Committee of supply: another Parliament talk show

Following the presentation of the budget or Appropriation Bill by the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Members of Parliament (MPs) contribute to the debate by discussing general concepts, issues and principles arising from the minister’s presentation.

For instance MPs can talk about issues of general economic indicators, issues of unemployment, poverty, inequalities and access to economic and business opportunities without delving into specific issues of the budget or individual ministries budget. It is common knowledge that the 2015 February budget was debated by no more than six MPs. I do not wish to belabour the reader with what exactly happened and resulted in over 50 MPs not debating the budget.

After the conclusion of the debates on the budget, the minister responded to the contributions of the few MPs who debated the budget. Subsequently, a Committee of Supply began and ended this week with the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. Exactly what is this Committee of  Supply? What is its legal basis and what is its significance?

Part VIII of the Standing Orders of Parliament at 64.1 provides that “When an order of the day relating to a matter which stands committed to a Committee of the whole Assembly is reached, the Speaker shall proceed to say “Order Order” and leave the chair without question put, and seat himself or herself at the Clerk’s table to the right of the Clerk, and the Assembly shall then be in Committee with the Speaker as Chairman.” This provision is rather helpful in how the Committee of Supply is constituted.

A committee of supply denotes a committee of the whole house of Parliament of Botswana that considers the business of supply or convened for the purpose of considering and voting the ordinary state expenditure of the financial year. It usually sits for a few weeks to deal with the estimates of expenditure for the coming financial year, in this case financial year 2015/2016.

 The committee considers each ministry’s request for funds and votes on it.

Legally and hypothetically MPs may propose and effect nominal changes to each ministry’s estimates.  However, this hardly happens in Botswana Parliament due to reasons I shall articulate below.  The debate on the Committee of Supply are for all intents and purposes grievance debates as MPs raise their complaints and dissatisfactions against the various ministries budget priorities or estimates. After the Committee has voted on the estimates, it reports its decision to Parliament which will then debate and vote on the Appropriation Bill. After the Bill is assented to by the President, the  Appropriation Act authorises the government to withdraw monies from the Consolidated and Development Funds to meet its expenditure as contained in the approved estimates. The Consolidated Fund is equivalent or similar to a bank account held by the government. Subject to the Constitution of Botswana, Finance and Audit Act read with other laws of Botswana, the revenues of Botswana are paid into this fund and out of which government expenditures are made.

Whilst the Committee of Supply is a very important aspect of the budget process, more has to be done to turn the forum into a meaningful task. During the Committee of Supply debates, MPs across the aisle are usually seen and heard lamenting about inadequate education and health facilities, shortage of nurses and doctors, accommodation crisis for civil servants, police, soldiers and prison waders and deficient and skewed infrastructural development inter alia. In many cases the issues discussed by MPs are matters one expects to be raised at local council level. In other words many MPs seldom discuss policy, legislative and government national strategy issues. Who can blame MPs when there is no decentralisation (devolution or deconcentration), councils are disempowered and Parliament has been turned into a grievance house?

By design, Botswana Parliament is by and large a talk show. The Appropriation Bill and the ministry’s estimates discussed at the Committee of Supply pass through rather than being passed by parliament. Parliament lacks the capacity to change the budget, for ours is for all intents and purposes a rubberstamp and not a transformative legislature. The parliamentary staff is employed by the Office of the President (OP) and Parliament resources are really OP resources. Parliament must have its own staff and experts to advice on these matters to enable Parliament to adequately and meaningfully have the power of the purse and be able to provide scrutiny on the budget.

Whilst the US Congress or the British Commons or other transformative assemblies elsewhere sometimes alter the budget, in Botswana it is unheard of for Parliament or the Committee of Supply to even faintly alter the budget estimates. The truth of the matter is that the budget is decided by the developmental elites in the Ministry of Finance and  Development Planning, Bank of Botswana and the Cabinet.

Parliament is used to approving the decisions of these institutions because the law requires that the assembly should agree.

On budget matters therefore, Parliament has been turned into a mere talk show where MPs just lament about issues of lack of development in their areas. The effect of these complaints is that MPs’ constituents would hear, usually on Radio Botswana, that their MP is raising their grievances in Parliament.

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