I refer to the publication on the above subject in the Ghanaian Times of Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Honestly, I do not get it. Why all this fuss and fretting about a Private Member’s Bill (PMB)? To say the least, I think the write-up on the above subject is misleading and leaves much to be desired. In the first place, there is absolutely no need for Parliament to pass a resolution allowing private members bill to be moved and passed just as there is no need for Parliament to pass a motion for private members motions to be moved unless, of course, they want to take refuge in Article 298 which I do not think is applicable in this case. It could have just followed its Standing Orders. If Parliament has passed such a motion it is just exercising its legitimate right but in my view it is not necessary.
It is the constitutional right of the MP to submit a bill for consideration if he wishes to. But the real problem will be whether that bill will cross the Constitutional and Executive barriers to be passed into law. Unlike private member’s motions, Bills when passed into law are compelling. They direct government what it must do and it has to do it or comply. There are no options or discretion here. That is why governments are cautious and, in fact, suspicious of private members bills. If it is allowed to pass, government may not have the money, coercive powers, the wherewithal or human resources to implement it. That could cause a serious political embarrassment to government which the opposition will capitalize on. So Parliament may show solidarity to pass private member’s bill but it is likely, very likely, that the President may refuse to sign it because it does not conform to government policies, programmes and priorities.
Tabling a PMB is a discretionary right which can be exercised or used as and when a Member wishes but he must first contend with Article 108 of the Constitution and the Executive’s reluctance and/or opposition. Remember that in most cases government has the majority in Parliament. If it does not agree with the principles and purpose of the bill then the bill should be considered dead at birth. Because of this, even in Britain and some other old democracies, private member’s bill could be moved alright but it will scarcely go beyond the first reading. In fact, they are called “dustbin bills” because most of them end up in the dust bin of Parliament. Again the issue about Article 108 is not as simple as the writer has portrayed it. What Leadership was reported to have said was just opinions or views expressed on the Article 108. What is the Supreme Court’s interpretation? In my view the issue about this Article can only be resolved when it is submitted to the Supreme Court for interpretation.
At any rate, the existence of Article 108 should not prevent MPs from tabling bills if they are proactive and smart enough to partner with government. As already pointed out, even in advanced democracies, except may be the USA, private members bills are a rare stuff to pass. Most private member’s bills that are successfully passed are through collaboration with the Executive. Some civil society organizations (CSOs) like IEA have successfully done that in Ghana. To say that some bills have no financial implications is not entirely accurate, if not a fallacy. What I know is that every law is meant to be implemented and enforced. This involves drawing money from the consolidated fund allocated to the various ministries through the annual budget. No legislation can hang in the air or given specific allocation for implementation or enforcement. It has to be assigned to a ministry or a state organization that will use its staff, logistics and equipment to implement the legislation. This will not be done free of charge! Money has to be spent and that money can only come from its budget drawn on the consolidated fund
Admittedly, it is good and desirable for Parliament to pass private members bills but I do not think it is a basic necessity or priority of Parliament. Our political system is described as a “winner-take-all” This has received total condemnation from Ghanaians. The Consultative Assembly tasked Parliaments in the Fourth Republic to debate and decide on the Proportional Representation System as a possible alternative to the “winner-take-all” system. None of the Parliaments in the Fourth Republic has done that. Parliament has been empowered to exercise oversight over the Executive. It is to approve some of the President’s appointees or nominees; approve the President’s Budget; set up Committees to deal with matters arising from Reports of the Auditor-General and to audit the Accounts of the Auditor-General. How well and competently has Parliament discharged its duties? Our Parliament is confronted with myriad of critical problems like capacity building, training for MPs and provision of adequate, timely and accurate information to MPs to enable them do their work well. Parliament has to train its MPs in the skilful use of motions, questions and statements to hold the Executive to account.
There is also the problem of effective, correct, accurate and appropriate use of the Standing Orders of Parliament. Parliament is expected to develop or inculcate in the MP that independent and courageous mindset and attitude to deal with the Executive on equal terms. It must also satisfy the information needs of MPs. To achieve all these things, Parliament ought to run a well resourced robust Parliamentary Training Institute and Library-Information Services system. Parliament has to tackle the chronic problem of attendance of members to Parliament. Right now, most of our bills are passed at the Consideration Stage without a quorum. Yes, without a quorum. The passage of bills into law is left to a Parliamentary minority. This can cause a constitutional problem if the populace becomes more enlightened. What I am saying can easily be checked. The result is that the quality and compliance rate of our laws are suspect. Parliament has to provide well trained and motivated Research Assistants to MPs but this is not happening. Parliament ought to provide offices for MPs in their constituencies to enable them attend to their constituents and improve constituency interactions.
Passing Private Members Bill is commendable and desirable. Yes, we must encourage it. Yes, we must be seen to be doing something or show that our Parliament is mature or keep up with the joneses or, in parliamentary parlance, play to the gallery but frankly speaking it is no big deal and should not be blown out of proportion. And to talk about making history, well! As Ghanaians will put it, let us not play politics with the Private Member’s Bill. Yes, it could complement government bills but, hey, look at the backlog of government bills submitted to Parliament for passage. It is huge. Look at the laws which have been passed, sometimes hastily, but have been left to gather dust on the shelve. What is Parliament doing about that?
Former MP for Hohoe South