A record 65 laws were passed by Malta’s parliament in 2020, with statistics showing a significant increase in the House’s workload over the past two decades.
Data collected on the House’s work between 2003 and 2020 reveals the extent to which Parliament’s role has changed, indicating that it may no longer be sustainable to have the highest institution in the land operating on a part-time basis.
So what do the numbers say? Since 2003, when 19 new pieces of legislation were approved, there has been a steady increase in bills being passed.
While the amount of work before the House has crept up, the number of MPs has remained roughly the same, while the number of cabinet ministers has increased, meaning fewer MPs are able to dedicate all their time to parliamentary work.
The rising workload can be partly attributed to society’s constant evolution, bringing about the need to introduce legislative frameworks for new realities.
It is also clear that the election of the Labour Party in 2013 and its determination to make good on its many electoral pledges resulted in a significant increase in new legislation.
In fact, in 2014, the first full year of a Labour government, a record-breaking 43 new laws were approved, significantly higher than in any of the previous years.
While Labour’s reformist agenda can explain the increase registered during the first Muscat administration, the same cannot be said of the present legislature.
The assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 put the international spotlight on Malta and placed an unprecedented level of pressure on the country to clean up its act.
The threat of grey-listing by the FATF, and the potential economic repercussions resulting from it, has further forced the government’s hand in implementing reforms that would likely not have otherwise been brought about.
It stands to reason that more laws passed means that more parliamentary debates are being held.
The ninth legislature, between 1998 and 2003, saw 53 Bills debated. Twice the number of Bills were debated during the 2003-2008 legislature, while 122 were tabled during the 2008-2013 legislature.
In Labour’s first legislature since 1998, 196 Bills made it to Parliament. The same number of Bills had been debated by the end of March this year.
Given that the majority of Bills are tabled in Parliament by ministers, the fact that more Bills are being presented is likely linked to the rising number of cabinet members, which has now reached 29.
Despite approving a greater number of laws, Parliament has managed to maintain a relatively constant “efficiency” over the years, though it must be said that the quality and complexity of the laws passed has not been factored into this analysis.
Taking the number of Bills that remained on Parliament’s agenda for longer than 200 days as a reference point, the ninth Parliament (1998-2003) was by far the most efficient, with only 9% of all Bills debated during that legislature remaining pending for over 200 days.
This is not surprising given the relatively small number of Bills debated.
The proportion of Bills taking longer than 200 days increased to 18% during the 10th legislature and to 22% during the 11th.
Both the 12th and 13th legislatures saw roughly 15% of all Bills remain pending for more than 200 days.
The three Bills that have taken the longest amount of time to pass since 2003 were all debated during the 2013-2017 legislature.
Amendments to the Periti Act were left pending for a staggering 1,294 days – practically the full length of the legislature – while amendments to the Child Protection Act and the Standards in Public Life Act remained on Parliament’s agenda for 1,014 and 979 days respectively.
While Parliament workload has increased, the quality of laws passed doesn’t appear to have improved over the years. This was illustrated perfectly by Opposition MP Karol Aquilina earlier this year.
Speaking during a debate about changes to the confines of Malta’s electoral districts, which are arranged in such a manner as to ensure fair representation in Parliament, Aquilina said:
“I don’t feel that people are represented properly. With all due respect to everyone, this is a slipshod parliament. We come here at four in the afternoon and by seven we’re done. The reality is that everyone here is a part-time MP and does god knows how many other things during the day, myself included.
“This parliament doesn’t take itself seriously. I challenge every MP to declare that they actually read the Bills we’re passing. This Chamber has passed laws that nobody has read. Laws are passed, mistakes and all. We’ve passed laws that we don’t know the origin of and the effect of which we do not understand.
“There have been laws that we’ve passed on a Wednesday and which we’ve had to amend the following Monday because we’ve found mistakes. The goal of parliament is in my opinion not being achieved.”
Asked for his views on the increase in parliament’s workload, former Speaker Michael Frendo, who has also held various cabinet positions over the years, noted that the increased parliamentary burden and the need for scrutiny and analysis strengthened the case for MPs to be granted more resources to carry out their role.
“It is becoming more and more untenable that our individual MPs who are not members of the Executive have no research, no offices, no administrative assistance dedicated to them. This situation diminishes the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny which is needed to understand the implications of legislation and to hone the drafting of the laws in order to make them more just and more beneficial to society,” Frendo said.
The present Speaker Anglu Farrugia pointed out that presently, each parliamentary group was provided with funds for the engagement of a part-time secretary as well as an annual contribution of €100,000 for the engagement of support staff.
He said that “having the possibility of allocating additional support staff to parliamentary groups has not been ruled out and discussions are ongoing”.
The number of rulings delivered by the Speaker has also seen a significant increase over the period under analysis, indicating that Parliament is becoming more contentious with time.
Parliamentary procedure is governed by the Standing Orders of the House. The Speaker is the final authority in the House and is the one that must interpret the Standing Orders when this is required. It is however possible for rulings to be contested and in such instances, a vote must be taken in the House.
Farrugia pointed out that the fact that parliament has had to debate more Bills with time has “brought to the fore contentions on certain procedural issues” necessitating the intervention of the Speaker.
Another factor Farrugia pointed out was the fact that parliament has seen the addition of a number of younger MPs who “are always questioning established long-standing procedures”.
He added that in an active parliamentary democracy with expectations of transparency and accountability, MPs tend to use parliamentary procedure to raise “a number of topical issues in both the Plenary and in the Parliamentary Committees”. Farrugia noted that parliament’s committees had increased from just six to 16 in recent years.
“As expected, this will invariably bring about new circumstances and scenarios which may not necessarily be covered by the Standing Orders, past rulings, or legislation. In such cases, the Speaker would be required to provide a way forward by means of a ruling.”
Another notable trend has been an increase in the number of ministerial statements delivered to the House. Ministerial statements are a way for Ministers to provide the House with information regarding an important matter, sometimes on relatively short notice.
According to Farrugia, one possible explanation for the increase in ministerial statements was the “expectation of today’s society with regard to accountability and transparency”.
This was true of both the general public and the parliamentary Opposition, meaning that ministers might feel more of an obligation to give an explanation on certain matters to the House.
In fact, he noted that the times a ministerial statement alone did not suffice, and matters had to be discussed in a special debate, as happened recently when the Opposition requested a session on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Farrugia also pointed to the fact that members of the Executive were required to involve themselves in more activities than they previously did, including European affairs, which they often needed to update parliament about.
What do you make of these figures?