Congratulations on your recent election. I hope you will find being an MP a worthwhile occupation, and that in five years’ time you will feel able to say that you devoted yourself to the interests of your constituents (all of them) and the nation at large.
And I hope you were able to attend the orientation programme arranged by the office of the Clerk of the National Assembly. It was a real pleasure to see that this was being done while issues of the results of the presidential election were still in flux.
And I hope that you were able, as the office asked, to download the Standing Orders and Fact Sheets about Parliament from the Bunge website.
You will probably focus a lot on the Standing Orders. They are full of rather technical and sometimes puzzling provisions. You must not read your speeches. You must not use offensive or insulting language (hopefully you would not anyway). There are certain things you may not talk about in the House. Actually, the Orders are less detailed and odd than in some countries.
They do say, “Every Member shall bow to the Chair in passing to or from his or her seat or across the Floor of the House.” For about 300 years, the British House of Commons met in St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster, which contained an altar.
The Speaker sat in front of it, but members were actually bowing to the altar as they passed. The practice stuck — and has stuck in most Commonwealth Parliaments (including the Indian, for example).
Most members work hard to understand or at least follow these rules. This is fine — they help to have a smooth running body, and should avoid unnecessary dispute and poor behaviour that do little to enhance democracy or respect for institutions.
But it is really important Members understand that Standing Orders are just a tool to enable them and Parliament to do their job smoothly. The Orders must not be allowed to obscure that.
YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION
Although many of those Fact Sheets summarise and use the language of the Constitution, I suggest it is important to get to grips with the Constitution itself. It is actually reasonably clear.
There is no Article of the Constitution that spells out the role of MPs specifically. But there is plenty on the role of Parliament, and you are (or will be when sworn in) and are only Members of Parliament. Much of your job description is pretty clear from the Articles on Parliament.
If you reflect on that job description, you may find it quite intimidating. First you pass Kenya’s laws. In 2019 (before Covid-19), 29 laws were passed. These laws covered issues like energy (including nuclear) and petroleum, insurance, physical planning, irrigation and security of information held on computers.
As an MP, you should try to understand the basic issues in each of these. Suppose a constituent asks, “What is this about and what is your view?” Can you really reply, “I don’t know?” You, the lawmaker? It is surely wrong to vote on something you do not have a clue about.
A lot of law concerns money, and as MP you should be able to understand the financial issues that get presented to you. The annual budget process is long. First, you will receive the budget policy statement for the following financial year in February. This sets out the government’s broad financial plans.
They will appear in greater detail in the laws that must be passed approving the entire budget, and then dividing money between the national and county governments. That MPs on behalf of the people must pass everything about the budget is a fundamental aspect of democracy.
We cannot afford to have MPs whose eyes and brain glaze over when confronted with figures, and just want to say, “I leave it to government.”
Now, under the Constitution, you have to approve treaties before they are finally adopted by Kenya. They may be about human rights, the environment, refugees, resources, air travel and other forms of transport, fishing rights, cooperating on enforcing criminal law — to take just a few.
Again, to play any useful part in this, you need to understand the purpose of the agreement, why it is thought to be a good thing for Kenya and any arguments against it.
Then there is the perhaps puzzling idea of oversight. Specifically the National Assembly ‘exercises oversight’ over national revenue and expenditure and over State organs. For the financial aspect, you rely very much on the reports of the Auditor General and the Controller of Budget. They report to you — and to us, the people of Kenya. And other public bodies, including commissions, are supposed to produce annual reports to Parliament.
Parliament is not a criminal court. It cannot punish people. But it has a lot of power over money and should take into account the reports when considering whether to approve new expenditure. It can set up its own inquiries into the behaviour of government bodies and make recommendations.
You will also be involved in approving appointments to certain state offices, a task requiring good judgement and an incisive mind.
YOU AND CONSTITUENTS
The Constitution says little about this. You are accountable to them in the sense that they can refuse to reelect you. Sometimes whether they do this depends on other factors than your responsiveness to them. But a good MP will keep in touch with their constituents and try to help sort out problems affecting them. This may be by sponsoring a law, raising an issue in a parliamentary committee or writing to a Ministry.
You are in a sense their voice. But you are not their puppet. You should be able to think about the issues that bother them and make your own judgements, express your own views.
They also have the right to put forth their own views independently of yours. They can put a petition to Parliament. And they can do it through you or another MP or not go through an MP at all.
They have the right to public participation in budget matters and in law making by Parliament. A good MP would ensure their constituents know what is coming up if it is likely to affect them.
Did you wonder why I said you are only Members of Parliament? I meant that you are not members of what we often called government — the Executive. This is why the Supreme Court held that the CDF scheme was unconstitutional.
You have enough to do without being government. We call it separation of powers, and it is to prevent too much power in too few hands, and to enable one part of the system to keep a check on others — as you do on government actions and expenditure.
The Constitution includes a lot on the context that might guide your work. National values like inclusion and sustainable development. Human rights — that must guide all you do. And ethics and integrity. You are there to serve the people, not yourself or your family. Your personal interests must not affect your work — or if they unavoidably do, you must make this clear.
Are you feeling confused? You should be. You have taken on a great responsibility. It requires a lot of reading and thinking, listening and explaining. You will need to learn a lot. You should be prepared to speak in committees and even in the full house. This is so important a part of your work that you have constitutional protection from being sued for what you say there.
But you can get a lot of help from the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Research Service. There are useful publications from NGOs, and from international organisations like the International Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Don’t forget the Constitution says voters have the right to recall their MPs. The law about this was held unconstitutional — but the right still exists.
By JILL COTTRELL GHAI
This article was first published by the Star Newspaper https://www.the-star.co.ke/siasa/2022-09-04-ghai-open-letter-to-newly-elected-mp/