24 Apr 2020

Parliament post-lockdown: more money and bills but fewer debates and MPs

From The House , 1:00 pm on 24 April 2020

The House will resume next week with a much smaller number of MPs so how will those staying at home earn their salary and will select committees stop working on non-Covid-19 legislation? The Clerk* of the House, David Wilson, returns to answer these questions and more.

Clerk of the House David Wilson at the Table

Clerk of the House David Wilson at the Table Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

*The Clerk is a permanent principal officer of the House whose job it is to advise MPs, particularly the Speaker, on parliamentary procedure. The Office of the Clerk provides a secretariat to the House and its select committees keeping a record of what it does and communicating it to other people.

It’s been more than a month since the House of Representatives last sat in the debating chamber and argued about who would do a better job running the country. 

Details of how Parliament will function under alert level three have been released ahead of their return on Tuesday including:

  • The House will sit from Tuesday 28 April for three weeks. That’s Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm until 14 May (Budget Day). 

  • There will be physical distancing and a small number of MPs in the chamber.

  • Staffing numbers will be reduced on the precinct. 

  • The Annual Review debate will be shortened from 10 hours to five. 

  • No members’ day or general debates will happen for a while. (They plan to catch up on members' days later). 

These decisions are made by the Business Committee which has members from all the parties and makes its decisions by unanimity or near-unanimity (decided by the Speaker Trevor Mallard).

How are MPs earning their paycheck from home?

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The base salary for an MP is about $160k. This increases depending on an MP's additional duties or ranking (e.g a role as Minister or as Chair of a select committee).

Being present in Wellington for debates and scrutiny sessions might be the most public part of an MP’s job but it’s not the whole role.

“A large part of what MPs do when they’re not in the House, and other times when they are in Wellington, is to assist their constituents,” said Wilson.

Those who are staying in their home electorates will still be available for members of the public to contact although their offices are closed.

“They’re still very much doing that work and a number of MPs I’ve spoken to have said there’s a greater demand for it than usual because people are suffering hardship under the lockdown, people are unwell, and there’s uncertainty as well.

“My understanding is MPs are assisting people virtually as much as possible, with phone calls, zoom discussions, emails, still very much acting on behalf of their constituents; it's just that they can’t see them face to face at the moment.”

An affront to democracy?

National Party Leader Simon Bridges speaks in the debating chamber.

National Party Leader Simon Bridges speaks in the debating chamber. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The House of Representatives’ (all the MPs) role is to scrutinise and it does that in the House by holding public debates on the Government’s plans and actions. The reduction in time for debates, and removal of some of them, for the next few weeks raises questions about whether democracy is being overridden.

But the Business Committee has members from every political party and Wilson said we can be confident that all of the parties/Parliament have agreed that it’s ok.

“If a large number of MPs didn’t agree with what was proposed they could actually stop it happening, and that didn’t happen, the Business Committee agreed unanimously to these changes.”

The Business Committee doesn’t really release which parties voted for or against a decision and they don’t conduct formal votes. The Speaker is in charge of deciding whether or not everyone, or almost everyone, agrees.

“Occasionally a party might ask to have its view recorded, so sometimes if a party opposes something and unanimity can't be reached, that could be recorded,” Wilson said.

Will select committees stop working on non-Covid19 related business?

The Finance and Expenditure Committee hearing from Police Association President Chris Cahill.

The Finance and Expenditure Committee hearing from Police Association President Chris Cahill. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The Government has said it won’t be working on any legislation in the coming weeks that isn’t related to its Covid 19 response.

Earlier this week the Leader of the House Chris Hipkins was asked if the Government would direct its select committee chairs to postpone considering non-Covid19 legislation too.

There are 12 subject select committees six of which have chairs from governing parties (five from Labour and one from New Zealand First).

Hipkins said MPs are still being paid and so they should keep working.

“Where select committees can continue to do their work from home, by doing remote hearings for example, by hearing submissions from the public, that’s a sensible thing to do, it doesn’t put anyone’s health at risk,” he said. 

“So I think that there’s a judgement exercise here but I’m certainly not going to say to committees who are keen to continue their work that they should stop their work if they’re not even leaving the house.”

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Leader of the House Chris Hipkins speaks to media before heading into the debating chamber Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

But even if Hipkins wanted to, he and the Government don’t have the power to tell a select committee to stop doing what it’s doing - but the House could.

“It can, as a body, give a committee further instruction. It can tell it to report something more quickly, it can give it more time, it could ask it to look at something in a different way. Ministers don’t have a formal power to do that,” said Wilson.

“Of course Ministers and chairs talk from time to time, and chairs will often want to know what a government’s priorities are but ultimately the business of a committee is for it to decide.

A committee might be informed by what a Minister says or likes but their views aren’t binding he said.

No backchat on committee instructions

Another decision from the Business Committee has removed debates on instructions to committees in the interests of saving time in the House for more urgent business.

Normally a select committee has six months to consider a bill including hearing from submitters and writing a report. Sometimes that report is wanted sooner but giving that instruction to a committee usually has a debate and is voted on by the House.

There have been some heated debates on instructions, most recently on a shorter report back time for the prisoner voting bill (which is actually called the Electoral (Registration of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill).

For the next three sitting weeks the Business Committee has agreed there’ll be no debate on instructions and reports back from committees can be debated straight away instead of after the usual two-day stand down period (so MPs have time to read the report).

"There's a relatively small amount of business that will be going through the House and the MPs that are present in Wellington for the sitting are likely to be involved in it, so they're likely to be familiar with what's in the bills anyway" said Wilson.

Committee reports sometimes include recommendations which propose changes to the bill.

 "If recommendations [in a committee report] are made unanimously they're automatically adopted by the House once it finishes its second reading debate," said Wilson. 

But if the recommendations for changes to the bill are only by a majority then they're voted on by the House he said.

"That will still happen, if there are some amendments supported by some parties and not others, there will be a vote on them in the House".

When will we know what bills they’ll discuss?

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

“Information about that’s likely only to come out fairly close to when those bills are going to be debated,” said Wilson.

Usually there’s a long policy process for legislation including drafting the bills which is done for governments by the Parliamentary Counsel Office.

“That whole time frame has had to be compressed and I think the likely result is the bills won’t be known probably till next week.”

How’s the Government’s bank account looking?

Grant Robertson delivers his 2019 budget speech

Finance Minister Grant Robertson hands copies of Budget 2019 to party leaders Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Budget 2020 won’t be announced until Thursday 14 May and even then it’ll take a couple months to be approved by Parliament.    

“The Government can only tax people and can only spend taxpayers money with the approval of Parliament,” said Wilson.

“The House passes things called Imprest Supply bills, basically temporary permission from Parliament to the Government to spend money.”

Before the House adjourned for the lockdown on 25 March it gave the Government that temporary authority to spend money to the tune of $40 billion of operating expenditure and $12 billion of capital spending.

Imprest supply bills are routine but the amount was not.

“A larger amount than usual and a longer time than usual but in anticipation of the high costs [the Government] was likely to face and the fact the Budget was still some way away.

At the time, Minister of Finance Grant Robertson reminded the House that “this is in fact a technical exercise to ensure that the money is available. All expenditure will still be subject to further appropriation”

The individual spending plans in the Budget are called ‘estimates for appropriation’ and they’re sent to select committees to scrutinise which then talk to Government agencies about their plans for the money as well as ask Ministers to justify spending as well.

“They report that back to Parliament, debate it and once that’s done the Budget goes through so it can be more like July or August before the Budget’s actually concluded.”

The Government could put an Imprest Supply bill forward before the Budget if it decides it's necessary but the full list of legislation won't be available till next week.

Parliament will sit at 2pm on Tuesday 28 April and can be watched live on Parliament’s website, by radio and on these digital TV channels: Freeview 31, Sky 86, Vodafone 86.