– following fiasco with local gov’t legislation
Parliament Office is now sending bills for assent directly to the Office of the President (OP), bypassing the traditional route that involved first referring them to the Attorney General’s Chambers for vetting.
The move by Parliament Office is seen as an assertion of its status as an independent branch of government and not beholden to the AG’s Chambers. Just over a year ago, a controversy erupted over why bills for the President’s assent needed to go first to the AG’s Chambers for the preparation of an assent certificate. Commentator Christopher Ram had pointed out that the rules of the National Assembly set out the route for the bills which did not include the AG’s Chambers. Attorney General Anil Nandlall later argued that it has been the custom for decades to send the bills first to the AG’s Chambers.
The decision to send the bills directly to OP was confirmed to Stabroek News by House Speaker Raphael Trotman and National Assembly Clerk Sherlock Isaacs on Thursday. It was made discreetly following the local government bills fiasco late last year.
Article 170 (2) of the constitution states that when a bill is presented for assent, the president should signify that he assents or that he withholds assent. Article 170 (3) adds: “When the President withholds his assent to a Bill, he should return it to the Speaker within twenty-one days of the date when it is presented to him for assent with a message stating the reasons why he has withheld his assent.”
Parliament Office’s perception is that the twenty-one days within which the President has to decide whether or not he will give his assent to bills sent to his office will commence from the point that it arrives at his office from the legislature.
Asked about the move in light of arguments by Nandlall that bills have to be checked at his Chambers before they go to President Donald Ramotar, Trotman stated that the AG is the legal advisor to the president, not the National Assembly, and the decision is in keeping with the Standing Orders (SOs) of the National Assembly.
SO 67 of the National Assembly states: “Any Bill passed by the Assembly shall remain in the custody of the Clerk who shall, subject to article 164 of the Constitution, at the earliest opportunity, submit the Bill to the President for his or her assent and the President shall assent in accordance with Article 170 of the Constitution.”
The local government bills fiasco
Four local government bills – The Local Government Commission Bill, the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, the Fiscal Transfers Bill and the Municipal and District and Councils (Amendment) Bill – considered important for the holding of local government elections, were passed on August 7th 2013 and sent to Nandlall’s Chambers, where they remained for nearly three months. During this time, Chief Parliamentary Counsel (CPC) Cecil Dhurjon was said to have been reviewing them for constitutional breaches as well as errors. On November 6th, the president announced that he had given his assent to three of the bills, and refused the other because he saw some of its provisions as unconstitutional.
Critics argued that President Ramotar violated article 170 (2) and 170 (3) of the constitution by taking so long to make a decision on the bills. The government. however, countered that the bills were not with the president for 21 days, that they were in the Chambers of the AG. In fact, the bills were signed within hours of being sent from the AG’s Chambers to the Office of the President.
Critics, particularly members of the opposition A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC), responded by accusing government of sending bills to the AG’s Chambers as a delay tactic.
Isaacs came under fire for the move, although it has been the practice before he began his tenure. Bills passed in the National Assembly have been sent to the AG’s Chambers even before Guyana gained independence. The practice continued under the People’s National Congress (PNC) and has been retained under successive People’s Progressive Party/Civic governments. It became an issue only after the opposition parties –APNU and the AFC – obtained the majority in the National Assembly, and with it the power to have bills not favoured by government passed.
Trotman on Thursday said that shortly after the fiasco with the local government bills the decision was taken for the Clerk of the National Assembly to send bills directly to the president after they are passed.
He said that all of the bills passed after the local government bills, including the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill, the Evidence (Amendment) Bill and the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, were sent directly to OP for Ramotar to decide whether to give them his assent or no. In similar fashion, the Appropriations Bill 2014, once fully prepared by the National Assembly, will be sent directly to Ramotar.
Isaacs told Stabroek News on Thursday that Parliament Office has only recently completed its preparations of the bill, though it was passed last week. He said the delay was necessary because the Ministry of Finance Ministry needed to verify that the amended amounts reflected in the bill are accurate. This verification process was completed on Tuesday, after which the bill was sent to the National Printers for assent copies to be made.
Nandlall says the bill still needs to be sent to his Chambers. He told Stabroek News on Thursday that he is government’s legal advisor, and therefore must receive the bills so that the CPC can check for constitutional violations, grammatical errors and errors made during printing. Once corrections are made, he said, he would then advise the president to either give or withhold his assent.
Complementary to the sending of the bills directly to OP would be Parliament’s move to have its own legal counsel to advise MPs on bills and address other legal issues traditionally undertaken by the AG’s Chambers.