Parliament Adjourns: Bill Watch 81/2021

Budget, Finance Bill and Appropriation (2022) Bill Passed, both Houses adjourned until 15th February 2022.

Bill Watch 80/2021 dated 10th December gave an outline of the National Assembly’s approval on Thursday 9th December of the 2022 National Budget , its approval of the Estimates of Expenditure for 2022 and its passing of the Finance Bill  [to implement changes to legislation needed to implement the just approved Budget proposals] and the Appropriation (2022) Bill [to authorise the expenditure from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the sums of money allocated for specified purposes in the approved Estimates of Expenditure]. Both Bills were then transmitted to the Senate.

This bulletin covers how the Senate dealt with these Bill when it sat on Tuesday 14th December and Wednesday 15th December. It also adds a fuller account [see below] than was possible in Bill Watch 80 of the final sitting of the National Assembly last week. In this account we question whether the members of the National Assembly were allowed sufficient time and opportunity to give satisfactory consideration to issues raised in relation to the Estimates of Expenditure and the Finance Bill.

In the Senate This Week

The Senate met as scheduled on Tuesday 14th December for the sole purpose of passing the Finance Bill and the Appropriation (2022) Bill. Only the presiding officer, two Senators, the Minister of Finance and Economic Development and sundry Parliamentary and Ministry officials were physically present, in compliance with last Thursday’s decision that Parliamentary sittings should be as close to completely virtual as possible. Other Senators were present virtually. The Second Reading stages were completed [with some questions asked by Senators and answered by the Minister] by 3.45 pm. The House then had to adjourn until Wednesday for lack of a designated chairperson for the Committee Stages, which should have come next.

Senators met again yesterday, Wednesday 15th December, and took the Bills through their remaining stages entirely without debate, completing Parliament’s passing of the Bills. This makes it possible for the President to assent to the Bills and have them gazetted as Acts on or before the 1st January 2022. After passing both Bills, the Senate adjourned at 3.01 pm until Tuesday 15th February 2022 – the same date as the National Assembly.

A Fuller Picture of Last Thursday’s Marathon Sitting

Bill Watch 80/2021, referred to at the beginning of this bulletin, was written before the verbatim record of Thursday’s proceedings became available to us. Having since had access to the soft copy of the verbatim record, we can present a fuller picture of what looks remarkably like a pre-ordained rubber-stamping of the Estimates of Expenditure and the Finance Bill presented by the Minister. The impression left with us is that, the Minister was determined to make no changes to the Estimates of Expenditure or the Finance Bill.

Individual MPs’ contributions to the Budget debate

The sitting started with contributions made by many MPs. Like the committees whose reports whose reports had been presented during the Tuesday and Wednesday sittings, they were obviously under the impression that what they were saying could persuade the Minister to modify his proposed taxation measures or increase allocations of funds [for instance, to the Auditor-General’s Office].

Minister’s reply to the Budget debate

The Minister then responded to the committee reports and the individual contributions by MPs. He complimented the committees on the high quality of their reports, although he did not accept any of the reasoned pleas for more funding that had been included in the majority of the reports. But he refused, giving his reasons, to change any of his proposals in the Budget statement.

Approval of Estimates of Expenditure without amendment

MPs found themselves up against a brick wall when trying to persuade the Minister to increase his allocations of funding. Good points made by Hons Mushoriwa and Markham on the need to increase the allocation for the Auditor-General’s Office and how to do it [by transferring funds from the Ministry’s own Unallocated Reserve] were rebuffed with the assurance that “the Minister would look after the Auditor-General’s Office”; the Minister said he was not prepared at this stage to divert funds from his Unallocated Reserve but preferred to keep it intact for the possibility of emergency needs, such as a further wave of COVID-19. When he rejected suggested increases for the Ministry of Health and Child Care requested by Hon Labode, Hon Mushoriwa deplored the Minister’s attitude as confirmation of “the fact that the Minister is not open to debate and the position is to simply push the proposal from the Ministry of Finance as it is. It actually becomes a mockery to Parliament as the one that passes the Budget”. As a result of the Minister obduracy aall votes were approved without amendment.

Appropriation (2022) Bill

This Bill was passed through all its various stages without debate and without amendment – unsurprisingly, in view of the House’s earlier passing of the Estimates of Expenditure.

Finance Bill

When the Finance Bill came up for its Second Reading Hon Mushoriwa objected on the grounds that MPs had only received the Bill about 6 pm that same evening and that to expect them to debate a 100-page document at such short notice would be unfair and wrong. He asked for the Bill to be stood over, saying there would be time to deal with it next week (which is now this week). His objection was overruled by the Temporary Speaker, who said the Departmental Draft had been distributed two days earlier and the final Bill which members had just received was broadly the same.

The Minister then delivered a short Second Reading speech after which Hon Mushoriwa, citing the Bill’s provision for issues having nothing to do with the Budget as presented by the Minister and asked for time to submit amendments; one such provision, he said, would allow Government to assume certain Reserve Bank debts payable in foreign currency presently classified as blocked funds.

The Minister replied to Hon Mushoriwa’s point that there was nothing in the Bill that should not be in a Finance Bill, and agreed with Hon Nyathi that it was necessary to make progress on the Finance Bill “so that we are ready to start the New Year on the right footing”.

In the circumstances, the Committee Stage that followed was a complete rubber stamping formality and disposed of quickly. So the Bill ended up being passed without amendments.

Note: The Finance Bill as gazetted on Thursday didn’t even look right, a sure sign that it was a rushed job carried out under pressure, almost certainly without proper checking. It has no page numbers, an essential aid to careful consideration, particularly in such a long Bill. The explanatory memorandum is incomplete, the usual Bill format was only roughly kept. As it was presented digitally this inadequacy would have made it more difficult to read in the extremely short time available.

Can citizens be sure that the Bill was properly considered by their representatives in Parliament?

Source: Veritas

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