We all agree: Now is the time for action to end machete madness

Mid Ocean News (17 July 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

TALK was tough last Friday, Mr. Editor, when both sides of the House on the Hill spoke in support of legislation to crackdown on thugs who carry weapons, mostly in gangs. Hard work too, for those members of the House, Mr. Editor, who stuck it out for the eight or so hours it took us to see the Bill through.

The crackdown came in the form of changes to our Criminal Code which was first introduced almost 100 years ago (yes, that’s right, it was originally an Act of the Bermuda Legislature dated 1907), although there have been amendments from time to time down through the years. But this time MPs were being asked to approve a mixed bag of changes, 47 pages worth, ranging from revision of our counterfeiting laws, to the wholesale incorporation of provisions of the UK Theft Act, to the offence of aggravated vehicle taking. The amendments also included that very simple change which will allow jury trials to continue where jurors fall ill or are discharged providing the number of jurors doesn’t dip below ten, in number. But the provisions which pre-occupied members and took front and centre in the debate were those which were aimed at stamping out machete madness.

From the outset, there was broad agreement that something has to be done.

The Minister responsible (for the Bill, Mr. Editor), Randy Horton, led the charge for the PLP Government.

“This legislation is among the most severe this Government has passed into law”, the Minister for Public Safety told us.

“I expect every person who is thinking about carrying a weapon to stop and think about what they are doing and I appeal to every mother and father to warn their children and counsel them not to do so.”

The penalties are pretty stiff. We learned for the first time on the Friday that the PLP were now proposing to amend the amendments, there and then, on the floor of the House and to increase the penalties to mandatory imprisonment starting at a minimum of three years upon a conviction in Magistrates Court.

That fateful cruise must have been the last straw for the PLP Cabinet.

“Now is not the time for woolly, fuzzy platitudes”, said Finance Minister Paula Cox, herself an attorney, who also served for a time as the Minister for Public Safety and as Attorney General. Ms. Cox declared unwavering support for the Bill in what turned out to be one of the shortest but clearer speeches of the day.

“Now is not the time to look back at yesteryear and what was”, she said. “Now is the time for action”.

“And now is not the time to bemoan what’s going on in the community”, Ms. Cox continued. “ Now is the time for action and we are prepared to do what is necessary”.
Short and sweet for some, Mr. Editor, not so sweet for others. Maybe.

Shadow Minister for Justice, Trevor Moniz of the UBP, welcomed the new pitch and said so when he followed Ms. Cox in the debate.

“I am glad to hear those fighting words”, said Mr. Moniz. “I am glad to see that the PLP is finally trying to come to terms with what is happening in our community and the increased lawlessness. It looks like they are trying to wake up.”

But he also pointed out that increased penalties were but “one piece of the puzzle”. Laws only work if there is the will to make them work and the PLP has still to demonstrate that it has the will by backing the Bermuda Police and giving them the resources they need to get on with the job, both in terms of manpower and improved facilities. Jurors also need to start doing their job, and not shy away from convictions, challenging as that task may be, and here Mr. Moniz recommended a public education campaign to help Bermudians understand the duties which they may be called upon to perform as jurors.

There has to be follow through too, by the PLP, he continued, for a crackdown on crime to work.

“Today you are sending the correct signal”, said Mr. Moniz, “but in the past there have been too many mixed signals, and that’s been the problem. You can’t be strong on crime on one Friday and then soft on crime on another Friday.”
And that, Mr. Editor, was as tough as the talk got as the PLP Government found support from the benches of the Opposition UBP.

Sort of.

No bull in a hurry

CLOSE examination of the Bill in the House on the Hill also revealed a number of defects. Some were spotted by the Government after they had tabled the legislation – and so on the day, at the urging of the Opposition, and with our support, the PLP for example did away with the archaic distinction between breaking and entering in the day and at night. The penalty used to be less severe for breaking and entering a person’s home the day. Now they will be treated the same – as they should be.

And there were others, Mr. Editor, far more serious, some of which go to the very severity of the new offences and penalties for carrying offences in a public place.

A couple of examples here may help : –

It isn’t an offence to carry a folding pocket knife if “the cutting edge of the blade” is less than three inches. Why the exception? Tough luck too, if you fail to measure or measure properly and you’re out by a half inch.

It is however, a defence if anyone carrying an “article which has a blade or is sharply pointed” has it in public for “good reason” or with “lawful authority.” A couple of statutory defences of what constitutes good reason or lawful authority are set out: for use at work, for use at organised sporting events, for religious reasons, or as part of any national costume. But as Opposition Leader Dr Grant Gibbons wondered: what about the scuba diver who uses a knife? Or the casual fisherman? Are they covered. Shouldn’t they be - expressly?

Concern for any apparent deficiencies was heightened by the decision of the PLP Government to amend the amendments and subject offenders to minimum mandatory imprisonment, starting at three years in Magistrates Court, five years minimum in the Supreme Court.

There was a constitutional point here too, taken by Mr. Moniz. In one part, the Bill didn’t allow for an accused to elect a trial by jury in the Supreme Court in a case where he or she was facing certain imprisonment upon conviction. An immediate correction was proferred by the Attorney General, who doesn’t sit in the House on the Hill, but attended the debate and assisted Minister Horton as he struggled to provide answers to legal questions.

This is no criticism, Mr. Editor, just a fact: Mr. Horton is no lawyer. The Attorney General is and he has agreed to review the points which were raised and, in some instances, make the necessary corrections before the Bill goes down the Hill to his place of political abode a.k.a. the Senate.

That’s all very well, and it is the correct thing to do – and I commend the Attorney General for it. But it does leave you wondering. As former colleague C.V. Jim Woolridge was found of saying: “No bull in a hurry ever made a calf”. That is the voice not just of summer, but of experience, Mr. Editor. No bull.

Piling it on

HEAVEN knows how long it will take us to get through the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act, Mr. Editor, which is three times the size of those amendments to the Criminal Code? I keep saying there must be a better way – and there is. We need a Public Bills Committee made up of members from each side who get to review the legislation with the draftsmen before it gets taken up on the floor of the House. At least this way the representatives from each party will have an understanding of what is proposed and intended, and an opportunity to inquire and make suggestions. There is no reason either why the meetings couldn’t be open to the public and to the press to increase their understanding as well – and, who knows, to make suggestions as well?

Small is right. Very small.

Even then, Mr. Editor, it may still be a squeeze and the tired, worn scrutiny that comes from late night, all-night, early morning sessions is looking more and more like a distinct possibility.

You can’t say that again

WHAT looked like it might have been a late night last Friday, wasn’t, Mr. Editor, when the Speaker put an early end to debate on an Opposition motion. It was that same motion which stirred up controversy on the Hill when Government moved to block even its introduction: the motion of censure on the Minister responsible for Housing, Who Was Not Supposed To Be Named, who had promised but failed to consult with Prospect area residents on plans to build more homes in their neighbourhood.

This time we were able to set out the case – without objection. Not surprisingly the Minister Who Could Not Be Named was the first to respond in defence of himself.

He did not concede that he had failed to keep a promise to consult which he first made on the floor of the House and then by way of letter to each of the residents. But he did apologise if had miscommunicated or offended anyone.

If that wasn’t enough, that would have to be enough, because the Minister then moved that the motion be put to a vote, and that is whether or not the House should deplore his failure to keep his promise to the Prospect residents. The result was always going to be a foregone and a forlorn conclusion. The PLP had their numbers in place.

But the Speaker of the House does have a discretion under the Rules, Mr. Editor, not to permit a matter to be put to an early vote where it appears “… that such motion is an abuse of the Rules of the House, or an infringement of the rights of a minority”.

There were other members who wanted to speak (Opposition only, mind you) and an appeal was made to the Speaker to exercise his discretion by allowing the debate to continue. At least for a further while.

But the appeal was lost and so was the vote. Once again, Mr. Editor, the Government had its way and the Opposition very little say - and I suppose like the residents at Prospect, we are expected to be grateful for small mercies.

Meanwhile, the same old same old continues, with the piling on of legislation as we head to the summer recess. It is already looking like we will need at least one extra session between now and the 22nd if we want to finish up on the Friday before Cup Match.

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