Tue | Jan 23, 2018

Jaevion Nelson | Time to budget for Parliament’s productivity

Published:Thursday | January 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The performance of the Jamaican Parliament has been abysmal for far too long and it doesn't seem this will improve anytime soon. Sadly, while there have been changes in government for the last three elections, this has not made much difference. The constant banter and heckling remain and the parliament continues to laden us with its lethargy and unproductiveness.

Typically, less than 30 pieces of legislation are passed each year and bills often sit and gather dust for several years before they are passed. Last year, the Parliament passed a total of 26 pieces of legislation, including the long-overdue DNA Evidence Act and some related to local government. An additional six pieces of legislation were tabled. In 2015, 33 pieces of legislation were passed while there were 24 in 2014. Between 1980 and 1989, 214 pieces of legislation were passed an average of 21 annually. In the period 1990 to 1999, there was an average of 27 per year and an average of 26 between 2000 and 2009.

It seems quite clear that our MPs must be held accountable to fulfil their obligation as set out in Section 48(1) of the Constitution to 'make laws for the peace, order and good government of Jamaica'. As the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reminds us, in its 2012 Global Parliamentary Report, 'effective parliaments shape policies and laws which respond to the needs of citizens, and support sustainable and equitable development'.

It is also most unfortunate that our Members of Parliament (MPs), despite their duty to shape policies and laws, refuse to sit for more than a couple of hours on Tuesdays and are quite often late! I've lost count of the number of times journalists have tweeted about the handful of MPs present, even an hour after the scheduled commencement. Some are frequently absent and some are forgotten because they don't ever seem to have anything to say.




However, while we castigate MPs in this regard, we must pay attention to the level of support they are provided with to do their jobs effectively where policy and lawmaking are concerned. It is highly unacceptable that the parliamentary budget only makes provision to pay for a Secretary for an MP. Through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), they can hire two consultants to manage projects. There is no money to undertake their policy and lawmaking duties. Senators, I understand, are given a measly $17,000 per sitting attended which cannot adequately pay for the support they need.

It means therefore, that unless an MP is a Minister, he/she will not have the kind of support needed to focus on critical policy and legislative issues that would help to make 'Jamaica the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business'. I am aware the University of the West Indies has a programme where a handful (?) of students, I believe those in the Department of Government, are available to provide support, if a request is made. But why should such a critical function depend on free labour?

We should we budget effectively in this regard so they can draft motions, sponsor legislation, and be fully informed about laws and policies that are being discussed as well as make contributions to the debate rather than doze off until it is time to cast their vote.

It doesn't help that how we tend to measure their effectiveness is limiting. As one MP said to me, "Jamaican people only care about the constituency work; that's why they want to see you every day. They want you to walk up and down in the community every day and come to the bars and hang out with them, and come to their events. They don't give an iota about the parliamentary side of things. Ask them about that, they don't care."

Perhaps civil society and the media could engage the citizenry to engender a deeper understanding of the role and responsibilities of our parliamentarians.

We need a cadre of staff to provide the necessary support to parliamentarians to do their jobs effectively. We need a parliament building with well-resourced library, offices, conference/meeting rooms, more legislative drafters, and resources for the staff to perform their function. I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister would consider this critical matter and commit to ensuring this is done. What a legacy this would be sir! Otherwise, the backbenchers can have an uprising.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.