Parliament is set to resume regular sittings of the First Part of the Fifth Session this Tuesday. With several items on the Priority Agenda already released, it seems that Parliamentarians have a full plate this session.
In the previous year, Parliament was heavily engaged with various issues, the most prominent being the pandemic. It is quite laudable that Parliament was able to leverage on technology during the onset of the pandemic in the country and was able to hold Committee sessions initially before moving to a hybrid model that encompassed both the members in Parliament chambers and those following the sessions virtually. The amendments to the Standing Orders showed the commitment to provide legislative direction and leadership during the pandemic despite the stringent guidelines on social distancing.
A good example is the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Covid- 19 Situation in Kenya that was established on 31st March 2020 with the mandate to oversight actions taken by the national and county governments in addressing the spread and effects of Covid-19 in the country. Through virtual means, the Committee was able to engage with various stakeholders across the board on health matters and subsequently tabling reports relating to the Pandemic Response and Management Bill, 2020. The Health Committees of both Houses also took advantage of virtual forums hold their sittings.
Going forward, 2021 appears to be promising with numerous Bills on the floor on the House as upcoming business. The Public Participation Bill seeks to provide parameters on public participation and define obligations of State Officers and public offices in conducting public participation. The courts have also understated the importance of public participation and there have been instances decisions where public body decisions have been overturned due to lack of public participation. However, there are several challenges that public participation has faced in the past year. Firstly, there is a concern that the timelines provided are short and do not offer the public adequate time to analyse the legislative proposals in depth and provide sound Memoranda. Secondly, there appears to be a feeling that where public participation is carried out, it is carried out to fulfil an obligation or to ‘check a box.’ Lastly, there are still issues surrounding accessibility and comprehensibility of legislative information and how to provide their voice.
Mzalendo attempts to fill in this gap through Dokeza that provides an online platform for citizens and corporate entities to track the legislative process in both the National Assembly and the Senate, in a modern and accessible manner. Kenya has a reputation as one of Africa’s most wired nations with high internet subscription and low internet prices. This is therefore an opportunity for citizens to leverage on Dokeza to comment on Bills tabled in Parliament for eventual forwarding to Parliament.
Another area of focus this session is the inclusion of youth and women. An example of a youth-centric Bill is the Higher Education Loans Board (Amendment) Bill, sponsored by nominated MP, Gideon Keter, that seeks to waive the imposition of interest on the principal amount of a loan advanced to the youth and person with disabilities until such time as they have secured their first employment. For women, the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, 2019 proposes to amend Article 89 so as to empower the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to designate adjacent constituencies and wards for the election of women to Parliament and county assemblies.
Noting our growing reliance on technology, there are a few legislative proposals touching on ICT that require concerted stakeholder efforts and attention to ensure that certain rights are not curtailed. These include the Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and the Information Communication Technology Practitioners Bill, 2020.
With only about a year left, what legacy does the 12th Parliament intend to leave behind? Parliament needs to protect the shrinking civic space by implementing the PBO Act. In the wake of the calls for a law change, the 12th house should ensure passage and enactment of the Public Participation to guarantee enhance and inclusive public participation of all Kenyans, especially those among special interest groups. Seeing that President Uhuru Kenyatta has in the past two years made efforts to address the state of mental health in Kenya, National Assembly should consider and fast-track the Mental Health Bill that was already passed by the Senate.
Finally and most importantly, legislators should mind their utterances in public spaces to avoid stirring up chaos as it threatens to cause death and destruction as we’ve seen in previous years. We hope that in their undertakings, Parliamentarians will be guided by the fact that the interests of Kenyans take priority before anything else.