How Access To Information Aids The Work Of Parliament

By Coalition on the Right to Information
Opinion How Access To Information Aids The Work Of Parliament

The discourse around access to information has often focused on how it helps in the fight against corruption and in enhancing citizens’ capacity to exercise other rights. A lot has been said about how the lack of information impedes citizens’ ability to assess the decisions of their leaders, and even to make informed choices about the individuals they elect to serve as their representatives. However little or nothing has been said about how access to information benefits the work of public institutions and agencies themselves most especially Parliament as a legislative body and individual members of this body.

Often times when Parliament is called upon to consider the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) Bill, most Members of Parliament (MPs) approach the task completely oblivious of the immense potential benefits that such a Law will bring to them as representatives of the people and their functions as such. Most of them worry that the Bill when passed into law will empower the already ‘intrusive and unprofessional ‘media to become even more uncontainable. A few others worry that the law may empower the ordinary citizen who cannot be trusted with official information about how state resources are managed while many others believe that the law will leave them vulnerable and open up their private lives and secrets to public scrutiny.

The RTI Bill if passed will be in the interest of Parliament as well as individual Members of Parliament. It will serve as a tool which they can use to obtain information not only about the activities of the Executive but also about what the bureaucracy of Parliament is doing. The kind of government information that is obtainable through a Right to Information Law is clearly different and more important than the information offered by governments through their normal public relations channels and websites.

There may well be the apprehension that the passage of the Right to Information Bill will empower the citizenry, but that is what the whole democratic project is about. Article 35 (1) of the 1992 Constitution – the chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy – states it clearly in the following words:

‘Ghana shall be a democratic state dedicated to the realization of freedom and justice; and accordingly, sovereignty resides in the people of Ghana from whom Government derives all its powers and authority through this Constitution’

Further, what MPs ought to understand is that the passage of the law will at the same time improve public confidence in the work of Parliament. It is not in doubt that Parliament, because of the nature of its work, is prone to public criticisms particularly in respect of their oversight role and what the public perceive as its undue party partisanship. As such there is a need to constantly re-establish public confidence in the system by reassuring the public that they are taking measures designed to advance the wellbeing of the people by promoting transparent governance. As a former MP puts it ‘…the only way Parliament can win back the trust of citizens is for them to be seen as being more proactive in their accountability role through the passage of the RTI law’.

By the provisions of Article 93(2) of the Constitution, the basic function of Parliament is to make laws. This means that no person, institution or body has the power to pass any measure with the force of law except by or under the authority conferred by an Act of Parliament; however, a number of functions are incidental to this law making function. This article summarizes the functions of Parliament into three categories and then proceeds to analyse them in relation to the value that access to information brings generally to the work of Parliament and specifically the impact that the passage of the Right to Information Bill will have on each function. .

Functions of Parliament:
1. Legislative:
Access to information is key if any Member of Parliament is to be effective as a parliamentarian. Some people might argue that MPs may not need a Right to Information Law to obtain information but it is important to note that legislative power is exercisable by MPs collectively whether in plenary or in committee work and as such individual MPs have no more right of access to official information than the ordinary citizen. An access to information regime is critical if any Member of Parliament is seeking to comment on a Bill, introduce an amendment to an existing legislation or make a critique of a proposed legislation that seeks to address social realities. Such initiatives must be informed by proper research to obtain accurate data, statistics and other relevant information necessary for meaningful consideration of, and deliberation on Bills if they are to achieve their eventual desirable social ends. Without the Right to Information Law, the bureaucracy may not be readily disposed to giving out information and consequently getting accurate and reliable statistics and data from government may prove to be a herculean task particularly where there is little or no investment in record keeping and management. Without accurate and reliable information such private member initiative may be originated on an erroneous premise.

Access to information enhances the main work of Parliament in passing Bills into law, scrutinizing statutory instruments and deciding whether or not they will be annulled or allowed to take effect by the effluxion of time. When Bills are introduced to Parliament, they are read for the first time and subsequently referred to the relevant committees for thorough discussion and debate. At this stage the Committee requests for information from the public in the form of calls for submission of memoranda to enable it consider different views on the Bill. Citizens and members of the public will be limited in the memoranda and suggestions they submit to Parliament if they are not armed with relevant information, in many cases from public bodies. Where this is the case, Parliament misses out on the possible new ideas and useful perspectives that the public may bring on the proposed law if they had the relevant information. It is absolutely impracticable for Members of the Parliamentary Committee to at all times know or anticipate the impact that a particular law will have on the citizenry when passed and therefore, the absence of information may mean that Parliament may be passing laws only to seek to amend them immediately because of issues that were not brought to their attention at the time of consideration.

2. Oversight:
Parliament has the duty to keep a watch over the performance of the Executive, which controls the public service, to ensure that the implementation of public policies conforms to the approved development agenda of the state and that expenditure incurred is in accordance with what is authorized by Parliament. Increasingly majority of public services are being delivered by private sector operators and without access to information, Parliament will be unable to effectively scrutinize contracts that may have been awarded by government to these private agencies. With the Right to Information Law, individual MPs can compel not only public servants but private bodies that are paid from the state purse to release information and such bodies will be obliged by law to disclose the information requested within a given time frame and in the prescribed format.

Furthermore, Article 75(2) empowers Parliament to ratify international treaties, agreements and conventions entered into by the Executive. To be able to effectively carry out this responsibility, Parliament would need adequate information on those treaties or international initiatives that Ghana has signed unto, otherwise ratification/adoption will be delayed. A case in point is the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Initiative which the Government of Ghana signed in 2011 under the leadership of President John Attah Mills.

3. Representation:
A Member of Parliament is the representative of his constituents. He serves as the communication link between his constituents and the government. It is on the basis of information obtained at the constituency level that individual MPs are able to effectively scrutinize development projects and activities in their communities. At this level, access to information becomes even more critical for individual MPs, particularly minority MPs, who may want to obtain information from local authorities. In Ghana for example, the District Chief Executives (DCEs) are appointed by the President, in a situation where a DCE appointed by the ruling government is unwilling to release information, it becomes quite challenging for an MP to get the right kind of information to be able to effectively assess projects in his constituency. An interview with a former MP revealed that during his tenure as an MP, he and his District Chief Executive (DCE) were not in good terms as a result he could not obtain any information from the DCE; and the Assembly members on their part could not provide the kind of information he needed. According to the former MP, he had to deploy all sorts of strategies to gather credible information regarding his constituency including buying lunch for people and paying bribes so that these people can volunteer information.

Another sitting MP (name withheld) recounted how he and his Municipal Chief Executive (MCE) were at loggerheads such that he could not obtain any information from him regarding the balance on his share of the District Assembly Common Fund (DACF), he decided to write to the Coordinating Director requesting for this information but by the time he got the information, some amounts of money have been taken from the common fund without his knowledge. If the information had been timely, maybe he could have prevented this robbery.

Clearly, MPs should be more interested in the enactment of the Right to Information Law even more than the ordinary citizen. Justice Gerard LaForest, before retiring from the Supreme Court of Canada, addressed the underlying value of freedom of information Laws in the case of Dagg vs. Canada (June 26, 1997) as follows:

“Parliament and the public cannot hope to call the government to account without an adequate knowledge of what is going on; nor can they hope to participate in the decision making process and contribute their talents to the formation of policy and legislation if that process is hidden from view”

In summary it is evident that the right to information and its legal regime inures to the benefit of our legislators. It is therefore crucial for Parliament to step up to the plate by ensuring the adoption of a comprehensive access to information law in Ghana. If indeed the 275 Members of Parliament are keen on passing the RTI Bill currently in Parliament, one would have seen a sense of urgency in the consideration process which started fully only in May 2016 but stalled in June. The speedy passage of the RTI Bill with the critical amendments proposed by the Select Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs is the smartest choice that the 6th Parliament of the 4th Republic of Ghana will make in this election year, 2016.

Coalition on the Right to Information (RTI), Ghana, October 2016