Overdue bills

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 1997, 12:00am

Although the Legislative Council elected in 1995 is drawing to a close, there is a mountain of work for it to get through before July 1. No fewer than 91 bills are in the legislative queue. Despite plans to hold a reading 'blitz' next month with all-night sittings, some will inevitably be casualties of the pressure of time in the coming weeks.

When the first elected legislature of the Special Administrative Region is constituted next year, some present procedures will have been lost in history. There is, for instance, no provision in the Basic Law for Private Member's Bills. The current legislature has nine such bills waiting to be passed in its remaining seven weeks. It is very unlikely that all, or possibly any, will ever become law. Priority goes to government legislation which is more urgent, though it is possible that even in this case, the calendar will be the ultimate arbiter.

Apart from the size of the queue of bills, there is another factor at work in making passage of much of the draft legislation unlikely. Fewer members are now prepared to sit on Bills Committees than in the past. Often this is because they are also members of the provisional legislature. As happens in these matters, the real losers are the general public. Some of the bills involved are socially significant, aimed at improving the lives of ordinary people. One - the Marriage and Children Bill - would take child support payments directly from the salaries of fathers who default. Another - the Unfair Dismissal Bill - offers redress to workers whose services are dispensed with by unscrupulous employers to prevent them qualifying for benefits awarded on a length of service basis.

Government bills which miss the deadline can be tabled again after July 1; but that cannot be done for a while, following the new Chief Executive's first policy address in October. By then, written consent will have to be given by the Chief Executive before bills relating to government policies are introduced, which means a diminution of power. Legislators sitting after July 1 will be able to approve laws, but not to submit bills. This means they will have lost a valuable bargaining chip compared to the current legislators.

All legislators can do to deal with this situation is to scrutinise and pass as many bills as possible. Whether those who sit in the provisional body as well will feel this is worthwhile, or will want to save their energies for the period after July 1, is debatable. But the Democrats may wish to make the effort - to buttress the reputation of the elected body, bolster their grassroots credentials and put down a marker for the 1998 elections.