Bartlett says more 'reforms' coming for House committees

Bartlett says more 'reforms' coming for House committees

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, October 01, 2020

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LEADER of the House of Representatives Edmund Bartlett says changes to the make-up of its committees, approved Tuesday, mark the initial phase of an effort to reform Parliament.

“There is a whole mega programme of reformation that I have in mind, including establishing a reform committee made up of members from both sides of the House,” Bartlett told the Jamaica Observer yesterday. He explained that the reform committee will look at how the Parliament can be modernised, including changes to the Standing Orders and other current practices.

“All of that is part of the mission, and we are starting out by making these committees work,” the newly appointed House leader said.

Bartlett, meanwhile, rejected suggestions that the Government was changing the ways in which the committees are functioning, excepting for the powerful Public Administration and Appropriation Committee (PAAC) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), to reduce their ability to expose its mistakes.

He said that both the PAAC, which will be chaired by Opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Mikael Phillips, and the PAC, chaired by Opposition spokesman on finance and planning, Mark Golding, were left unchanged because the Government is conscious of the need for the oversight they provide.

Bartlett also noted that a tally of sessional House committee meetings made available by state minister responsible information, Robert Morgan yesterday, showed that the PAAC sat 87 times since 2016, and the PAC 31 times, compared to a total of only 78 meetings by the other 10 committees combined over the five-year period.

The House leader, who is currently engaged with a committee overseeing renovations at Gordon House to accommodate meetings during the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has temporarily halted meetings at Gordon House, also noted that some committees had even failed to meet, including the infrastructure committee, during the period.

“But we want them to meet. We have a large set of backbenchers now and we need to have work for them to do,” he stated.

He noted that the action of the Government was primarily to create a more vibrant Parliament, which would ensure that the policies that the executive put forward are made to work, “and that the Parliament holds it responsible for making the policies actualised”.

However, during the discussions on the changes on Tuesday night, Opposition MPs — Mark Golding, Phillip Paiulwell, Fitz Jackson and Anthony Hylton — raised objections to the changes.

Golding said that former Prime Minister Bruce Golding introduced the policy of Opposition MPs chairing all the sessional committees in 2007 as “an innovation designed to enrich our democracy and strengthen our Parliament and an oversight body in relation to the executive”.

Jackson, at the same time, described the move as “a retrograde step and a blatant abuse of power”. He appealed to Prime Minister Andrew Holness to revisit the proposal.

And Hylton described the move as a “subterfuge” and also appealed to the Government not to go ahead with the changes.

Prime Minister Holness held the point that the falsehood in the Opposition's arguments was to suggest that oversight is the purview and the responsibility of only the Opposition members.

“That is the falsehood in their argument. Oversight is the responsibility of every parliamentarian. It is the responsibility, particularly of the backbench, and the backbench is not defined by Opposition members only. The backbench includes everyone who is a non-executive member of the Government. They too have a role and a duty,” he said.

“The Government is trying to create a Parliament that functions, a Parliament that works and a Parliament where every single Member of Parliament can execute their duties and roles effectively. There is no attempt here no attempt whatsoever - to [deal with] the issue of oversight,” he argued.

He said that the changes will ensure that all backbenchers will have work to do, and all committees will be functional, “and their role will be to ensure that the Government keeps the commitments and the promises that it has made.

The changes were overwhelmingly approved by the Government's 35-seat majority in the House.

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