Parliament still hamstrung by lack of autonomy, political will

- UNDP assessment

Despite reforms, the National Assembly still lacks sufficient autonomy and resources, according to an assessment of its committees system, which also says that the tenor of debate continues to be shaped by political divisions.

These were among the conclusions contained in the final report of an Assessment of Committees System of the National Assembly of Guyana, which was handed over to Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman in April.

The study, funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was carried out by two experts, Robin James of the UK House of Commons and Dr David Ponet of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), who conducted an assessment of the functioning and capacities of the committees. The actual study was conducted by the consultants in December 2012 and it is part of an ongoing Parliamentary Support Project, signed in September 2011 between the Government of Guyana, UNDP and UNICEF.

The report, which has been committed to the Parliamen-tary Management Committee, said that while some progress has been made since the Sir Michael Davies Needs Assessment report in 2005, the Parliament remains weak and under-resourced. But the report said that perhaps the most crucial yet hardest point to articulate in terms
of a concrete proposal is that of political will.

“Guyanese society continues to grapple with fault lines that too often fall along ethnic divisions. Regrettably, these fissures manifest themselves in the partisan divides and within the political culture that often shapes the tenor of debate in the House,” it said.

It noted that Guyana’s constitution envisions a power-sharing model, hence the Westminster-presidential hy-brid and an electoral system that is proportional in nature as opposed to a strict winner-take-all approach. “It is high time that Guyana’s political culture reflects this ideal of power-sharing,” the report said.

“A strengthened committee system can be an ideal site for parties to come together to hash out legislative deals in the spirit of negotiation and compromise which are the very core of democratic politics,” the report added. It noted that the polarisation one finds in plenary is not unique to Guyana “but parliamentary committees provide a potentially valuable space where representatives of the parties can come together to advance the work of the Assembly to the benefit of Guyanese society.”

The consultants focused on capacity, resourcing and political will in their conclusions, explaining that some of the capacity challenges reflect resource needs and structural impediments while others may be a function of political will. “Similarly, sometimes the politics on display in the National Assembly occlude the development of capacity,” they added.

The report said that despite the clear recommendations from the Davies Report, “the Assembly still lacks autonomy. In the longer term we believe that the Assembly should aim to achieve financial and organisational autonomy from Government.”

It said that autonomy would help to improve both the capacity and self-esteem of Parliament and its committees, and would be in accord with the best international practice. “We recognise that this is not likely to happen overnight. A first step would be for Parliament to be given a global annual budget (a lump-sum bloc) within which it would take its own decisions on specific allocations,” the recommended.

It said that another step would be to grant Parliament greater autonomy in its hiring and management of staff. “The Government retains control over hiring decisions and there is no promotions system within the Assembly staff structure. Ceding this authority to the Assembly would similarly enhance the capacity and prestige of the Assembly and its committees and incentivize staff to cultivate areas of specialty and to pursue a long-term career within parliament,” the report said.

It pointed out that in contrast, the current arrangement could see staff leaving and do not provide much incentive to develop expertise.

The UNDP study found that the part-time nature of parliamentary work is a major hurdle to reform and “serves as a constant constraint on capacity.”

With regards to the work of committees, the consultants said that irregular meetings and/or irregular attendance by MPs compromises the ability of committees to execute their work effectively.

“It remains critical that committees meet regularly at stated times and that members attend,” the report said. “Whips must do their jobs as well to help ensure attendance. Committee meetings that are open to the public (e.g. those of the PAC and the four sectoral committees) should have their meeting dates and times published broadly and on the website well in advance of the meeting,” it said. Here, the report said, that it is of utmost importance that the website is revamped as planned and that it hosts committee minutes and reports (current and historical). It also said hearings should be live-streamed.

“MPs’ salaries are far from adequate, which imposes limitations on Members’ time as they are tom between professional duties and their obligations as Assembly Members. This would explain, in part, why Members may not always be optimally prepared when participating in committee work or why the requests they make of clerks are often limited to the mechanics of holding meetings and hearings,” the report also stated.

It noted too that committee chairs and members already receive a modest extra stipend. “We recommend an increase in these stipends, in particular for chairs such that it might allow them to work full time for Parliament. However, any increase in salary should be indexed to Members’ enhanced performance on committees,” the report said.

It noted that several metrics could help capture performance, “for example: individual attendance records, regular and frequent committee meetings over the course of a year (total number), the number of evidentiary hearings held, the issuance of a committee report replete with clear conclusions and recommendations, etc.”

The report also recommended that MPs receive training from staff or MPs from other countries on the various procedures, practices and committee powers. “Chairs in particular should receive an induction of some kind that regales them with the specifics of committee functioning and their role responsibilities as chairs,” it said.

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