Opposition walks out after Integrity Bill blocked

BASSETERRE, St Kitts, Friday April 29, 2011 – Opposition MPs walked out of Parliament yesterday after House Speaker Curtis Martin ruled that the Integrity in Public Life Bill they submitted was not adequate and needed more work before it could be presented in the National Assembly.

They’ve challenged the Speaker’s ruling that the Opposition-sponsored legislation does not comply with the section of the National Assembly Elections Act dealing with the drafting of such Bills and the constitutional requirement stipulated in the Standing Orders.

Martin delivered a prepared statement after the People’s Action Movement’s (PAM) Vincent Byron Jr. moved, at the start of yesterday’s sitting, that the Order Paper be amended to include the Bill submitted by PAM and the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM). Leader of the Opposition Mark Brantley, who is also the CCM’s Deputy Chair, drafted the legislation.

In addition to suggesting that the Bill should have been prepared by the Parliamentary Counsels, the Speaker deemed it a ‘Money Bill’ – one which is brought to the Parliament to raise taxes, to spend money which affects the consolidated fund – and as such would need the approval of the Governor General before it could be presented.

Martin said he would invite the Leader of the Opposition to meet with the Leader of Government Business and the Attorney General to discuss and clarify issues relating to the short comings.

“By so doing, it can be duly introduced, read and passed at the next best convenient sitting,” he said.

“The Chair is also mindful that this may be seen as an obstruction to the introduction and eventual passage of this piece of hallmark legislation. However, the Chair wishes to make it pellucidly clear that it has an obligation to make decisions based on the rules and Standing Orders of the National Assembly. Once all requirements are met as expressed by the Standing Orders then the Chair will be duty bound to proceed on this Bill.” 

The ruling did not sit well with Byron, or his PAM colleagues Eugene Hamilton and Shawn Richards, or Brantley. When the Speaker refused to allow them to speak on the matter further they walked out. Brantley and Richards later returned to participate in other debate.

Bill shutdown planned

Speaking to local radio station WINN FM after the walk-out, Brantley and Byron contended that there was a concerted effort to block the legislation.

Brantley argued that the Speaker had used the power of his office to block what ought to have been a simple process of getting the Bill on the Order Paper for a reading for the first time. 

“This was a matter that was discussed, this was a matter that was prepared, the Speaker read from a prepared script and it is quite obvious to me that the intention and the decision was taken to shut this down, on bogus procedural grounds,” he said.

Addressing the Speaker’s insistence that the Bill be drafted by Parliamentary Counsels, Brantley said that was not mandatory and that Martin’s own statement reflected that.

“He said, ‘typically’ that is the case,” he pointed out. “It behooves the government to have their experts look at it and to make whatever recommendation they wish to make, but that is not an excuse to shut down the debate and shut down the bill.”

Brantley also made it clear that the Opposition’s intention had not been to debate the Bill yesterday but simply to disseminate it and have discussions and consultations on it, so that the final document could reflect consensus from the consultation.

He also insisted that the Integrity legislation was not a Money Bill, as the Speaker had contended, just because it involved expenses.

He indicated that only a narrow section of the bill dealt with a budget for the Integrity Commission.

“The bulk of the Bill clearly deals with the whole issue of disclosing assets…so this is in my view a red herring that is being deployed to derail a Bill that in substance is not a Money Bill,” Brantley said.

Byron further pointed to the electoral reform legislation as an example, of a bill that bore expenses but was not a Money Bill and therefore did not require the Governor General’s approval.

Brantley has put the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP) government on notice that the Opposition will continue to fight for Integrity in Public Life legislation: “The Prime Minster can run but he will not be able to hide from Integrity in Public Life, and I want to make that very clear to him and very clear to members on the government side, they will either stand up like men and be counted on the right side of history, or they will go down in shame for what it is they are seeking to do in this country.”

Integrity in Public Life Act legislation was first tabled by the SKNLP administration back in 1996 but was never debated.

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