This House belongs to all the citizens of Belize. Although it is ours, we need the permission of the Speaker to attend the meetings that are held there. And, when we do and sit in the gallery we are referred to as “strangers”. Our role is to be observers not participants. Strangers are required to be silent and unobtrusive, although, depending on the standards set by the Speaker, the gallery may be allowed some level of response to what happens on the floor of the House.
The House is the place where the people’s representatives meet at intervals to consider, discuss, debate and decide all the matters of statehood, including the enactment of new laws. Directly or indirectly, these decisions affect the quality of life of every citizen.
You can see why this institution deserves our highest respect and regard and why one should avoid or, be very careful making public statements and expressing views about what transpires in the House of Representatives. I have refrained from writing on this subject, although I have good reason to believe that I am more knowledgeable on the subject than the average citizen, because I would hate to know that I may be opening a door for Fools to rush in where angels fear to tread.
The House is divided in two sides: The Government side, headed by the Prime Minister and, the Opposition, headed by the Leader of the Opposition. The members of the Majority Party comprise the government and of the Minority Party comprise the Opposition. Although they sit on different sides of the House and their positions are adversarial in debate, both sides are there to serve the people. This is how our parliamentary system works in the best interests of the nation. Despite the fact that the government always prevails when the question is put and votes counted, it is a mistake to think that the House belongs to the Government. Members are all governed by the Standing Orders. They have the same status, rights and privileges and are subject to the authority of the Speaker. If the House can be said to belong to anyone, it would be the Speaker, because he rules.
Members’ Rights and Privileges
Members are entitled to be called “Honorable,” and, in fact, it is a requirement of the Standing Orders that “Honorable” precedes the electoral division he or she represents, whenever they are referred to by any other member. In the eyes of the Speaker, members have the same rank. No member is superior to another.
Whatever a member says at a session of the House is absolutely privileged. He may not be sued for defamation of character or libel. This may seem to give members an unfair advantage but, remember if a member abuses this privilege, he would be behaving dishonorably and, he would be open to fair comment criticism.
Members have the privilege of sending letters throughout the country “On the Government Service.” All that is needed is a rubber stamp impression bearing the name of his office and the member’s initials.
Nothing should prevent a member from attending a meeting of the House of Representatives. It would be an offence for anyone to restrain or detain him.
I think it is fitting to mention that together with the privilege of speaking his mind goes the duty to ensure that what he says is true in every particular.
The Standing Orders
It is not proposed to go into defaults about the Standing Orders. That would require an article of its own. The Orders describe the structure and functions of the House, the business it deals with, its procedures, sets down rules for the interaction of members, including content of speeches, conduct, etc. It especially defines the role, functions, authority and power of the Speaker.
In the Speakers reposes the Honor and Dignity of the House of Representatives. He is at the same time, the humble servant of the House, as well as, its Presiding Officer. In fact, he is the absolute ruler, but not a dictator. He is bound by the Standing Orders and by centuries of Parliamentary customs, usages and tradition. Above all, he is expected to be impartial.
The business to be dealt with at each meeting is prepared by the Speaker’s office, which is administered by the Clerk to the National Assembly. It is presented to the Speaker, who calls upon, usually members of the Government side, to introduce bills, present resolutions and reports and make statements. When there is a matter for debate, he calls upon members to address the House, who signify their desire to do so by standing in their place. If more than one member stands, the Speaker decides who shall speak first.
During a debate, if one of the Standing Orders is contravened, the Speaker may decide to make a ruling or wait until he is appealed to for a ruling on a point of order. He will also intervene when there is a contention between two members. Usually, he does so by rising out of his chair, then members standing should take their seats and talking should cease. Once the Speaker makes a ruling, the members are duty bound to accept it and comply with it inside and outside the House.
Specific Standing Orders gives the Speaker the power to have a member silenced during a particular meeting or to have him “named” and suspended from the House, for a definite or indefinite period. If in his deliberate judgment, other measures are required for dealing with an offending member of the public, e.g., he was found to be in contempt of the House, the Speaker could do so by invoking Order 90 of the Standing Orders.
It was never my intention to cover all aspects of the House of Representatives in a short newspaper article. So I’ll end this piece with a reference to the House Standing Committees and, especially to the Public Accounts Committee, which has become a media football, though the subject should not be for public discourse after the Speaker had made a ruling on the matter in the House of Representatives. My comment (which I contend is fair) is about the size and composition of that Committee.
The Standing Orders provide that the ratio of Government to Opposition members on its standing committees should reflect, as near as possible, their relative number of seats held. The present seats in our House are 17 to 14, which is a ratio of 1.3 to 1. The nearest practical ratio would be 1.5 or 1 ½ to 1 or 3 to 2.
In view of the fact that it is the Auditor General’s reports on governments accounts that are to be examined, should the Public Accounts Committee be composed of 4 Government to 2 Opposition members, a ratio of 2 to 1? Wouldn’t it be better to have a committee of 7, with 4 Government and 3 Opposition members, which is nearer to the desired ratio of 3 to 2 than a division of 5 to 2?