Clash again highlights the need for overdue reform of House rules

Mid Ocean News (14 July 2006)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

MAYBE, Mr. Editor, this is as good as it is going to get up here in the House on the Hill before we break for the summer recess. The agenda looked – and was – pretty light last Friday:

Amendments to the 1972 Fisheries Act, one of the purposes of which was to establish licences for recreational fishermen, the actual implementation of which Government decided to delay by amending the amendments.

l The substitution of a whole new Endangered Animals and Plants Act to replace the 1976 Act which was really an update on which both parties could agree – and did; and

A resolution to approve the sale of the leasehold interest in 11 Southside cottages for a term of 120 years in the form of a blank cheque: it did not state at what prices and to whom and on what terms
– to which we could not agree.

It turned out to be a full day though – thanks in part, Mr. Editor, to Ministerial statements which got us off to a slow start. There were five of them in total, the longest and largest and arguably most important of which, was that of the Minister charged with Government responsibility for Public Safety, Randy Horton.

A statement, any statement, on criminal activity, in view of recent events, was bound to be topical and timely – and welcome.

This one was 13 pages long and took the Minister almost half an hour to read. He started by talking about the tragic deaths of 17-year-old Derick Paynter and 26-year-old Travis Smith, the promising cricketer from St. George's who was Cup Match MVP the first year he played in the Classic; the drive-by shooting; handbag snatchings; break-ins and cycle thefts which statistics show are on the increase; not to mention the general lawlessness – which he did mention – which now manifests itself in town and country gangs.

Minister Horton wanted us to know that any suggestion that his Government "is doing nothing" to address the problems is "irresponsible and untrue". He listed the following:

A Police Task Force charged specifically with tackling handbag snatching and robberies, which becomes yet another special unit in a list that includes the Police Support Unit (PSU) which targets violent offenders, in addition to the Violent Crime and Traffic Enforcement Team and the Tourist Crime Unit, as well as the Serious Crimes Unit at Prospect and the Narcotics Enforcement Team and Community Beat Officers (and that presumably, Mr. Editor, is where all the policemen are, if you're wondering why we don't actually see more officers out and about, on the streets).

The employment of the services of a New Jersey police officer experienced in policing gang activity as well as a new Assistant Commissioner from the UK.

The introduction and use (finally) of CCTV cameras in the Court Street area and talk of plans to extend coverage into other areas of Bermuda like handbag snatch haunts in the Pitts Bay Road-Rosemont Avenue area (that's must-see TV, Mr. Editor, and if cost is a factor, why not scrap those plans for a Government station, please ), and

An admission that the Police Service is some 40 officers below full strength with plans to step up recruiting here and abroad.

Whew! Comprehensive you might think, Mr. Editor, except that the Statement contained no mention of the ugly, vicious and cowardly attack outside Docksiders earlier in the week. That was left to others – on both sides of the House – to condemn on the motion to adjourn. The commitment to crack down on crime was also called into question when, a few days later, we learned that the police, for all their special alphabet task forces, had still not been around to even interview the victim and get on with identifying the cowardly attackers.

Connect the dots, Mr. Editor, the public do. These are the origins for the growing lack of confidence in public safety – regardless of what the Minister says or what he says that the statistics say. Public perception can be difficult to shake.

But if you're a Government Minister you can always attack the Opposition and blame the messenger; and so it was that Education Minister Terry Lister went after his Shadow Neville Darrell with a misplaced vengeance in his Ministerial Statement – number two on the day.

The Opposition Shadow spokesman for Education had publicly questioned the graduation rates at CedarBridge Academy and given voice to the concerns of some of the teachers there. It could have made for an interesting and illuminating debate, Mr. Editor, but it didn't – and here's why:

The Minister got to launch his attack on Mr. Darrell (and answer the concerns) through a prepared statement.

Members are not permitted under the Rules to question or even respond to the statement or its content at the time of delivery, and
Mr. Darrell had to wait until the Motion to Adjourn to engage in debate – which he did – but that was some four or five hours later as it turned out.

The clash – if you can call it that, Mr. Editor – highlighted once again the continuing need for overdue reform of the House Rules. It's been almost 30 years since they were last reviewed and revised. There was the Minister complaining that his Shadow had asked parliamentary questions with the press before they were answered (which is contrary to practice, not the Rules), and the Shadow complaining that the Minister has in the past simply refused to answer some of the questions he has asked (which is contrary to practice, but not required under the Rules). The same Rules also require that the questions be submitted in writing ten days in advance and there is no provision that allows questions to be asked of Ministers on issues of the day, such as the issues that they raise in Ministerial Statements. Meanwhile, we might like to think we're a modern Parliament and they call themselves progressive. Go figure.

This brings me nicely to two of the other Ministerial Statements, Mr. Editor, delivered by the Premier. One of them was on sustainable development and the development of a plan that started in March 2005 and is now about to be shared with the public for their further input, and by the way, he said, if you want to help cut down on traffic congestion take the bus to work once a month like he said that he is going to do to "lead by example".

Hmmn.

If we are talking of leadership by example how about cutting back voluntarily on the numbers of cars on our roads, starting with some of those GP cars? But it was the second statement that particularly caught my attention. The Man was giving us an update on the Public Access to Information legislation; PATI, for short – pati-cake pati-cake, bake me some legislation as fast you can. Well, actually, it won't be that quick, Mr. Editor. The Premier is hoping he might be able to table something next year.

OK we'll see – but don't hold your breath. We've had promises like this before. Remember, for instance, the amendments to the Parliamentary Election Act and provision for absentee balloting? A draft was tabled before we broke for summer last year.

We haven't seen or heard a whisper since. The need to provide for absentee balloting was first raised by the UBP by motion in the House back in November 2002 when the then PLP Government under Dame Jennifer promised they would get on with it: one election later, and another fast approaching, and still nothing.

What's an Opposition to do? Our leader Wayne Furbert tabled a motion last week deploring Government's failure to get on with it. We can but try.

They're not into it

TRYING is what it can be, Mr. Editor, when you do try. Take, for instance, the debate on the Southside cottages. The written resolution simply called on the House to approve the sale of the leasehold interest for 120 years.

There was a plan attached which showed the 11 cottages and prices for each one, ranging from a low of $775,000 to a high of $1.1 million. The Bermuda Land Development Act – which we only recently amended – requires the prior approval of both Houses of the Legislature (Down the Hill and Up the Hill) "for any lease or letting".

There were no leases attached. There were no commitments to prices – the attachment was only that, an attachment – and no information on to whom the cottages would be sold, and on what terms.

This, Mr. Editor, is precisely the sort of information we expect to see when it comes to the sale of Government property. It has also been the practice with previous sales – under different but similar legislation.

There was no explanation or justification for this deviation from transparency – and ultimately lack of accountability. Face it, Mr. Editor. They're just not that into it.

There was also some question as to how they arrived at the prices. They seemed awfully high for Government housing given the current crisis.

"This is not a sale of affordable housing," explained the Minister In Charge in the House, Minister Without Portfolio, Walter Lister. Apparently, the sale proceeds are going to be used to fund the construction of the failed Bermuda Homes for People project, the lottery that was but wasn't.

Defending the proposed sale prices, Minister Lister said they were going to be set ten per cent below market price. "Ten per cent is a bit of relief," he claimed.

"But for whom?" shot back UBP MP Trevor Moniz, "that's what we want to know." Quite.

We don't know and you won't know unless they tell us – and they won't.

Good time

SUMMER recess may be on us quicker than we think, Mr. Editor. No new legislation was tabled on Friday gone. We're down to two Bills – Ministry of Finance matters which ought not to detain us for any length of time – and three motions.

It's hard to see how this will keep us busy beyond this week. To mangle a line from Mr. Berra, Yogi of baseball and now AFLAC commercial fame, we may not know when we will rise for the summer but we're making good time.

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