The best way to see Parliament in action is obviously to attend a Parliamentary Sitting.
Another way is to tune in to 'Radju Parlament' on 105.9 MHz FM and follow a Parliamentary Sitting. Audio live broadcasts of Parliamentary Debates started on 11th July 1995. As from 2005 audio live broadcasts of both Parliamentary Debates and Committee Meetings have also been made available through the streaming facility of the Parliamentary website.
All Parliamentary Debates and Committee Meetings are published in both hard and soft copy formats.
1. Days of Meeting
Standing Order (SO) No 8 states that the House shall meet at 5.00 p.m. on Monday and Thursday. However this same SO also states that the House may determine otherwise. In actual fact Parliament has been normally meeting at 6.00 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday since the 1970's. The days and time in which Parliament meets may also be decided upon by the House Business Committee and / or regulated by a Motion of Procedure.
SO 11 states that if at any sitting of the House any Member present draws the attention of the Chair that there are less than fifteen Members – a quorum – present, the House is suspended for five minutes. If after such suspension the required number of Members is still not present, the House is then adjourned without question put until the next sitting day. During the 11th Legislature a Motion of Procedure has been adopted that extends the 5 minute interval to 20 minutes. Amongst other provisions this same Motion also states that if during the 20 minute interval 15 Members do present themselves in the Parliamentary Chamber, the Speaker shall order the resumption of the Sitting.
As soon as the Speaker enters the House, a prayer is recited. This prayer started being said in Maltese on the 16th August 1971 at the beginning of the Third Parliament.
The Speaker then asks for the confirmation of the Minutes of the previous sitting. This may give rise to an amendment. When the Minutes are confirmed they are signed by the Speaker and the Clerk to the House. It is the Clerk’s responsibility to take the Minutes which should consist only of a res gestae account of the proceedings and not of all that has been said in Parliament. Neither do the Minutes give any summaries of speeches delivered in Parliament but the elencate, amongst other things what issues have been raised, which items were discussed, how members voted and which motions were adopted. The complete text of what has been said in each Parliamentary Sitting is subsequently published as a seperate document in both soft and hard copy format.
4. Declaration by Speaker
This is the time for the Speaker to make a declaration, such as informing the House that the President of the Republic has given his Assent to an Act of Parliament. He may also take this opportunity to give a ruling on a breach of privilege or a point of order raised by a Member of Parliament during a previous sitting. The Speaker may also lay certain documents on the Table like for example annual reports by the Auditor General or answers to Parliamentary Questions submitted to the Chair.
Every Member is entitled to put not more than six questions for oral answers for one sitting, provided that at least three days’ notice is given. A Member may also submit questions for written answers. The three day time frame governing the former type of questions do not apply to questions submitted for written replies. SO 27 specifies which criteria the content of a question must satisfy in order to be deemed acceptable to the Chair.
Question time takes place during the first half hour of each Sitting. This practice permits a Member to submit a supplementary question to the Minister in order further clarify certain issue, which question must however be related to the original question.
6. Laying of Papers
Ministers and Members of Parliament may render certain documents public by laying them on the Table of the House. These documents may consist of legal notices which Government is duty bound to present to the House. They may also consist of information which enhance replies to Parliamentary questions. A number of annual reports and financial statements by Government Authorities and Corporations also form part of this list of documents which are laid on the Table before the House discusses and votes on the estimates of each respective body.
Chairpersons of a number of Standing Committees also take this opportunity to present reports and the Minutes of the Committees they chair.
After the laying of papers the Speaker asks whether there are any statements. This is the time for the Prime Minister or a Minister to relate to the House details on, for example, an important issue or on his participation in an EU summit meeting. Usually copies of the statement are distributed immediately before the document is read out, so as to enable Members to better follow the text content. Afterwards, Members are entitled to ask the Minister questions pertaining to the subject of the statement.
8. Matters of Definite, Urgent and of Public Importance
By virtue of SO 13 each Member of Parliament has the right to move a motion for the adjournment of the the business of the House so that Parliament may discuss matters of definite, urgent, and public importance. Such requests have to be accompanied by a written statement on the topic. If Mr Speaker is satisfied that the matter is proper to be so discussed he shall thereupon desire the Members who support the motion to rise in their place. If more than ten Members do so rise, the House shall fortwith proceed to discuss the subject matter.
Any Member of Parliament may raise a matter of privilege but this has to be done at the earliest opportunity. Mr Speaker shall then decide whether such matter constitutes a prima faciem Breach of Privilege, in which case it is refered to the Standing Committee on Privileges. The term "prima faciem" means that a complaint raised alleges a breach of a rule set out in the House of Representatives (Privileges and Powers) Ordinance or in the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives.
The Speaker then passes to call the Minister’s / Member’s name who proposed the motions appearing on the Notice Paper – the Agenda. These motions, as in the case of Parliamentary questions for oral answers, require at least three days advance notice.
Many of these motions deal with the First Reading of Bills. At this stage the Members are not aware of the contents of the Bill, which normally is still being drafted by the Ministry concerned and vetted by the Attorney General. It goes without saying, therefore, that no debate takes place. However motions may consist of Motions of Procedure or Motions by which government property is to be transferred to a philanthropic or sport society. In this case a debate usually follows.
11. Orders of the Day
An Order of the Day may be a stage of a Bill or any motion.
i) Second Reading stage of Bills: During this stage Members may speak only once and for not more than forty minutes, at the expiration of which, he may continue to be heard for a further 30 minutes on a proposal and a secondment to this effect. After this additional time a Member would require leave of the House to continue his speech. The Minister (or his representative) piloting the Bill, and the Leader of Opposition (or a Member deputed by him to speak first in reply to such motion) are allowed 90 minutes. The Minister piloting the Bill is also allowed 30 minutes for the winding up of the debate where he answers to the critiscm levied at the Bill.
Only the principle of a Bill as distinguished from its details may be discussed during the Second Reading - SO 95. In the case of a Money Bill, at the beginning of a Second Reading, a Message from the President of the Republic is delivered by the Minister to the Speaker who reads it to the House – SO 69. A motion (or an amendment) involving a charge on public revenue also requires a similar message.
ii) Committee Stage of a Bill. Bills not requiring a Message from the President are refered to the Standing Committee for Consideration of Bills. All other Bills are discussed in plenary, in which case before the House resolves itself into a Committee, the Speaker leaves the House, his seat remains vacant and the Chairman of Committees – the Deputy Speaker – or the Deputy Chairman of Committees sits in a chair in front of the Speaker’s platform.
In the Committee Stage, Members examine every clause of the Bill, starting with clause 2 and ending with clause 1 and the Title. This procedure is adopted because following the discussion on the clauses, clause 1 and the Title may have to be amended. In the Committee Stage, Members may speak more than once but should limit their comments to the details of the particular clause being discussed. When no more comments are forthcoming on that clause the Chairman puts the question on any amendments proposed to that clause and on the clause as amended. The amendment or clause may then be adopted (unanimously or otherwise); it may be negatived; or a division may be called for, usually by the Opposition Members. When all clauses have been dealt with, the Chairman of Committees reports to the Speaker that the Bill has passed through the Committee Stage with or without amendments.
iii) Third Reading stage of a Bill. No amendments except merely verbal ones can be made at this stage. The Bill may also be re-committed so that certain clauses may be reconsidered in the Committee Stage. No debate is permitted on the Third Reading.
Divisions may be called at any stage of a Bill, though it is not customary that a Division be called on the First Reading.
When the Bill has been read the Third Time, the Clerk amends the Bill according to the approved amendments, if any. After being signed by the Speaker and the Clerk and having been assented to by the President of the Republic the Bill is printed as an Act.
The Act is printed in the Government Gazette and becomes part of the Laws of Malta from the date of publication.
The Adjournment of the House usually occurs at 9.00 p.m. - SO 9, when a Minister (usually the Leader of the House) moves the Adjournment of the House for a specified day and time. The time taken for divisions – 20 minutes unless otherwise agreed to by both sides of the House – is added to the hour of interruption of business.
The Adjournment lasts only 30 minutes - SO 10 when the House adjourns without question put. Should no Member speak on the Adjournment or if Members stop speaking before the lapse of 30 minutes, the Question is put and the House adjourns.
During the Adjournment, Members may speak on cabbages and kings, i.e. on any subject provided that the subject matter does not form part of any Motion or any Order of the Day present on the Notice Paper.