I referred earlier to the need to strengthen Committees of Parliament so that they can provide better inputs into legislation, but recent experience indicates that there is much more that should be done to ensure better legislation for the country. I have realized now that we are perhaps the weakest country with regard to formal procedures, amongst those that can claim to have strong democratic traditions. This may well lead to the erosion of democracy that we simplistically diagnose in terms of people, without due attention to the processes that are so vital for democracy.
This danger is obvious if we consider the current common belief that problems with regard to the Chief Justice arose when the initial Supreme Court judgment on the Divineguma Bill was delivered. When the Parliamentary Group met that day, I suggested that this judgment, following on several previous bills of great importance having failed to get through Parliament in the previous two years, indicated that we needed to be more careful about legislation.
This suggestion was repudiated, on the grounds that the Supreme Court was biased, and even the Attorney General under whose aegis the Bill had been drawn up had found, being now on the Supreme Court, that it needed amendment. Given the different areas of responsibility in the Attorney General’s Department, this did not strike me as evidence of inconsistency, and I am happy to say that now Members of the Cabinet have declared that the Supreme Court had suggested some sensible amendments that government should have introduced from the start.
I believe this vindicates my position, that government has been far too careless about legislation recently. This is not always because of haste, given that indeed one crucial measure has had to be dropped for the moment because of delays at the Legal Draughtsman’s Department. I refer to the attempt of the Ministry of Higher Education to encourage private and non-profit tertiary education, something this country urgently needs if our youngsters are to benefit from the economic opportunities our infrastructural development programmes have created.
There the Legal Draughtsman sat on the draft the Ministry had provided, or rather ignored it, and took well over a year to produce another draft. Sadly, this process being thought essential to start with, the opportunity to consult with stakeholders while deciding on the broad framework of the proposed changes was lost. Polarization of positions, for other reasons too, took place, and I fear that the reforms we need so sorely will not see the light of day during the lifetime of this Parliament – though one can hope that prorogation and a new session may bring them to life again.
Another area where chaos resulted from a failure to consult was the proposal to institute pensions for private sector personnel. The commitment of the Labour Ministry to consult stakeholders, including the Employers” Federation and Trade Unions, was ignored because the Treasury decided to draft the Bill itself. Opposition mounted, when this could easily have been contained through a positive response to stakeholder suggestions, and compromises as appropriate. But the common disease of intransigence when ownership is not shared led to violence and death and the abandonment of one of the most significant proposals in the President’s manifesto.
I was surprised when I heard, admittedly from someone whose perspective relates to the priorities of the Labour Ministry, about the exclusive responsibility of the Treasury for the Bill. I suppose though that this is inevitable when we have too many Ministries and the Treasury sees itself as having to control not just finances but also any related legislation. Given the comparative competence of Treasury officials, I can see why they think they have the capacity to run everything, but this can only lead to disaster, as they spread themselves too thin, and fail to take seriously the views of more closely concerned stakeholders.
We need then to institutionalize a system of wider consultation when important legislation is on the cards. This is best done through the Line Ministry, and its Consultative Committee, members of which can facilitate the involvement of multiple stakeholders. While the initial concept is being discussed, a draft can be prepared, with input as required from other agencies of government such as the Legal Draughtsman’s Department and the Treasury, but he primary responsibility for legislation must lie with the Line Ministry, and amongst those it communicates with must be members of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee, since in the end it is Parliament that must pass the proposed legislation.
It could be argued that, for this exercise to be meaningful, the way in which Consultative Committees are constituted needs to be more rational – and indeed the way in which Parliament is constituted. But I believe that people live up to the responsibilities they are given, or at least some people do, as I can see from some of my colleagues who do attend Committee meetings in Parliament. If there is also transparency about the proceedings of those Committees, we will surely find Parliament doing a better job of its primary responsibility.