Too expensive! - MPs blame cost to use highway for parliamentary tardiness, absences
Using the North-South Highway is proving to be quite expensive for lawmakers, but that cannot be an excuse for not turning up for the people's business at Gordon House, Derrick Smith, the leader of government business in the House of Representatives, is stressing.
Data from Parliament for the period March 10, 2016 to March 28, 2017 show that none of the 50 meetings for the period started on time and that members of parliament (MPs) routinely miss sittings.
Smith and Phillip Paulwell, the leader of opposition business in the Lower House, both told The Gleaner that the situation, which also sees some members failing to attend a single committee meeting, cannot continue.
"One cannot support or condone individuals making themselves available to be elected to Parliament to deal with the business of their constituents and to be present to deal with the legislative programme and for whatever reason do not show on time and do not attend regularly," Smith said.
But he said there are factors that affect how rural MPs attend, including meeting the costs of using the North-South Highway, which runs from Caymanas in St Catherine to Mammee Bay in St Ann. The 66-kilometre roadway is the key link between northern and southern Jamaica.
"In fairness, some of the rural MPs do have a problem, a money problem. It costs them $7,000-plus per day. They have to travel that way to save time and for convenience, and it is costing them a fortune," he said, citing other challenges, but added that "there really ought not to be any excuses".
MPs get upkeep, travel and mileage allowances for the days when they have House or committee meetings.
Motorists have repeatedly complained about toll rates, which, depending on the leg, range from $90 to $3,700. Earlier this month, the National Road Operating and Constructing Company noted that the rates are lower than what can be charged but could be increased come July based on the outcome of ongoing negotiations.
In the meantime, Paulwell is calling for House Speaker Pearnel Charles to enforce rules governing attendance.
"I just don't think we have been enforcing those rules, and I think it's time now that the speaker insists," he said.
Under House rules, a seat could be deemed vacated if the member, without getting a leave of absence from the speaker, misses six consecutive sittings during a period not exceeding 21 days. To prevent being removed, the member must also satisfy the speaker within 15 days after the period that the absence was unavoidable.
However, Smith said over his three decades as a parliamentarian, that rule was never used, and while he is not against Paulwell's call for enforcement, for now, he would prefer "a period of reorientation just to let the members know the intent of the speaker, not just to drop it on the members without proper notice."
In another two weeks, Paulwell said opposition members now failing to attend committees will be removed.
"We are going to be shifting our members who, for whatever reasons, have not been able to attend meetings and to replace them with members who can," he stated.