BILL WATCH 48/2013 [1st October 2013] 8th Parliament

BILL WATCH 48/2013

[1st October 2013]

8th Parliament Started Work Last Week

Both Houses of Parliament are Sitting this Week

Both Houses of Parliament sat on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week.  Attendance was good and there were no unduly short sittings.  Both Houses will sit again this week, starting on Tuesday 1st October.

Coming Up in Parliament This Week

[see below for last week’s proceedings]

In both Houses debate will continue on the President’s speech.

National Assembly 

Motion on an Inquiry into the Health Sector  Debate will continue on this motion, following its introduction last Thursday.  There are no other motions on the Order Paper at the moment.

Question Time [Wednesday]  The Order Paper for Wednesday lists no written questions with notice.  But oral questions without notice will be allowed for the first hour of Wednesday’s sitting.  Questions are addressed to Ministers, and when notice is given usually ask for details of a Ministry’s achievements or lack of achievements either nationally or in a particular constituency.  Oral questions are usually more general and ask about matters of Government policy.  When a question is on the agenda the Minister to whom it is addressed should make a point of attending that sitting.  During oral question time the nature of the questions, and whether they get replies, will depend on which Ministers are in attendance.  During the last Parliament Ministers tended to be conspicuous by their absence, and it is hoped that more questions will be both asked and answered during this Parliament.

Senate

The Senate Order Paper lists no motions apart from the motion on the President’s speech.  There are no written questions with notice.  Questions without notice will be taken on Thursday afternoon.

Proceedings in Parliament Last Week

Debate on the President’s speech  Senators and members of the National Assembly had one week within which to digest the President’s speech at the opening of Parliament on 17th September.  In both Houses the debate on the President’s speech is opened with motions being moved for the presentation of a respectful address to the President in the following terms:  “May it please you, your Excellency the President: We, the Members of Parliament of Zimbabwe, desire to express our loyalty to Zimbabwe and beg leave to offer our respectful thanks for the speech which you have been pleased to address to Parliament.”

The debate provides an opportunity for all members of Parliament not only to discuss the national issues raised by the President in his speech, but also to display their knowledge of their constituencies and provinces and to voice the concerns of the people they represent.  [Bill Watch 47/2013 of 20th September outlined the content of the President’s speech, concentrating on the legislative agenda he laid out for legislators in the coming Parliamentary session.]   It is during this debate that new members of Parliament often make their maiden speeches.

No Bills so far  No Bills have been gazetted as a preliminary to their introduction in Parliament.  Although the President mentioned that the Government would be bringing a respectably large number of Bills to Parliament [see Bill Watch 47/2013], it is probably too soon to expect Ministers to bring forward Bills at this early stage in the life of a new Government and Parliament.  For example, the new Minister of Lands and Rural Resettlement, Dr Douglas Mombeshora, said on Monday that that his Ministry is drafting the Land Commission Bill, which is one of the Bills mentioned by the President.  If the Ministry is still drafting this Bill, it is probably months before it will get to Parliament.

National Assembly

Attendance  All three sittings saw good attendance: with about 220 members present each day out of a possible 270.  [Note: The attendance list that features in each day’s Votes and Proceedings does not necessarily mean that each member listed as present was in the House the whole afternoon.  Members are marked as present if they enter the Assembly, even if they do not stay for long.]   The impossibility of accommodating all members in the chamber of the House became apparent when some members, unable to find seats, had to stand in the aisles. 

Motion on inquiry into health sector  The whole of Thursday afternoon was taken up by a motion calling for a portfolio committee inquiry into the health sector introduced by new MDC-T MP Dr Ruth Labode, a party-list member from Matabeleland North.  Dr Labode is MDC-T Shadow Minister for Health and Child Welfare.  Her motion was seconded by another new  MDC-T MP, Dr Peter Mataruse, who is Shadow Minister for Higher & Tertiary Education, Science & Technology Development .  The motion was well received by both sides of the House and several maiden speeches were made during the debate, which lasted until the House rose just after 4.30 pm.

Question Time [Wednesday]  No written questions with notice had been tabled, but there were enough Ministers present to allow backbenchers to use up the entire hour set aside for oral questions.

Senate

Attendance  As in the National Assembly, attendance figures were good: 63, 66 and 64 out of a possible 78.  There are already two vacancies in the 80 member Senate, as pointed out in Bill Watch 44/2013 of 6th September.  

Senators representing persons with disabilities  The Senate approved a suspension of Standing Orders to permit the presence in the Senate chamber of the assistants of the two Senators representing persons with disabilities.     

Motions  The only motion debated was the one on the President’s speech, already mentioned above.

Question Time [Thursday]  As in the National Assembly, no written questions with notice had been tabled, but Senators kept those Ministers present busy answering oral questions without notice on Government policy.

Standing Rules and Orders Committee

This, the most important Parliamentary committee, is provided for in section 151 of the Constitution.  It must:

  • ·      be constituted “as soon as possible after the beginning of the first session of each Parliament” and
  • ·      have members “selected so that the committee reflects as nearly as possible the political and gender composition of the combined Houses of Parliament”.

The Standing Rules and Orders Committee [SROC] is chaired by the Speaker or, in his absence, by the President of the Senate.  Its membership is a mix of ex officio and appointed or elected members: two members appointed by the President, one member appointed by the Speaker and one by the President of the Senate, and eight elected members [four backbench Senators elected by the Senate and four backbench members of the National Assembly elected by the National Assembly].  Until these appointments have been made and the backbench members elected, the committee cannot be constituted.

New Standing Orders  In terms of section 139 of the Constitution, the proceedings of the Senate and the National Assembly are regulated by rules known as Standing Orders.  These rules must be made by the Houses, individually or jointly, on the recommendation of the SROC.  So, as section 151 of the Constitution explicitly recognises, an important function of the SROC is formulating Standing Orders and recommending them to the Houses for adoption.

New Standing Orders that dovetail with the new Constitution are badly needed.  For instance, section 140 of the Constitution allows Standing Orders to provide for the President to attend Parliament to answer questions “on any issue” and MPs have already expressed the need for this to be done.  Draft new Standing Orders, including provision for Presidential question time, are being prepared by the staff of Parliament for consideration by the SROC when it is constituted.

Meanwhile, the Standing Orders of the previous Parliament, suitably modified where necessary to meet the changed circumstances brought about by the new Constitution, will regulate proceedings in both Houses until they are replaced.

Parliamentary Legal Committee and Other Committees

Other committees such as the Parliamentary Legal Committee, Public Accounts Committee, National Assembly Portfolio Committees and Senate Thematic Committees are appointed by the SROC.  The setting-up of these committees, therefore, will have to wait for the SROC to be constituted.

Parliamentary Legal Committee  The need for this committee to be up and running has already become apparent.  The principal purpose of this committee is to scrutinise Bills and statutory instruments for consistency with the Constitution, particularly but not exclusively the Declaration of Rights.  A recent statutory instrument, gazetted last week, raises serious issues of compatibility with the Declaration of Rights.  [See next Bill Watch for details of this SI on telephone subscriber registration.]

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