Pre-Parliamentary Stages of Government Bills: Need for More Transparency and Public Involvement
Bill Watch 35/2018 of 23rd October [How Far has This Parliament’s Legislative Agenda Progressed?] drew attention to the Speaker’s challenge to Ministers to ensure that Bills on the Government’s legislative agenda for the current 2018-2019 Parliamentary session are submitted to Parliament promptly. The Speaker warned Ministers that if they failed to do this, Parliament would require them to explain why.
The bulletin also pointed out:
- that 5 of the 30 Bills on the legislative agenda were carried over from last Parliament;
- that 2 of those 5 Bills needed only some minor modifications;
- that 25 of the 30 Bills on the legislative agenda are yet to be received by Parliament
- that other Bills besides those on the legislative agenda would inevitably come to Parliament during the session, such as the routine Budget Bills and Bills not anticipated when the legislative agenda was formulated – for instance, the Finance (No. 2) Bill to confirm the recent statutory instrument introducing the 2 cents per dollar Intermediated Money Transfer Tax.
- that the legislative agenda did not include many Bills to align Acts to the Constitution and there is an urgent need to add these.
The Executive will have to do better if it is to live up to the Speaker’s challenge. The President in his opening-of-Parliament speech indicated that the Bills on the legislative agenda would be passed before the end of the session in August or September next year.
Public Consultation on Bills
This bulletin also builds on the Speaker’s words to Ministers by suggesting that as a matter of constitutional principle Government needs to take steps to ensure that the public is not only more involved in, but kept better informed about, the stages that Government Bills undergo from the initial idea to submission of the final Bill to Parliament.
Parliament already does its best, within its own limited resources and with the assistance of some development partners, to comply with its constitutional obligations to facilitate public involvement in its legislative processes and to ensure that interested parties are consulted about Bills being considered by Parliament [Constitution, section 141]. For instance, through its committees it usually invites comments and submissions on Bills as soon as they are gazetted, and later holds public committee hearings on Bills at venues around the country at which stakeholders and members of the public are free to present their views. The committees then report those views to the House concerned.
These Parliamentary activities illustrate the application in the Parliamentary context of the constitutional founding principle of good governance, which includes the principles of respect for the people of Zimbabwe, from whom the authority to govern is derived, and the principles of transparency, justice, accountability and responsiveness [Constitution, section 3(1) and (2)].
By the Executive
Because they bind, not only Parliament, but the State and all its institutions and agencies [Constitution, section 3(2)], these principles of good governance also bind the Executive in general and Ministers and Ministries in particular.
Ministers and Ministries originate the Government Bills that eventually come to Parliament. It follows that Ministers and Ministries must also involve stakeholders and the public in the preparation of Bills and also keep them informed about progress on those Bills.
How can this be done?
Ministries Can do Preliminary Consultations by Circulating White Papers
Whether they are called white papers, green papers or something else, consultation documents are frequently used in other countries to sound out public views and opinion on proposed legislation. White papers have been used previously in this country. A white paper/consultation document would explain the perceived need for a Bill [no existing law at all on the subject, or an outdated or otherwise defective existing law, why a new law is considered necessary instead of alternative ways of dealing with the subject], set out proposals for what the Bill could say, and call for comments, submissions and fresh ideas. Circulating them in soft copy is an inexpensive method of consultation.
Consultation must, of course, be genuine – which entails the Ministry being ready to consider fresh ideas seriously and adopt them if possible.
This sort of early consultation may well pay dividends later – in the form of public acceptance and a smooth passage through Parliament for the eventual Bill.
If the public are consulted early and are involved in new laws they are more likely to respect those laws and this contribute to the rule of law in Zimbabwe.
Ministries Need to be more Transparent about the Progress of Bills
It has often been difficult to obtain Bills authoritative and reliable official information about the progress of Bills through the several stages they must undergo before they are sent to Parliament.
These stages include:
- the responsible Ministry securing Cabinet approval of the principles of a proposed Bill after preliminary approval by the Cabinet Committee on Legislation [without Cabinet approval the legislative drafters in the Attorney-General’s Office are not permitted to prepare a draft Bill];
- the Ministry’s submission of its departmental draft, if any, and instructions to prepare a legal draft to the Attorney-General;
- progress on the legal draft/s [several drafts are sometimes necessary before a Bill is finally acceptable to the responsible Ministry];
- approval of the final legal draft by Cabinet.
Regular official Government bulletins about Bills on the legislative agenda and their progress through these pre-Parliamentary stages would do much to dispel the general confusion and public uncertainty that has often prevailed in the past.
A promising step in the right direction?
It is hoped that the briefings after the Cabinet meeting on 2nd October, and similar briefings since, herald greater Government willingness to share information about Bills as a matter of routine. At the 2nd October briefing, for example, the new Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa, among other announcements, announced that Cabinet had approved the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency Bill [one of the Bills on the legislative agenda]. It would have been even more helpful, however, to know whether this was initial approval of the principles of the Bill or approval of the final legal draft authorising the responsible Minister to send the Bill to Parliament for printing and gazetting.
This welcome step needs to be developed into a mechanism that extends to Ministries providing regular information about the whereabouts of all legislative agenda Bills in the pre-Parliamentary pipeline. Perhaps Minister Mutsvangwa could set up a mechanism through which this information is provided as a matter of routine?
Delay between Final Cabinet Approval of Bill and its Gazetting
Once a Minister receives approval of the final draft of a Bill at Cabinet level, he or she is allowed to send it to Parliament to be printed and published in the Government Gazette.
Parliament releases regular information about every current Bill once they have received it. But there can still be long delays before it is tabled in one of the Houses. Parliament sends the Bill to the Government Printer for printing and gazetting. This process can be lengthy, depending on the size and complexity of the Bill – page proofs have to be checked by the Government Printer’s proof readers and by the drafters in the Attorney-General’s Office.
Once a Bill is gazetted, Veritas Bill Watch bulletins send out information about it and will extend this to earlier stages once the information is released by government.