Parliament and the Public Service
In its general supervision of and check on the bureaucracy the House makes use principally of questions, petitions, and special financial procedures.
Standing Orders on questions were changed in June 1962 to bring New Zealand procedure in line with that of the House of Commons. Notices of questions had previously been read in full before being handed to the Clerk. Admissible questions were given written replies which were discussed on an adjournment motion on Wednesday afternoons unless some other business had precedence. The disadvantage of this method was that inadmissible but damaging questions were read in notice form and were heard by radio listeners. Though they were ruled out of order they were effective and there was no reply. The debate on Wednesday was not an efficient device for dealing with evasive replies since Ministers were under no obligation to answer criticism and were sometimes absent from the chamber when a reply of theirs was being discussed. The Wednesday debate was, however, a good opportunity to follow up a question implying criticism of Government policy or actions and it was at a convenient time to attract press notice.
Under the new procedure, notices are submitted in writing and admissible questions appear on a subsequent Order Paper. They are read in full at question time and are answered verbally. Supplementary questions are permitted at Mr Speaker's discretion. There is no Ministerial rota system and there is no limit to the number of questions a member may ask. A new Standing Order gives members an opportunity to follow up critical questions or unsatisfactory Ministerial replies. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, with some exceptions, proceedings are interrupted at 10 p.m. and a Minister moves the adjournment of the House. There ensues a half-hour debate on this motion, in which speeches are limited to five minutes.
The power of the House of Commons in England to deal with petitions was assumed by the New Zealand Parliament in the Privileges Act of 1865. It is a by no means rarely used device. There were, for example, 27 petitions presented in the 1960 session. The prayers, many of which were personal, were for relief, redress, compensation, and for the initiation of public legislation. Petitions must be presented by a member and most petitions are heard by the Petitions Committee which then reports to the House. The motion before the House is that the report of the Petitions Committee do lie upon the table and be referred to the Government (with or without a recommendation for favourable consideration). The report is sent by the Clerk of the House to the Government Department concerned. Comments having been added by departmental officers, the file is sent up to the Minister who hands it to a Cabinet sub-committee on petitions. A most favourable recommendation from the Committee does not ensure that action will be taken on the plea of the petitioner nor does an unfavourable report rule out the possibility that the Cabinet subcommittee will take a different view. There have been complaints in the House by Committee members that their recommendations are largely ignored by Government and there have been notable cases in which petitions committees in several Parliaments have recommended favourable consideration without result. Evidently the committees play a secondary role in determining whether action will be taken. It is worth noting that Government Departments, who may appear before a committee to give evidence against a petition, are in a position to offer a rebuttal of the committee's case before the Cabinet subcommittee considers it. There is, however, a sufficient proportion of petitions which is acted upon to give at least partial satisfaction to the petitioner, to make the procedure valuable.
The relationship in financial matters between Crown and Parliament in England is preserved in New Zealand. Financial initiative must come from the Crown but all charges on revenue and measures for raising revenue must be authorised by Parliament. Each year departmental estimates of expenditure are considered piecemeal by the whole House of Representatives, sitting as the Committee of Supply, and they are authorised in the form of an Appropriation Act which allocates the money for approved purposes. Another Committee of the Whole House, Ways and Means, considers the Government's proposals to tax and borrow. In its consideration of the estimates the House makes use of a select committee. Until the 1962 changes in Standing Orders this Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, did not actually consider the accounts. It examined the estimates, attempting to assess their adequacy or inadequacy. Though public servants could be called and questioned, the Committee was not able to make a very searching inquiry into expenditure. It did not have the benefit of expert advice from a servant of Parliament. It was chaired by a Government member who could save the Government from embarrassment at times. Its report was short and submitted to the Government, not the House of Representatives. The report was not published. The Committee is now called the Public Expenditure Committee and its order of reference has been changed to include an examination of the accounts and of matters raised in the annual report of the Controller and Auditor-General. It is empowered to adjourn from place to place and form subcommittees. The new Committee, unlike the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, does not have an Opposition chairman but it is likely to avail itself of the services of the Controller and Auditor-General in considering the accounts, and its work should benefit. It is too early to say whether the Committee will be allowed to report to the House of Representatives. The Standing Order is ambiguous on this point, stating that the Committee is to report to the House or the Government, but, in any case, Opposition members of the Committee have the opportunity in Committee of Supply on the estimates to make use of their experience and any information they have gained. Other checks on the bureaucracy provided for in Standing Orders are motions for returns (a demand for statistical information to be made available to the House), consideration of papers (a debate in which papers laid on the Table of the House by order of the House or by statute are examined), and a debate on a motion to discuss a matter of urgent public importance (which might involve maladministration). In the 1962 revision of Standing Orders, special attention was paid to the problems of delegated legislation and its examination became part of the order of reference of the Statutes Revision Committee. The Committee has power to sit during adjournment or recess and its chairman or any five members of the House may refer to it any regulations other than those made by local authorities.