Sat | Aug 13, 2022

Lawmakers resist ‘invasive’ transparency campaign

Published:Thursday | July 7, 2022 | 12:11 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
Marlene Malahoo Forte, minister of legal and constitutional affairs.
Marlene Malahoo Forte, minister of legal and constitutional affairs.

Lawmakers have pushed back against an Integrity Commission recommendation for legislative amendments to the 2017 Integrity Commission Act to include additional declaration of their assets, calling it “invasive and inappropriate”.

They have also mounted strong opposition to the commission’s recommendation that it be limited to parliamentarians, arguing that it adds to the corruption stigma that has bedevilled the profession.

But executive director of the watchdog body, Greg Christie, warned that legislators’ resistance could further taint the country’s image.

The issue was ventilated during Wednesday’s sitting of the joint select committee of Parliament reviewing the act.

The commission’s Director of Information and Complaints Craig Beresford told committee members that it was being recommended that Section 39, which references statutory declarations, be amended to require additional declarations from parliamentarians.

Those additional requirements include membership in political, trade, or professional organisations; contracts with the Government; directorships and beneficial interest in corporate bodies and government boards; beneficial interest in land; trustee or beneficiary of a trust, and any other substantial interest that may result in a potential conflict of interest.

Beresford said that the recommendation will assist in the commission’s efforts to detect and investigate matters relating to actual, potential, or perceived conflicts of interest, nepotism, and other corruption-enabling acts.

But legislators took issue with several of the requests, noting that they are already required by law in some aspects.

Committee member Marlene Malahoo Forte argued that with the exception of the prime minister and opposition leader who, by law, must make public a summary of their statutory declaration, every provision under the act applies to parliamentarians and public officials, equally.

“You now want to single out parliamentarians that they must be required to make submission of an additional category of interest, and the concern only relates to people who are part of the political directorate,” she challenged, noting also that the Government is not limited to this group.

She said by “constantly putting the spotlight” on parliamentarians and their offices, others remained in the shadows.

Malahoo Forte was supported by Peter Bunting, who suggested that permanent secretaries be held to greater scrutiny.

Furthermore, he said the Integrity Commission’s leadership must, before anyone else and any other body, be held to a higher account, especially with respect to disclosure to registrable interests.

“You want for us to declare what valuables we have in a safety deposit box. Not only is that invasive, but how are you going to verify that what we say is correct?

“... . There are certain things like that that are not only invasive, but inappropriate to put in a legislation,” committee Chair Delroy Chuck charged.

“The only thing that is left is for the Integrity Commission to ask us is to put in the legislation that once per year you can visit a parliamentarian’s home to investigate,” he added.

‘Going overboard’

Donna Scott-Mottley warned that the recommendation was concerning and noted that the requirements bordered on “going overboard”.

She said that not only are the required statutory declaration reports “burdensome and highly invasive,” any addition runs the risk of excluding persons with integrity from public office.

Christie noted, however, that under the act, the commission is required to monitor current legislative and administrative practices in other jurisdictions to fight corruption. He said that this was in keeping with international best practices.

He said that the particular recommendation was developed specifically for parliamentarians internationally but noted that there was no difficulty in including other senior public officials.

Pointing to Transparency International as the world’s leading and most respected anti-corruption body, Christie said that Jamaica was perceived as corrupt, ranking below 50, with zero being the most corrupt and 100 being the least.

He said in the last 10 years, Jamaica has averaged a score of 38.7 out of 100.

“It is up to all of us to find ways and means to strengthen the perception that something is being done to fight corruption. It starts with our lawmakers because the lawmakers are the ones who, basically, set the anti-corruption legislative regime,” he said.

kimone.francis@gleanerjm.com