Government needs to be accessible to the people. At present however everything militates against this. Laws are formulated in language people cannot understand. They are amended with no effort to ensure that clean copies of the latest version are available for anyone to consult who needs them. Instead you have to go through the original Act and then all the amendments to the Act, Thus, even though the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed three months ago, a consolidated version of the Constitution is still not available.
The President called for one the other day, and could not understand why this had not been prepared already. But our Legal Draughtsman’s Department still works on the old system that developed before computers made production of a consolidated version simple. When I pointed this out five years ago – having asked for the earlier Act that was being amended one day in Parliament, since I thought I should know precisely what I was voting for – I was told that this was the tradition and there was no need to change it.
Fortunately the Secretary General understood the implications of my question and said that a copy of any Act being amended would be available for inspection in the Officials’ Box (he said it would be a waste to give copies to all members, and I fear he was correct). Anyway now that the President has made his view clear, I hope the Department will in future present new Acts as a whole when there are substantive amendments. But I suspect the usual lethargy will take over, and we will go on in the same old way.
Similarly, laws continue to be formulated in language that ordinary people – and indeed professionals unless they are lawyers – cannot understand. The same goes for the Standing Orders of Parliament, and this may explain why there has been appalling attendance at meetings of the Standing Orders Committee, on the rare occasions on which they were held. The Speaker understands the problem, and recently drew my attention to the Standing Orders of the New Zealand Parliament. They are couched in very simple language, and he suggested we should produce something on those lines. That would be very easy to do, and with the Cut and Paste function of computers, we could graft onto our existing text the required additions from New Zealand or any other country that has a more sensible text.
We could also learn from them how we do not need all sorts of different regulations. The government has made a meal out of its pledge to introduce a Code of Conduct, which was high on its agenda (except that no one in a decision making position bothered to look at the agenda). In fact Anura Kumara Dissanayake had produced a draft early on, but that was buried in the Prime Minister’s Office until I drew attention to the lapse. Rajitha Senaratne then woke up and said I was wrong to claim no one was interested, and the Code would be brought before Parliament soon. That was the last anyone heard of it, though I gather the draft was circulated to a select few.
Meanwhile the enterprising staff in Parliament, a resource that is much underused, had found an earlier Code of Conduct which had been issued in the time of President Premadasa. The Speaker meanwhile noted that guidelines as to conduct were incorporated in the New Zealand Standing Orders, and he suggested that we should follow that example and incorporate standards for Parliamentarians in our Standing Orders.
President Premadasa, or the officials he had appointed for the purpose, had done a good job and the Code they had issued is simple and straightforward, much easier to work on than the draft produced this year. But I would agree that such a Code needs to be issued by Parliament, since it is not the business of the Executive to tell Legislators how they should behave. The Speaker ordered that the 1990 Code be reprinted and issued to all Parliamentarians, so that that could be a working draft, and we could then have finalized what was needed during the revision of Standing Orders.
But two days after the Committee met – or rather I should say the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition and me, since no one else came (though fortunately we made up a quorum) – Parliament was dissolved. I am not sure now that the very practical decisions we came to will ever be implemented. Still, I hope the Minutes will be ready for whoever takes on this task in September.
However much we simplify language though, and try to have all requirements under one cover as it were, there will still be need of assistance with understanding the meaning of laws and regulations. How difficult this can be came home to me when I was going through the very complex manner in which regulations as to University Admissions are drawn up. I believe these could be simplified, and made more accessible to the actual stakeholders and their parents and teachers, but still there may be ambiguities or options that need careful study.
For this reason I incorporated in the new Draft Higher Education Act a counselling service in every District. What we put in the proposed Act was that amongst the duties of the Higher Education Commission would be
‘Establishing in every District a Centre for Advisory Services for students which shall
a inform students of courses at universities
b advise students on admissions procedures and provide guidance and assistance with regard to applications
c transmit requests to the HEC and to universities and provide answers within one week
d liaise with universities to provide presentations on their facilities and courses to students at the District Advisory Services Centre’.
That type of close and I hope sympathetic liaison with those supposed to benefit from government activities should be the norm in all departments. And even if the problem cannot be solved on the spot, such Centres should be used for referral, to save individuals having to travel long distances to get information or responses to requests from Central – or even Provincial – Ministries.
I was particularly upset by aged parents travelling overnight with young girls to get answers which could easily have been provided locally, without troubling them to come to Colombo. And in some cases they had come more than once. Such systems, amounting to harassment, are unacceptable, and there is absolutely no reason not to set up user friendly systems that people can access without difficulty.