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ALBERT BRANDFORD: Scrap the seating rule

Albert Brandford, [email protected]

ALBERT BRANDFORD: Scrap the seating rule

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THIS YEAR’S Estimates exercise has been revelatory in more ways than one in that they managed to elicit one outright public apology and a mea culpa from Government MPs.

It was a remarkable week in an otherwise unremarkable debate.

But not surprisingly, it would take a post-debate resort to the electronic media for Barbadians to be told of a vague “deficit reduction plan” that was woefully short of details.

It was the kind of proposal that cried out for announcement in the House of Assembly during the debate where and when it could be immediately scrutinised.

But we were left with an unusual personal statement from Speaker Michael Carrington who appeared to admit that the rule which seems to suggest (but is open to interpretation, says Prime Minister Freundel Stuart) that an MP can only address the House of Assembly from the assigned seat is difficult to enforce.

Assigned place

One recalls the donnybrook that erupted seven years ago this month when Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley was initially denied an opportunity to address the Chamber from a seat six places away from her assigned place at the head of the Opposition benches, which led to a spirited discussion and a 15-minute suspension of the sitting presumably for “consultations”.

Then there was the vehement and emphatic denial by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler that he had no knowledge of a decision by the Cabinet, of which he was a part, which a few days later led to his issuance of a public apology – again via the electronic media.

While it is all well and good for the minister to apologise to all the people of Barbados, such apology should more properly be made to the House itself since it suffered grievously from his apparently faulty memory.

If my memory serves, it was the second time within about two years that the said minister was constrained to issue an apology for the very serious and grave charge of “misleading the House” – inadvertently or not.

During a June 2014 debate on a $41 million loan to the Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC), Sinckler was accused of having introduced a debate on a guarantee for the loan without ascertaining that the BAMC’s annual reports had been laid in Parliament, and he responded that he had assumed the reports had been laid since it was the normal practice for audited accounts for statutory corporations to be approved by Cabinet and then laid by the substantive minister, Leader of the House or Prime Minister.

When it was pointed out that it was Sinckler himself who had laid the last BAMC report (2009) in October 2010 and since then none had been laid, he informed the House that the 2009 report was not the last to have been laid and that he was holding another report in his hand.

“If it turns out that those reports were not laid – I know they were approved by Cabinet  . . . then that part of the comment that I made can be freely withdrawn,” he said. “If it gives the honourable member comfort, I will withdraw my comment and apologise.”

With the extant issue, Sinckler was also accused of “misleading” the House last week when he “categorically” denied any knowledge of an October 2014 Cabinet decision to increase the fees for directors of the National Insurance Scheme.

However, Mottley produced a photocopy of the relevant Cabinet approval at a mass meeting Sunday night (whose promotion via a newspaper ad headlined The Truth Must be Told attracted its own Parliamentary attention and has been referred to the Committee of Privileges) flatly contradicting Sinckler’s “not true” denial in the House.

But he told the radio call-in programme Monday: “I can now say publicly I did not recall [the Cabinet decision] at the time. I had indicated I didn’t have any specific knowledge of it at the time. I have researched it and it is a fact.”

Now, the Speaker remains adamant to this day that Rule 28 (13), which states that a member must “rise in his place” when addressing the Chamber, still applies.

He was clarifying his failure to rule when St Philip West MP Dr David Estwick spoke Wednesday from a seat other than his own, ignoring the rule.

“But all that happened, really, was that it did not occur to me that he was not in his right seat until he was part way through his speech,” Carrington said. “I didn’t see the need to disturb the member. . . .”

I can recall vividly, MPs in previous parliaments rushing from the lobby to grab the first available microphone to respond to points made during a debate without any sanction by the Speaker under this rule.

MPs have also “risen in their place” (since you can’t address the Chair from your seat) or if they are having “consultations” with colleagues further along the bench.

This rule seems unnecessarily restrictive.

Scrap the rule!

Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.