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Autonomy of the Parliament

by Ralph Ramkarran

A Motion and a Bill, tabled by Khemraj Ramjattan of the AFC and Volda Lawrence of APNU respectively, relating to the autonomy of the Parliament Office, are before the National Assembly. The Motion resolves that a Special Select Committee be appointed to examine two sets of recommendations, one by Sir Michael Davies, a Commonwealth Senior Parliamentary Staff Adviser and the other by the Guyana Fiduciary Oversight Project Final Framework and Guidelines Report by the World Bank, on the issue and advise the National Assembly on the steps to be taken to implement them.

These reports were unanimously approved by National Assembly in 2006. The Motion and the Bill appear to seek the implementation of the reports as they relate to autonomy of the Parliament Office.

The recommendations on autonomy reflect those contained in the Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles on the Three Branches of Government endorsed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Abuja, Nigeria in 2003. Among those principles were: 1. Parliament should be serviced by a professional staff independent of the regular public service, and 2. An all-Party committee of members of parliament should review and administer parliament’s budget which should not be subject to amendment by the executive.

In 2007 the National Assembly appointed a Special Select Committee on the Guyana Fiduciary Project to report of the financial measures needed to be implemented to establish autonomy. The Committee sat until the end of the session of the National Assembly, for about four years, but did not produce a report.

The current situation in relation to the autonomy of the National Assembly is wholly unsatisfactory. The Clerk has no independent access to the funds voted by the National Assembly, unless the Ministry approves such funds through monthly advances. If the Consolidated Fund is short of funds, the budgetary needs of the National Assembly as approved by the budget are not satisfied.

In relation to employment, the Clerk cannot employ, dismiss or discipline. As public servants the staff of the Parliament Office are subject to Public Service jurisdiction. And despite statements in the National Assembly to the effect that the Clerk’s requests and recommendations are always accepted, the actual reality is quite to the contrary.

On December 3, 2008, I wrote the Chairperson of the Special Select Committee on the Guyana Fiduciary Project and submitted copies of the Parliament (Administration) Act of Barbados, the House of Commons (Administration) Act of the UK, the Administration of Parliament Act of Uganda, the Parliament Secretariat Act of Bangladesh and the Audit Act of Guyana. I had sought to provide for the Special Select Committee a wide variety of the forms of autonomy which are available around the world so that it could consider for Guyana the most appropriate or a mixture of two or more. I felt that Guyana’s Audit Act provided a good, indigenous, basis on which the autonomy of the National Assembly can be structured. But, as pointed above, the Special Select Committee did not report.

At the time that Sir Michael Davies was doing his study which resulted in the Needs Assessment of the Guyana National Assembly, James Pender of the Australian parliament office prepared a report on the Standing Orders suggesting amendments to upgrade and update the Standing Orders. He noticed that the Constitution mentioned the ‘Office of the Clerk’ and interpreted that reference to mean that the Office of the Clerk was in fact the Parliament Office and that such an office ought to be independent of the Public Service Commission and be responsible and answerable to the National Assembly. He drafted a bill which was never pursued by the Government. The Bill proposed by Ms. Lawrence appears to have relied heavily on the Pender Bill.

The bill intituled ‘Office of the Clerk of the National Assembly Bill 2012’ has serious flaws which will soon become apparent upon detailed consideration. For example, if members of the staff will no longer be appointed by the public service, then a body such as a Parliamentary Service Commission has to be established to determine conditions and terms of service and other related matters. As drafted it provides for the Clerk to make these decisions which will most likely not be acceptable to most. The question also arises as to whether the Parliamentary Service Commission ought to be a constitutional body.

Notwithstanding these issues it is hoped that autonomy of the Parliament Office is now a real possibility and that the Government will co-operate this time around to ensure that carefully considered legislation is passed without delay.