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Opinions of Thursday, 24 December 2020

Columnist: Kate Addo

Ghana’s Parliament, its members and its duties

Ghana's parliament Ghana's parliament

Parliament is a representative institution that reflects the dictum “Government of the people, by the people, for the people". It is the hub of democratic governance and has a responsibility to foster public awareness of the basic tenets of democracy. The Fourth Republican Parliament came into being on the 7th of January, 1993 after almost twelve years of military rule. Seven Parliaments after, the legislature has seen major changes. The Chamber first started with two hundred Members. This was later increased to two hundred and thirty in the fourth parliament and then to two hundred and seventy-five in the sixth Parliament.

The results and comments following the December 7 Parliamentary Elections point to the fact that some citizens confuse the role of the Member of Parliament which is primarily to make laws with those of the Executive which include the provision of amenities. Indeed media reports on the elections have indicated that some voters voted their MPs out because of they failed to provide certain amenities in their constituencies.

This however should not be the case. Although Members of Parliament, to a large extent, drive the development agenda, citizens should not expect them to bear the cost of these development projects as it is financially impossible for them to do so. On the other side of this conversation is the notion that some aspiring MPs, in their bid to win votes, promise to provide these amenities and actually get voted on the basis of these promises.

As the Institution of Parliament continues to evolve and strives to attain a high level of excellence in its performance, so has the discernment and political outlook of the ordinary voter. But serious misconceptions have also become evident, and this is due mainly to the blurred roles of the Executive and legislature. The events of the December 7 polls have also brought to the fore, the need to talk about the real roles of the members of Parliament as against the perceived ones which usually have led to unrealistic demands on the Legislature, and which roles, have been touted to have been clouded by the hybrid system of governance that we practice.

• The hybrid system
Ghana’s democracy has been classified as a hybrid of the Westminster Parliamentary Model and the American Presidential Model. This classification is supported by Article78 (1) of the 1992 Constitution, which requires the President to appoint not less than half of ministers of State from within Parliament. The historical antecedent of this constitutional arrangement is found in the difficult relationship that existed between the President and the Parliament of the rather short-lived 3rd Republic

It is a combination of the American presidential and the British parliamentary systems. The hybrid system mandates the Executive President to appoint majority of his ministers and their deputies from Parliament. The dual roles of these officers may have led to a confusion of the different roles of the two arms of government under the principles of separation of powers. The overlap of their executive and legislative positions also mean an overlap of their duties and roles. The effect is that citizens tend to mix the role of the executive which include the provision of essential facilities like roads, education facilities, shelter etc.

The duties of the Member of Parliament are without ambiguities and should not have resulted in the challenges mentioned above. These duties have variously been categorised into four main categories.
Deliberative and
Supervisory or oversight.

• Legislative Function
Most countries are governed by a Constitution, the rule of law and the law making process of Parliament. In Ghana, the legislative function of Parliament consists of passing Bills and approving statutory instruments where their approval by Parliament is required by law. Clause (2) of Article 93 of our Constitution states that, “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the legislative power of Ghana shall be vested in Parliament and shall be exercised in accordance with this Constitution.”

The legislative duty of Parliament primarily involve the making of laws, from the first reading of the bills, which usually emanate from a minister of state of a private member. The bill is then referred to a committee or a number of committees who will be tasked with interrogating the provisions in the bills and consulting with relevant stakeholders and making relevant recommendations to Plenary for further scrutiny. At the Second Reading, which is the consideration stage, Members at plenary have the opportunity to scrutinise the provisions in the bill and make further contributions to the provisions by making additions or subtractions to them. If there arises a need, there may be a second consideration stage. Winnowing is also another way by which laws are pruned and made more succinct. This is done by a small committee that works to reduce the amount of corrections in a particular legislation before it is returned to plenary. At the third reading, the law is deemed to have been passed, after which is proceeds to the President for assent. Once the President signs the bill, it becomes a law or an Act of Parliament.

Although the Constitution vests legislative power in Parliament, the legislative authority of Parliament is limited. For example, Parliament cannot pass a law to alter the decision or judgment of any court or pass any law which operates retroactively to adversely affect the personal rights and liberties of a person. As well, Parliament cannot pass any law to turn Ghana into a one-party state. In the eventually that Parliament does any of these, the Supreme Court can declare any such enactment by Parliament to be illegal.

• Representative function
Parliament is a representative institution and the hub of democratic governance. It has the responsibility to foster public awareness of the basic doctrines of democracy. Parliament is known for her basic function of making laws; however a number of functions are incidental to the performance of this function. A research conducted by the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) outlines the representative role of Parliament and outlines how this role enhances democratic development of Ghana.

A Member of Parliament is a representative of all his constituents, regardless of their party affiliations and as a duty he/she must interact with the constituents at regular intervals on national issues, which issues must be forwarded to Parliament for attention and to address concerns that may arise as a result. Being a representative different groups of people with diverse opinion mean that the MP must be a good team builder. This is imperative as consensus building is a necessary tool to bring about development in any multi-party democratic state.

• Deliberative Function
The MP also participates in all deliberations on matters of national and international importance on the floor of the House, and lately, with the plethora of media outlets, in the public space. Mechanisms such as Statements and Questions, present Members with the opportunity to draw attention to issues of public or national importance. These mechanisms also serve as a means of obtaining assurance from Ministers on actions being taken on the issues raised.

• Oversight Function
Oversight, derives from the relationship between the executive and the legislature. The 1992 Constitution gives Parliament a huge oversight responsibility over the Executive. It also gives Parliament a lot of power to carry out those functions. For example, Parliament has the power to determine its own procedures and agenda (of course, subject to the provisions of the Constitution). Neither the President nor even the courts may interfere with the internal affairs of Parliament. Ghana’s Parliament enjoys a wide scope of immunity, even from the processes (Article 115-120).

Parliament exercises constitutional authority over the use of public funds and the operations of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) through inquiries and investigations. It is the duty of a Member to assist the House to execute this mandate through Committees that enable Members to examine in greater detail, legislative and fiscal proposals from the Executive and its agencies. Effective participation in Committee deliberations enables Members to specialize in particular subject areas and this enhances Parliament's exercise of oversight responsibility of MDAs.

Ghana’s Parliament performs its executive oversight function by vetting government appointees, holding ministers and government appointee’s accountable as well as giving approvals and scrutinizing government’s financial commitments among others. The presentation of the annual budget to Parliament by the Minister of Finance and the subsequent passing of the Appropriation Bill is what enables the Executive to make expenses on the country’s behalf. The inspection of government projects, the scrutinizing of agreements, protocols and conventions are other means by which Parliament exercises its oversight responsibility.

Vetting government appointees, holding ministers and government appointee’s accountable as well as giving approvals and scrutinizing government’s financial commitments among others are some of the duties of a Member of Parliament.

The Constitution also gives Parliament the power to disapprove public expenditure, grants, loan taxes, and even the entire national budget. Under Article 103 of the Constitution, Parliament is empowered to form committee and MP are mandated to serve on at least one of these. The committees of Parliament may conduct investigations or inquiries into the “activities and administration of ministries and departments as Parliament may determine; and such investigations and inquires may extend to proposals for legislation.” To make these powers and functions meaningful, the committees are given certain procedural powers of the High Court, and the power to commit contempt (Article 122 and 123).

It must be pointed out, at this juncture, that there are other duties that Members perform which are not necessarily mandated by law but which are necessary, if a member is to remain loyal to their party and to maintain their seat.

• Duties to constituents
A Member of Parliament is a representative of all his constituents regardless of their party affiliations. As a non-voting ex-officio Member of the District Assembly, he or she is required to monitor programmes and projects that the Assembly initiates in his constituency and to make the necessary contributions both in cash (only to the extent of the limitations of the District Assemblies Common Fund), and in kind, by using his or her connections to facilitate these projects.

It is the duty of a Member to explain to his constituents, laws passed by Parliament and policies being pursued by the Government. In this regard, a Member is enjoined to advocate both in Parliament and the District Assembly the concerns of his constituents. Town Hall meetings and regular interactions come in handy here. But even more effective are online meetings and electronic communications. Facebook and WhatsApp platforms give constituents the opportunity to effectively interact with their Members of Parliament without the Members being physically present.

With the support of the District Assemblies' Common Fund and other funding, a Member may intervene directly in solving some of the developmental problems of his constituency. These interventions should however not be construed as being the main duties of the member and therefore, undue pressure put on him/her to ensure compliance. Unfortunately, this has been the case for some time now, resulting in some Members losing their seats in Parliament.

• Duties to the party
A Member owes allegiance to his political party and his general performance must reflect the trust reposed in him by his party. In Parliament, Caucus endeavour to implement the policies manifestos usually, with the ruling party being able to do this, while the Minority provides alternative policies.

A Member's loyalty to his party may also be expressed in the following ways: mobilizing support for his party's policies through intelligent contributions to debates both in the House and at Committees, offering constructive criticism to the party's policies as and when appropriate, enhancing the party's image at both national and constituency levels.

• Micsconceptions? Promises?
Sometimes, promises made during campaign rounds usually dwell on the provision of the essential amenities for the benefit of the constituency in general and the individual voters in particular. It is therefore only natural that once they attain power, citizens will demand that they provide these amenities. The reality though is that members are unable to provide the amenities that voters seek, and this needs to be made explicit. At the moment, MPs only receive a small fraction of the common fund. This is supposed to be used for relatively minor developmental projects in their constituencies.

The fact also is that by the very nature of the nature of our societies as a people, MPs, once they gain the seats are saddled with such burdens like attending and contributing at funerals, marriage and naming ceremonies and making hefty cash donations befitting their newly acquired statuses. MPs have also been known to pay for hospital and other bills of their constituents and this put undue pressure on them and thereby affecting their output and could lead to corruption.

It is true that the MPs do contribute to the erroneous perception that they can do a lot more than they actually can. Another sad reality is that the fortunes of the Member of Parliament are continually being tied to the amount of development projects they are able to undertake, the number of social gatherings they attend, and a plethora of other duties that are totally out of the legal mandate of an elected Member of Parliament.

• Conclusion
The truth of the matter is that, while it is an undeniable fact that the dynamics of our democratic dispensation is that Members of Parliament will come and go, it is also true that the work of Parliament is best mastered through repetitive practice and consistency. After all, one of the main guides to parliamentary processes and procedures the world over is based on precedence. It is for this reason that a lot of conversation have been had around the rather alarming attrition rate of the membership of the House.

The fact that Ghana’s political landscape has changed drastically is an undeniable fact. Parliament itself has seen major changes as the years have gone by. Public education is key if citizens are to understand the specific roles of the legislature and its Members.

The overlaps of the executive and legislative arms of government made even more evident by the hybrid system of our governance structure means that roles overlap and could lead to a confusion of the roles of the officers who populate the two arms of government. Is it time for complete separation of powers, is so, should we adopt the parliamentary or presidential system of governance? Will the 8TH Parliament bring the needed answers to these questions? We live to see.