Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Let the House scrutinise Bills more carefully

Send more Bills to select committees, give MPs more time to vet them
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2011

EFFICIENCY is often cause for praise. But it can also be unnerving to the uninitiated: as with the process when proposed laws are debated in Parliament.

The House might see a fiery debate. This is the part familiar to television viewers: when MPs take the stand to praise or pick apart the proposed law.

But then, debate over, things proceed like clockwork. When the Speaker asks the House if they approve the Bill, MPs from the ruling party chorus their assent. Once, for what is known as the second reading; and again, for the third reading.

The fervour of the preceding debate seems forgotten. The Bill is passed, unchanged. After the brief hurdle of presidential approval, it will become law.

Of course, this smooth process could belie months of preparation. Before a Bill is tabled in Parliament, it may have been shaped not just by the ministry behind it, but by MPs, stakeholders, or even the general public.

Just this month, the Law Ministry began calling for feedback on a draft Bill to allow more top-tier lawyers from abroad to argue cases here. Bills may see draft after draft before finally landing on Parliament's table for its first reading.

The Government's efforts to seek public inputs on draft Bills are commendable. But prior consultation is no substitute for parliamentary process.

There are already formal parliamentary procedures by which the views of MPs or the public can be taken into account in law-making, as will be explored below. Why underutilise these procedures in favour of consultation that takes place outside Parliament?

After all, Parliament is the legislature. Its essential (though not sole) function is to make laws.

To argue that prior consultation suffices is to shift the responsibility of legislative scrutiny from Parliament, where it originally belongs, to an extra-parliamentary setting.

There is also a pragmatic reason for relying more on parliamentary scrutiny: assuaging cynicism.

The ease with which most Bills proceed through Parliament could make Parliament seem like a mere rubber stamp for government initiatives.

A citizen who reads about a rigorous debate, only to find that it resulted in no changes, can be forgiven for wondering if the legislative process was just for show.

Such cynicism may be damaging - not least if it extends to cynicism about the content of legislation, or about the Government more broadly.

There are two alternatives to this legislative assembly line.

One is for MPs to seize their official chance to propose amendments: the window of time after the debate on the second reading, and before the third reading when the Bill is passed. That is when Parliament sits as a committee to consider the Bill clause by clause.

In Singapore's Parliament, this usually takes mere minutes. Yet, this is the official period when Parliament should be scrutinising the Bill and proposing amendments.

The House could sit in committee stage longer when it scrutinises the Bill, to allow for more thorough consideration. Rather than mere minutes, the consideration of clauses could span a few hours or even a few days, depending on the length and complexity of the Bill.

After all, debate on controversial Bills can take a whole day, or even two or three. It seems only apt for MPs to then spend a comparable amount of time applying the insights from such debates to actual legislation, and proposing amendments if necessary.

Doing this could result in better legislation. If nothing else, it answers the cynic who thinks parliamentary debate is just for show.

The second alternative provides not just for more leisurely consideration, but for direct public involvement as well: sending the Bill to a select committee.

Apart from once in 2004, this has not happened for 13 years.

But at the People's Action Party's (PAP) convention last month, MP Inderjit Singh brought the possibility back into the spotlight when he argued that policymaking should be less of a top-down affair. One of his proposals was having more select committees set up to scrutinise Bills. These committees, made up of MPs, can solicit public feedback, call witnesses, hold hearings, and suggest changes to the legislation.

There is plenty of precedent for this, with more than 60 select committees on Bills since Independence. From 1990 to 1998, at least 15 Bills were sent to a select committee. Their concerns ranged from the constitutional - introducing the elected presidency - to the pecuniary on the law governing bankruptcy.

Many of these instances did result in changes to the proposed legislation.

Of course, no one expects every single Bill to be subject to this. As Mr Singh put it to The Straits Times: 'We should be willing to lose a little efficiency and slow down a little, but we should not do something which will paralyse the system.'

Losing a little efficiency might be a fair price to pay for strengthening policymaking - and building political maturity in the process.

Select committees give citizens a chance to be involved in policy decisions, whether through submitting their views or being interviewed by the committee.

They also give more weight to Parliament. After all, if consultation takes place only before a Bill is tabled, then MP's speeches obviously play no part, since their debate takes place after a Bill enters Parliament.

Another veteran MP made a similar call nine years ago. In Mr Tan Soo Khoon's first speech as MP after 13 years as Speaker, he criticised the party and the Government for failing to address Singaporeans' cynicism.

For him, the answer was openness about decision-making, which would allow citizens to understand that policies are not 'made and rammed down their throats' but crafted with consideration.

This year, the Government and the PAP have pledged to be more open.

MPs can help hold them to that pledge, by subjecting proposed laws to greater scrutiny in Parliament and calling for more laws to be sent to select committees. Citizens too can do their bit, by giving views at public hearings.

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