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Daunting challenges ahead of Parliament

By Justin Muturi | August 28th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Parliament resumes this September amidst serious threats posed by Covid-19. Being a critical arm of government, Parliament must sit even during difficult periods like this one to deliberate on important matters. Cognisant of this, the National Assembly made an amendment to the Standing Orders to reflect the new situation to allow for holding of physical, virtual and hybrid proceedings. But this development has had its bespoke challenges. There are MPs who are not technology-savvy and who have to rely on others for assistance to access virtual proceedings.

Voting on major critical issues, including passage of Bills and policy papers, the election of leaders within the House and approval of budgets, is a key issue that reflects and actualises the sovereignty of the people. It is therefore important to ensure that voting goes on even as we use virtual electronic platforms. More fundamental is the integrity of the platforms; whether such voting would indeed be that of an MP and not another person assisting them.

In addition, there is the potential for hacking and as other associated security risks. We also have committees of the House that deliberate on sensitive issues such as the Committee on National Security.

What is more, there is a need for confidentiality of various proceedings that are not meant for the public, yet there are difficulties associated with confidentiality when MPs are participating in proceedings outside Parliament. Third parties may access codes of virtual platforms and listen in to deliberations. As participation in virtual proceedings is predicated on ability to both have access to electricity and internet and being tech-savvy brings into question whether some MPs and by extension their constituencies would feel discriminated against if they are unable to participate.

We also envisage particular problems with recording and transcribing proceedings that occur in the virtual platforms given the differences with recording on the Hansard within the physical chambers. Other questions that may need to be answered include how compatible the virtual platforms that are to be used are compatible with existing technology. One of the lessons that may be drawn from comparative jurisdictions such as UK is that voting on virtual platforms is only allowed for non-legislative issues.

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If we are to adopt such a model, questions as to the effectiveness and practicability of the process would immediately arise. It would mean that legislative issues would not be dealt with. This would be an abdication of our hallowed responsibility. However, I see an opportunity for public participation through online platforms and I can confirm that the National Assembly is alive to the potential of technology. We, therefore, intend to start streaming committee and plenary sessions of Parliament on various social media platforms to ensure maximum utility and public participation. Radio, TV and newspapers should also be our partners to ensure we reach many people.

In light of allegations of misappropriation of Covid-19 funds, Parliament is moving with speed to institute thorough scrutiny of the Covid-19 funds to ensure fiscal prudence and protection of the health and interests of the people.

Yesterday we marked a decade since we promulgated the constitution. A issue of concern on constitutional implementation relates to independent constitutional commissions. On occasions they have felt slighted by insistence that their Bills must pass through the Office of the Attorney General (an Executive position), raising questions as to their independence. What would happen when the Executive is not keen on legislative proposals from an independent commission? The commissions should be able to submit their legislative proposals to Parliament on their own.

Kenyans are looking upon their government, and especially elected representatives, for help at this difficult time. Parliament will continue considering measures that can cushion businesses and protect jobs.

Far more ambitious stimulus packages like Kazi Mtaani need to be deployed, whilst ensuring that money reaches the most vulnerable persons. But even as we do so, we should seriously check on our debt appetite. We are already spending a significant portion of our revenues in external debt repayments in the midst of economic contraction. If we are not careful, this may have implications on jobs and salary payments. We could see salary cuts and painful salary delays in public services. Parliament will work with the Executive to ensure we take our nation forward in a steady way that guarantees opportunities for everyone.

Mr Muturi is Speaker of the National Assembly

Parliament Covid-19 National Security Speaker Justin Muturi
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