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Constitution amended to allow Parliament to meet in multiple locations

Constitution amended to allow Parliament to meet in multiple locations

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 06 May 2020
Author: Lim Yan Liang

Certain provisions relating to parliamentary privileges, immunities and powers had also been drafted with reference to Parliament House and its precincts.

Parliament will be able to meet in multiple locations if necessary, after the House yesterday unanimously passed a constitutional amendment to legally allow this.

Covid-19 has affected how people around the world work, including parliaments and legislatures worldwide, said Leader of the House Grace Fu, in presenting the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill for debate.

Prior to this Bill, the law required Parliament to meet in one physical location, she noted. Certain provisions relating to parliamentary privileges, immunities and powers had also been drafted with reference to Parliament House and its precincts.

This is why MPs being spread out in the Chamber and public galleries since March "was about as far as we can go under the law today", said Ms Fu. "But it is entirely conceivable that exigencies may make it unsafe or even impossible for us to meet at one place," she added.

In such times, it is even more critical for Parliament to carry on its constitutional functions of legislating and holding the Government to account. Citing the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act and Resilience and Solidarity budgets as examples of the critical role played by Parliament in the last two months, she said: "In the constitutional framework, we are an essential service."

The new Article 64A in the Constitution creates a mechanism for Parliament to meet under continuity arrangements. When triggered, Parliament need not meet with all MPs in one place, but instead across two or more places appointed by the President, and in communication contemporaneously, or live.

Details of the continuity arrangements, such as the appointed places and the mode of communication between those places, will be decided by the House or the Speaker. Parliament Standing Orders, or rules, may also be modified, such as the rule on ringing division bells to signal to MPs to vote, said Ms Fu.

When activated, the continuity arrangements will mean MPs can take part in Parliament proceedings fully despite being in separate places, and their presence will count for attendance, quorum and voting purposes. The powers, immunities and privileges of the House will also apply.

"This physical separation will enhance the survivability of Parliament as an institution," said Ms Fu.

Replying to Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera and Nominated MP Anthea Ong, Ms Fu said that while remote participation - with MPs dialling in from, say, their homes - was considered, the Government decided not to take this path.

Said Ms Fu: "When we cast our votes, there are no strangers present, no outside interference... There is a certain seriousness of purpose, a certain sanctity of process...The same solemnity cannot be reproduced in remote proceedings when there is no effective control over the physical environment from which MPs dial in."

While it is technically possible for MPs to dial in from their homes, Ms Fu noted: "There are security considerations, logistical considerations that will not make that option the same as us sitting in this hall with the existing standing orders, with existing procedures that guide us in the process."

While continuity arrangements will last for six months at a time when activated, she said there is currently no need for them. But the lack of certainty over how events will unfold is why the constitutional mechanism was introduced "out of an abundance of caution" through a certificate of urgency signed by the President, which allowed the Bill to be debated and passed in a single sitting. She said: "If the need arises, for instance, if there is widespread local transmission of Covid-19, we can immediately implement the necessary arrangements."

As MPs were spread across the Chamber and galleries on other levels, the vote was carried out by colour-coded vote cards, instead of the electronic voting system in Parliament, with MPs voting 84-0 in favour of the Bill. Constitutional amendments can be passed only with a two-thirds majority.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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