BRIDGID ANNISETTE-GEORGE, Speaker of the House of Representatives. (Image: Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago)

Members of Parliament and the general public should no longer have any confusion about the use of Standing Order 17, nor the meaning of the Parliamentary phrase “Definite Matters of Urgent Public Importance”, following a comprehensive statement on the issue from the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bridgid Annisette-George.

In a statement which seeks to clarify Standing Order 17—both for those debating in Parliament, and the man-in-the-street looking on at the debate—the House Speaker states clearly what constitutes a “definite matter of urgent public importance”; and how the Standing Order itself is to be interpreted and applied.

The Speaker’s Announcement on the Standing Order application was issued in direct response to commentary from the Oropouche East MP, on her denial of motions raised under it by the Opposition benches.

The full statement issued by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, follows…

ANNOUNCEMENTS BY THE SPEAKER
Standing Order 17–Definite Matters of Urgent Public Importance
FIFTH SESSION NO. 25 ELEVENTH PARLIAMENT 2019/2020

Honourable Members, debates pursuant to Standing Order 17 occasion the adjournment of the prearranged business of the House to discuss “a matter of urgent public importance”. To trigger such an adjournment, the matter to be discussed must satisfy three substantive criteria:

The matter must be DEFINITE;

The matter must be URGENT; and

The matter must be of PUBLIC IMPORTANCE.

DEFINITE

Honourable Members, it is clear that some Members have difficulty grasping the meaning of the term “definite”. For a matter to be deemed definite, the matter must not only be specific, but its facts must be settled. The matter, event or issue must be certain, not hypothetical; or even worse presumptive.

Therefore, Honourable Members, mere allegations cannot constitute a definite matter.  Indeed, the requirement that the matter must be definite is, logically, the first and most critical hurdle.

I am sure that all Honourable Members would agree that it is irrational to expect the House to adjourn its scheduled business, to debate a matter yet to be confirmed, and about which there is only mere speculation.

URGENT

Secondly, Honourable Members, the matter to be raised must also be urgent in the nature of a crisis or emergency that demands the prompt attention of the House. This criterion requires the Member to establish that the definite matter he is seeking to raise is exceedingly urgent, that is to say, it arose suddenly, is of a pressing nature, and has potentially serious consequences.

So, Honourable Members, a matter that has been ongoing for some time will not qualify, such as crime, foreign exchange shortages or unemployment. That is not to say that these matters are not important, but they simply do not qualify under Standing Order 17.

The urgency should be such that the matter allows no delay and for which a motion or a resolution with proper notice will be too late. Consequently, a matter that could have been raised at a previous sitting and was not so raised, cannot satisfy the rule. In addition, a matter which can be discussed in the ordinary course of business, should not cause the House to set aside its prearranged business.

PUBLIC IMPORTANCE

Thirdly, Honourable Members, on a proper application of this rule, no Speaker will grant leave to trigger this extraordinary procedure unless the matter to be raised affects the entire country and its urgency and gravity justifies it. This is the third and final hurdle.

INTERPRETATION AND APPLICATION OF THE STANDING ORDER

Honourable Members, ALL THREE CRITERIA MUST BE MET. Not one, not two, but all three. This is not MY interpretation of Standing Order 17. This is well recognised, long settled, Westminster Parliamentary Practice. Moreover, this is the established practice of this Parliament.

Many of you frequently boast of your longstanding service as Members of Parliament. Therefore, most of you know that this rule and its application have existed long before I took this Chair, and that nothing I have said here is new.

Inevitably, a Member’s opinion on whether a matter requires an immediate debate is subjective.  However, Honourable Members, a Speaker relies on well-established dispassionate rules in arriving at a decision on whether the matter raised is sufficiently definite and of sufficient urgency and public importance to change the business of the House to allow for an impromptu debate.

While the person who sits in this Chair may change, this rule and its application have been standard and consistent.

MISUSE, MISAPPLICATION AND ABUSE OF THE STANDING ORDER

Honourable Members, I have explained the application of Standing Order 17 to this House in the past. This Standing Order does not empower a Member to raise a matter solely based on their opinion that it is in the public interest.

I have also been at pains to guide Members on the alternative mechanisms available to them to debate important public interest issues. Standing Order 16 provides an opportunity for a Member to raise an issue and receive a response from the relevant Minister during a short adjournment debate and Private Members motions pursuant to Standing Order 33(3) enable more comprehensive debate.

Therefore, Honourable Members, the question, should not be, why does the Speaker deny applications to raise a Matter under Standing Order 17?  Rather, the question to be asked and answered is, why, after having been reminded on countless occasions of the high threshold of this Standing Order 17, do particular Members persist in raising matters which they very well know cannot qualify under this rule?

Honourable Members, given the events of this past week, I have concluded that there is an unsatisfactory level of abuse of this Standing Order by very experienced and knowledgeable Members among you. I am therefore compelled to denounce this apparent abuse and to take steps to address it.

RULINGS OF THE CHAIR AND CRITICISM

The decisions made and rules followed during a Speaker’s tenure must be consistent with the Standing Orders and conventions of this House. Such rulings form part of the body of practice that governs the operations of the House and which endures from Parliament to Parliament.

Furthermore, Honourable Members, Speakers the world over are ably assisted in navigating the maze of rules and procedures by a team of professionals loyal to the Parliament. As many of you are well aware, while a Speaker is the ultimate arbiter on the interpretation of Standing Orders, he or she relies on apolitical, expert advice from the Principal Clerks and procedural staff. These officers possess extensive knowledge and experience in Parliamentary Practice and Procedure and never hesitate to proffer the relevant expert sources when rendering advice.

Therefore, rest assured Honourable Members, that this Speaker’s rulings are neither uninformed nor capricious; they are not impulsive; they are not arbitrary and they certainly are not and will never be driven by the dictates of external factors, including mischief, intimidation or veiled threats.

It is expected that Members may from time to time disagree with rulings from the Chair. What is unusual and unacceptable, Honourable Members, is the public cavorting of the admittedly unrepentant Member for Oropouche East. The Member saw it fit to use both traditional and social media outlets to distort the application of a rule of this House. Equally disturbing was the Member, by his own claim, writing to foreign emissaries and international bodies complaining that his recent unsuccessful application under Standing Order 17, was due to bias on the part of the Chair. In fact, the seasoned Member for Oropouche East must have known or ought to have known that his application failed even the initial hurdle of the Standing Order.

This unusual conduct is egregious, intolerable and beneath the dignity of this House. To the reasonable mind, the reprehensible behaviour by the Member was intended to have no other effect than to bring this House into odium and to lower its authority. In fact, the conduct and statements of the Member for Oropouche East are tantamount to contempt.

Honourable Members, any Member who feels aggrieved by a ruling from this Chair can draw his or her concerns to the attention of the Chair, or even to the attention of the House itself. The Member for Oropouche East undoubtedly knows the right way to seek redress; after all, he once held the office of Leader of this House. The Member’s actions can therefore only be construed as a flagrant display of disrespect to this House, an attempt to mislead and inflame citizens and to bring this House and the Chair of this House into public odium and disrepute.

To misuse the Standing Orders and then deliberately spread misinformation about the rules, practice and proceedings of this House is an ignoble mischief and should be denounced by all Members of this House. If the Member of Oropouche East has a modicum of decency left, he will apologise to this House for his opprobrious conduct.

Honourable Members, in an effort to avert a recurrence of the dastardly events of the recent past, I have directed the Clerk to issue to Members as well as to the general public information briefs on this and other misconstrued Standing Orders. I have also directed that Members be advised, as often as may be required, against the submission of applications under Standing Order 17 that do not satisfy its requirements.

All Members are kindly urged to be so guided.