COLUMN | From Bill to Law – An easy guide to how laws are made in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Parliament
(AFP)

How are laws in Zimbabwe made? How many stages does a Bill go through before it becomes an Act? What is a Bill anyway? How does Parliament really work? Common Law with Mike Murenzvi, a series we begin today, will help us figure out just what all this means.

Here’s Mike’s first installment. Read on.

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“And how about doing the job we hired you gentlemen and ladies for? Start doing it by reading the legislation you pass. If you don’t know what it says, don’t vote for it.” ~ Kenneth Eade

In this first instalment, we look at the process of enacting or making laws in Zimbabwe.

Law-making process

Public Bills generally go through various preliminaries, even long before they come to Parliament.

First, a Minister in charge of a Bill puts their proposal to the Cabinet, which examines it, ensuring that it is in line with government policy and does not violate any provision of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

If the proposals are accepted, the Minister is directed to prepare a Bill on broad lines. The Legal Drafting Department in the Attorney-General’s office then prepares a Draft Bill which is printed for presentation and consideration by the Cabinet Committee on Legislation.

This committee is chaired by the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. After its approval by Cabinet, the Bill is published in the Government Gazette at least two weeks before its introduction in Parliament.

Stages of a Bill in Parliament

After gazetting, the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee which looks into the functions of the Ministry responsible for administering that Bill. The Portfolio Committee conducts public hearings with members of the public, especially interest groups, to enable them to make an input.

First Reading

Prior to the First Reading, the Minister gives notice in either of the two Houses of his intention to present a Bill. On the appointed day, the Minister presents the Bill by reading the long title. No debate takes place at this stage, which is the formal introduction of the Bill before the House.

The Bill is referred to the Parliamentary Legal Committee in terms of the Constitution and Standing Orders. This will determine whether, if enacted, the Bill would be in contravention of the Declaration of Rights or any other provision of the Constitution.

Public Comment

From the time that a Bill is gazetted, it is open for the general public to review and submit comments, suggestions, and concerns to the Portfolio Committee within whose purview the Bill falls. The Portfolio Committee also conducts hearings across the country’s ten provinces in order to get those views directly from the people.

Section 141 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides that:

“Parliament must-

(a) Facilitate public involvement in its legislative and other processes of its Committees;

(b) Ensure that interested and affected parties are consulted about Bills being considered by Parliament, unless such consultation is inappropriate or impracticable;

(c) conduct its business in a transparent manner and hold its sittings, and those of its committees, in public, though measures may be taken—

(i) to preserve order in parliamentary proceedings;

(ii) to regulate public access, including access of the media, to Parliament and its committees;

(iii) to exclude the public, including the media, from sittings of committees; and

(iv) to provide for the searching of persons and, where appropriate, the refusal of entry to Parliament or the removal of any person from Parliament;

but those measures must be fair, reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society based on openness, justice, human dignity, equality and freedom.”

Second Reading

At the second reading stage, the Minister will now explain the principles of the Bill. The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee presents its report containing its findings and recommendations. The debate on the Bill then starts.

The Bill is then read a second time. If any amendments are proposed to the Bill, the House may refer the Bill back to the Committee to prepare the necessary amendments for the Committee Stage in the Committee of the Whole House.

Parliament often gets heated as MPs push for their party positions and debate legislation

Committee Stage

The whole House resolves into a committee for the purpose of considering the Bill in detail clause by clause. The guiding principle is that the committee should make such amendments in the Bill as may seem likely to render it more acceptable.

The Committee, however, should make sure that it does not amend the Bill in a manner that is in sharp conflict with the principles of the Bill. The committee will also consider the recommendations made by the relevant portfolio committee.

Report Stage

This is a purely formal stage where the Chairman of the Committee of the Whole House reports the recommendations made to the Bill and these are either accepted or rejected, thus ensuring that the Bill represents the opinion of the majority of the House.

Third Reading

The Third Reading is the final stage. At this stage, the Bill can now be deemed to have been passed by the House in which it was introduced. It is then transmitted to the lower or upper House, whichever is the case, to begin the Second Reading stage there.

Presidential Assent

When a Bill has been duly passed in terms of the provisions of the Constitution or the requirements of the Standing Orders, and signed by the Clerk of Parliament, it will now be presented to the Head of State for assent within 21 days in terms of the Constitution. The President grants his assent by authenticating a fair copy of the Act with his signature and attaches the public seal.

If the President withholds his assent, he must return the Bill to Parliament with a list of concerns that should be addressed.

Enrolment of an Act

After Presidential assent, the Clerk of Parliament gets the authenticated copy of the Act enrolled on record in the office of the Registrar of the High Court. That copy will be the conclusive evidence of the provisions of the Act.

The Act will come into operation on the date published in the Government Gazette or as specified in the accompanying notice.

Public input – underutilised tool of the masses

From personal experience, public hearings tend to have less than 30 attendees (inclusive of news reporters). And of those 30, there are likely to be less than 10 individual comments. Most submissions are prepared presentations from special interest groups and revolve around a particular point or issue, and they follow a set script.

What makes this method reasonably effective is that the Portfolio Committee is duty-bound to present the results and responses at public hearings to Parliament before the Second Reading debate and take these views into account in their report.

Another method of input is to contact your local Member of Parliament and make your views on the Bill known. This method is less effective because our MPs are more accountable to their respective parties than they are to the people. In so doing, they are likely to present a party position and not their constituents’ position.

A greater public engagement culture will go a long way towards the making of better laws.

How to improve public engagement?

Firstly, Parliament needs to be more open to the public and engage in more educational outreach programs. The general public need to understand the work of the “august house” and have it demystified.

While the well-broadcast Wednesday Question and Answer session offers a great glimpse into the operations, it only shows one aspect of Parliament’s work.

Parliament has an MoU with ZBC for live session coverage, but more needed. (pic: Pindula)

Having a current website with relevant and up to date information is key, as well as updating the app they launched two years ago.

Secondly, we need the Government Gazette made available freely online as opposed to just a hard copy from Printflow. All proposals of and changes to laws are published in the Government Gazette to make them official. Without free access to that, some laws fly under the radar, especially when they are not reported in the media.

Thirdly, adding civics as a major topic in the school curriculum is key. If we have future generations growing up with knowledge of our governance systems, along with their rights and responsibilities, the future may be filled with more knowledgeable leaders and citizenry and improve the checks and balances of those in power.

The law is for everyone, and it is folly to think that it only applies to specific groups. It is to our detriment to not be involved in its crafting as we are subjects of the law, whether good or bad.

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The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal opinions and should in no way be interpreted to represent the views of any organisations that the he is associated or connected with. Feedback is greatly encouraged.

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