The Rights to Information Bill (RTI), which was laid before Parliament in February, 20I0, has generated controversy, with the RTI Coalition blaming Parliament for feet-dragging in passing the bill into law.
There had been a lot of media bashing against the august House recently after the Majority Leader Mr Cletus Apul Avoka told an Accra-based FM station that the House gave preference to the passing of the Petroleum Revenue Management, the Petroleum Commission and the Presidential (Transition) bills last year as against the RTI due to the urgency that was attached to those bills.
But addressing the media in Parliament Wednesday, Mr Avoka debunked the assertion by the civil society and rather blamed the RTI Coalition for failing to submit the expert legal opinion on the bill that it was commissioned to do. He, however, assured Ghanaians that the House was committed to passing the bill into law before the lifespan of this Parliament expires on January 6, 2013.
“Contrary to the perception that the House is dragging its feet towards passing the bill into law, Parliament is doing what it can to provide a solid law that can stand the test of time”.
“Let me also indicate to you that the government is also committed to the bill and has not done anything to suggest that it is not interested in the bill since it was presented to the House”.
According to him, since the country had at that time started commercial production of oil there was an urgent need for a legal framework to be put in place on how revenue accruing from the oil should be used.
Mr Avoka said the civil society and an Accra-based newspaper which published their concerns took him out of context when he stated that the House gave the Petroleum Revenue Management Bill, the Petroleum Commission and the Presidential (Transition) Bill a priority.
He said the House had shown its commitment to pass the bill by organising regional fora, under the sponsorship of the World Bank, to collate views from the general public. Those fora, according to him, were held in Tamale, Kumasi, Koforidua, Ho, Takoradi and Accra in addition to the gathering of information from other countries for best practices. He said that all those steps were taken because the civil society prevailed on Parliament to tread cautiously and allow them to have copies in order to make inputs before passing the bill due to its importance to the society.
Mr Avoka explained that before the House went on recess in March, this year, the Joint Committee on Communication and Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs organised a workshop to wrap up discussion on the bill. He said now that the wrap-up workshop had been done, what was left was for the joint committee to write its report taking into consideration suggestions made by the general public and the civil society and present same to the House for debate. He said during the wrap-up meeting the coalition of NGOs on the bill was to present proposals aimed at beefing up the bill but as of now they had failed to do so.
Mr Avoka said even at that meeting, the World Bank indicated its readiness to sponsor a trip by the leadership of the joint committee to some of the countries that had already passed the RTI to enrich the quality of the bill.
“Against this background it is unfair for people to criticise Parliament that it has delayed in passing the bill into law. I find these criticisms quite unfortunate”.
He promised that within the next two or three weeks, the report of the joint committee would be presented to the plenary for it to be taken through its second reading stage.
“Parliament has a tight schedule, this is an election year, but within the time constraints, we will work hard to pass the bill before this Parliament is dissolved”, he assured. Responding to Mr Avoka’s concerns, however, the Convener of the RTI Coalition, Nana Oye Lithur, said it was the responsibility of Parliament to pass bills, adding that Mr Avoka could not, therefore, “pass the buck”. “These are excuses that he cannot run away from. It is his responsibility as the Majority Leader to lead Parliament to pass bills into laws”.
She questioned why Mr Avoka did not hide behind excuses to delay the passing of the Petroleum Revenue Management Bill, the Petroleum Commission Bill and the Presidential (Transition) Bill. She said the coalition had supported the bill right from its drafting stage till now because it was committed to transparency in the governance process. Nana Lithur explained that the World Bank (Ghana Office) commissioned a representative of the coalition to draft an expert legal opinion on the contentious clauses in the bill.
That, according to her, had been completed and submitted to the World Bank, adding that the coalition would, therefore, seek the bank’s authorisation to submit the expert legal opinion to Parliament.
“We will continue to support Parliament to pass the bill because it is in the interest of the country”, she said.