Procedural issues delay virtual meetings of Parliament

PROCEDURAL issues regarding meetings of the House of Representatives and the Senate have delayed proposals for virtual meetings of both Houses of Parliament.

On April 7, Parliament hosted its first-ever virtual meeting at Gordon House, when its special select committee reviewing developments relating to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) used the remote-conferencing platform, Zoom.

Since then, it has been discussing the possibility of both the House of Representatives and the Senate using the technology to host virtual meetings to accommodate more members, while acknowledging COVID-19 procedures such as social distancing and wearing of masks.

However, five weeks later, Parliament is still discussing that possibility and indications are that, while the committees will be able to continue meeting, it is unlikely that full Senate or House meetings can be accommodated, at least until some procedural issues are dealt with.

Among the procedural issues is the question of a quorum and the presence of the Mace on the table, but there are also issues such as intra-consultations among members and support from regular parliamentary staff on duty.

“What can we do about the marshal taking the Mace into the chamber, and laying it down on the table? And what about the quorum?” Speaker of the House of Representatives Pearnel Charles laid down as procedures that have to be followed.

Senator Thomas Tavares Finson, president of the Senate, said Sunday that the Senate will be sending a letter to Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, this week, asking for her advice on the issues which have been raised.

The Senate has already approved the necessary changes to the Standing Orders for its committees to meet, and has now turned its attention to meetings of the whole Senate. He said he understands that there are changes that are necessary to the Standing Orders, but believes the problems can be dealt with. However, he said that the Senate will await the advice of the attorney general.

The issues have been raised since leader of the House of Representatives, Karl Samuda, told the House on April 7 that the Parliament was not yet at the stage for conducting its business using the technology. However, he qualified that by saying, if the need arises, a collective decision would be made.

Gordon House said then that the new measure was the latest in its efforts to modernise its operations and increase its use of information and communication technology (ICT). It added that meeting virtually would allow the members of the committee to adhere to physical distancing guidelines.

Another parliamentary committee, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by Opposition Member of Parliament Mark Golding, had postponed an earlier meeting after insisting on the use of the Zoom to allow its members to follow the distancing guidelines. However, after that committee finally met a week later, deputy leader of Government business in the House, Everald Warmington, has been insisting that the House committees, including the PAC, are meeting illegitimately because the necessary changes to the Standing Orders have not been made.

Warmington is insisting that these meetings are therefore “null and void”, without the standing orders consent.

Last week, both Samuda and the Leader of Opposition Business Dr Morais Guy asked the speaker of the House to deal with the issue as quickly as possible.

“I would urge that the matter be brought to a conclusion, and I would invite all concerned to deal with the matter, so that we can make a final decision and move forward, whatever that decision is,” Samuda insisted.

“But, it is not good to have it hanging. So, I implore you to use your good office and your influence to seek to have the matter brought to a conclusion,” he added.

The House speaker told the Jamaica Observer Sunday that he is calling a meeting of the House of Representatives this week, to deal with both the issue of regularising the virtual meetings and to look at the possibility of virtual meetings of the House of Representatives.

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