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Acting President suggests: Hire professional staff to advise MPs
Acting President Timothy Hamel-Smith has suggested improvements for the Parliament to prevent recurrence of the Section 34 issue. This includes technological systems and hiring permanent professional staff to advise MPs on legislative and financial matters.
Hamel-Smith, who is President of the Senate, is acting until President George Maxwell Richards returns next month. Hamel-Smith said his first official as acting President was to receive a petition from the Opposition Leader on behalf of concerned citizens about Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act.
He said his dual role—Senate President and acting President—placed him in a unique position to reflect on the multi-dimensional issues arising on the issue. Hamel-Smith said he had brought the matters raised to the Prime Minister’s attention. He listed a wide cross-section of information, communication and views he examined on the matter. Hamel-Smith said citizens had every right to continue to be concerned and seek assurances against a recurrence, even after the clause was repealed and ex-minister Herbert Volney was fired.
He agreed Section 34 of the act, as amended in the Senate and then passed in both Houses, was fundamentally flawed. “It was simply wrong for legislation to be passed which imposed a time limit for the prosecution of indictable crimes which would start to run from the date of the alleged offence, without at least (i) excluding serious white-collar crimes, including corruption and money laundering; or (ii) permitting the court to exercise its discretion dependent on the facts of each case.”
Hamel-Smith added, “As the Presiding Officer at the time this act was passed in the Senate, I feel a sense of personal responsibility to ensure this failure on the part of our parliamentary system, of which I am an integral part, does not recur. “As currently constituted our parliamentarians are overburdened and therefore cannot perform at optimum levels and as a result our committee system, which is a vital oversight mechanism, does not function as it should. This will require that in considering constitutional reform, the following matters need to be taken into account: a professional Parliament. We demand professionalism from our parliamentarians yet engage them on a part-time basis. It is essential that all parliamentarians be engaged on a full-time basis.”
He said ministers were required to perform multiple functions which would be impossible for any single individual to satisfactorily fulfil, from ministerial operations and Cabinet participation to committee meetings, Parliament and MP duty and other responsibilities. Hamel-Smith made several suggestions to avoid recurrence of the failure of the parliamentary system.
He added: “Two vital aspects of our parliamentary system which should act as protective mechanisms to limit executive excesses are: (i) the check and balance provided by the fact that in order to pass ordinary legislation the Government requires the support of at least one member from among either the Opposition Senators or Independent Senators; and (ii) the oversight mechanism intended by the adoption of the committee system from the Westminster model.
“Regrettably, as currently operated, the committee system is broken and is not performing as was intended under the Westminster model.” Hamel-Smith said Parliament engaged the United Nations Development Programme and European Commission last October to review T&T’s parliamentary practices and make recommendations to strengthen Parliament’s oversight functions including its legislative functions.
This initiative when implemented will allow for greater separation of powers between the executive and legislative arms of government and should result in improving public confidence in the Parliament,” he said.
“The introduction of the governance measures and procedures outlined would go a long way to restoring public confidence in political systems and allow for an improved system of governance. I strongly recommend swift implementation so this blot on our parliamentary system of government will never recur.”
• Parliament should introduce large screens so members can see each clause of a bill and any amendment of it. The current system in which amendments are merely called out over the floor of the House is inefficient and prone to error.
• An electronic register of undertakings and assurances to record and monitor assurances given by parliamentarians and their implementation of such undertakings and assurances.
• The Clerk of the House should certify whether undertakings and assurances have been satisfied. A certificate would be attached to bills sent to the President for proclamation. This would avert the President proclaiming legislation without the prerequisites being fulfilled.
• Hire at least two permanent professionals to advise members on legislative and financial matters. In more developed parliaments, advisers are assigned to each parliamentarian. Our Parliament cannot afford this but should be in a position to hire two well qualified professionals.
• A management information system allowing for a single platform for seamless preparation and finalisation of legislation, from initial drafting through all the stages of executive approval and parliamentary review and amendment and ultimately ending with publication. The present system is inefficient and likely error prone.
• Increasing the number of non-executive parliamentarians. Recommendations of the Royal Commission in New Zealand which considered this issue suggest that T&T require a minimum of 100 non-executive parliamentarians.
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