The matter of coronavirus (COVID-19) has certainly raised alarm bells across the island, and therefore it is not surprising that the response has also become an issue in the Houses of Parliament.
The House of Representatives’ House Committee has started to look at increasing meetings and improving communication between members of Parliament with the use of new technology like Zoom, which provide links between the participants as well as the involvement of the media and the public.
However, the House Committee having started the use of the technology by zooming meetings of the COVID-19 oversight committee headed by Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr Christopher Tufton, and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by Opposition MP Mark Golding, is now looking at hosting virtual meetings of the House of Representatives in order to conform with social distance requirements.
The committee is already looking into the possibility of turning into virtual meetings some sessions of the House, in order to meet the protocols set by the Government to reduce the spread. The Senate has taken the lead in responding to the call, although it is yet to host a virtual meeting.
However, thanks to the sensitivity of Deputy House Leader Everard Warmington it has become clear that the House Committee has not been addressing the issue in a proper manner. In fact it is the Senate’s Standing Orders Committee which has taken the right, although it is yet to hold its first virtual meeting.
The Senate’s Standing Orders Committee, headed by its president, Senator Thomas Tavares Finson, met Friday morning and agreed on a special report containing an amendment to its Standing Orders, which will allow its committees to meet in a virtual environment.
The Standing Orders Committee’s report asked that the Senate be empowered “to conduct their business using available information and communications technologies that enable virtual meetings to be held via the worldwide Web”. The Standing Orders of the Senate (SO 77(3)) allows a special select committees to make special reports on its powers, functions on any matter that it thinks fit to bring to the notice of the Senate.
The report was approved by the Senate on Friday, and that House is expected to meet again on Monday to continue consultations on actually having the full Senate meetings to be held in a virtual setting.
However, an issue arose in the House of Representatives last Tuesday, after Deputy Leader Everald Warmington boycotted the first virtual meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), claiming that the committee had no authority to hold a virtual meeting without the approval of the House.
The issue came up during last week’s first virtual meeting of the PAC, when Opposition MP Lisa Hanna brought to the attention of the committee that there was a message from Warmington advising that they were meeting informally and without the recognition of the Standing Orders, and therefore the meeting was null and void.
Warmington raised the issue again at the meeting of the House of Representatives last Tuesday afternoon, insisting that the PAC meeting was null and void as it was not sanctioned by the Standing Orders.
The House Committee, lead by House Leader Karl Samuda, had hurried discussions during the break between the PAC and the House meeting last Tuesday, in a bid to review the situation, including the challenge raised by Warmngton to the validity of the PAC meeting.
Speaker Pearnel Charles Sr admitted that he was unaware of the issue and had not been involved in the discussions, although he chairs the Standing Orders Committee of the House of Representatives.
This may seem a simple matter, but it is an obvious error of judgment if the House or its select committees are able to schedule and host virtual meetings without at will. The Standing Orders of both Houses allow for meetings to be held outside of Gordon House, but that comes with the approval of the Speaker or the president and the recognition of the Standing Orders.
The use of computers were banned for many years until the Standing Order Committees gave their approval, why isn’t the use of zoom being treated in the same way?
The Senate report made the very valid point that they recognised the need to ensure that the work of the committees of the Senate is not curtailed in times of public emergency, “when it becomes imprudent or impossible for senators to gather physically for meetings.”
“We are of the view that in such circumstances, it is appropriate and indeed desirable that the Committees of the Senate be empowered to conduct their business virtaually,” the Senate Committee said.
There must be some formality in allowing virtual (digital) meetings of these committees are to be hosted at the offices, homes or meeting place of the chairmen of the committee, and it starts with the approval of the Standing Orders as was followed by the Senate.
The House Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon, just before the sitting of the House and hopefully do the right thing, which is to review the Standing Orders regarding meetings outside of Gordon House, and ensure that there are provisions to protect the members involved, as well as the right of the public to have be informed about what happens at these meetings.
The House of Representatives’ Standing Orders Committee must review the situation and make the technology available to members, but with certain conditions.
*** Few people may have noticed that the Government has accepted a proposal from the Opposition to have all states of emergency (SOEs) matters debated at the same time.
This means that instead of the motions being brought to Parliament singularly, based on the date of expiration of the exercise, the extension of all SOEs will now be debated simultaneously. It worked well for the process, with the Government gaining 48 votes in favour of the extensions, which were well above the 42 required from the 63-member House of Representatives, with only Peter Bunting (Manchester Central) and Ronald Thwaites (Kingston Central) voting against. The others were absent. In the Senate there were 18 “ayes” and no “noes”. Two members were absent and there is still a vacancy on the Government side of the 21-member chamber.
*** Opposition Senator Lambert Brown proposed, in the Senate on Friday, that all constituency caretakers and municipal councillor/caretakers should be added to the list of political representatives who are exempted from the provisions of the curfew.
*** Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Audley Shaw and Leader of the Opposition Dr Peter Phillips returned to the House of Representatives on Tuesday for the first time in several weeks.
*** Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke will be making a statement in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, responding to the questions raised about the disbursal of funds under the Covid-19 Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) cash transfer programme.
The Opposition has been criticising the Government that the period for applying for the benefits was cut short. However, Minister of Transport and Mining Robert Montague accused the Opposition of causing a run on funds by setting up “call centres” to attract would be applicants.
Dr Clarke has indicated that approximately 500,000 applications have already been received for the CARE Programme, which is intended to assist the society’s most vulnerable citizens, in light of the economic impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). He said that successful applicants should start receiving their grants by April 30.
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