Members of Parliament practice physical distancing in House
Special protocols were implemented at the House of Assembly this week as lawmakers took additional steps to protect themselves against the spread of COVID-19.
Members of the House met on Wednesday to approve the Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for the 2021 fiscal year. This week’s sitting precedes the Budget Presentation and Debate scheduled to begin on February 1.
“Out of an abundance of caution Madam Speaker, we will not have here at any one time, eight, but we will have them in the precincts of the House, or if they are not immediately in the precincts of the House, if they have gone, if they had to go off for some emergency or the other, that we would all understand that if there is a need, there will be a break for honourable members to return for a vote,” Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said on Wednesday, informing of the special protocols of the House.
These new procedural measures were practiced during the Estimates this week and are expected to also be implemented during the Budget Presentation and Debate on Monday.
The House of Assembly initiated its Covid-19 protocols in 2020 which eliminated the physical presence of the public in the chambers. Physical distancing measures were also implemented.
According to the standing orders of the House, eight is the quorum – the minimum number of persons necessary to conduct the business of the House.
Gonsalves noted that this week’s proceedings began with the quorum in place and that once no one rose on a point regarding the quorum thereafter, then the House will remain quorate, with the understanding that not all members will be physically present in the chambers at the same time.
He added that the sufficient number of persons will be present in the House once it is time for voting.
Using an example, Gonsalves explained that if three members of the Opposition are in Parliament, then there is no need to have more than five members from the Government’s side to pass a motion.
“…But they will certainly be around in the precincts, just in case we require all nine persons in case all opposition members appear…we wouldn’t like anyone to take a march, steal a march from us. I don’t think that will be the intention of the Opposition either, but I outline how we will proceed,” the prime minister said.
Dr Godwin Friday, the leader of the opposition also spoke briefly on the special protocols implemented in Parliament this week, noting that although the conditions were not ideal, no one wishes to make a bad situation worse.
He also noted that the procedural matters had been discussed, along with the question of quorum during a virtual meeting with the Speaker of the House on Monday.
“It is not our intention and quite frankly, I think it was an unnecessary imputation by the Prime Minister that anyone here would want to steal a march under the circumstances,” Friday said. “We have our work to do and we will do it to the best of our ability, and using all the facilities provided in these current circumstances…we are going to do our work Madame Speaker and do it within the understanding that we had on Monday.”
The opposition leader said new territory was being traversed by all members of Parliament and “I trust that we will be able to get the work of the House done, the business of the people done and to do it with the fidelity and the seriousness that the circumstances require”.
St Clair Leacock, the parliamentary representative for Central Kingstown was present at Wednesday’s sitting of the House despite his recent fall.
Leacock was allowed to address the House while seated, as he participated in the Obituaries section of the proceedings. He later excused himself from the chambers, in keeping with the newly implemented procedures.
Other members of the House left the chambers at the beginning of the Question for Oral Answers section, returning only to contribute to the debate of the Estimates.