance of the type of problem that needs resolution occurred on the 5th, when I found that the draft Bill had two separate provisions for what are termed multi-member wards. In one place it was indicated that a party had to nominate as many candidates as there were seats to be filled, but elsewhere it indicated that a party could nominate just one candidate for such wards. I had mentioned this previously, and the Legal Draughtsman’s Department had been given precise instructions, based on what seemed the consensus that had been reached. But the instructions had been forgotten, and the new amendments – that came late – had not resolved the problem. While I myself had no strong feelings about what decision should be reached, it seemed that others did. This was clearly therefore a problem that should be resolved by Parliament, not by leaving it to the Draughtsmen to iron out inconsistencies.

Given that these and similar difficulties require thoughtful resolution, it would make sense to discuss them in a smaller Committee. There is provision for this, and ideally, if the system of Consultative Committees for each Ministry were better developed, the Committee would consist of Members with a special interest in the work of the Ministry that put forward any Bill. This discussion would not be based on political rivalry, as marks the debate on the Second Reading, but would be designed to produce high quality legislation, based on consensus where possible. Though obviously differences would continue, Government, having got the Bill through its Second Reading, would listen to suggestions in a constructive spirit, while the Opposition, recognizing that the Bill had got through once, would abandon the confrontational approach of the Second Reading and strive simply to produce better legislation. Given that the dynamics of Committee work facilitate understanding and cooperation, we could then hope for laws that are more generally acceptable.

This would not obviously be necessary for most Bills since, where there are no controversial Amendments, the Committee Stage could follow immediately on the Second Reading, and include the whole House. However, given the drafting errors that now recur so constantly, there should also be a mechanism to have the final versions of all Bills, incorporating all Amendments, checked by a Committee before they are sent to the President.

Island 5 May 2011 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=24581