PURELY POLITICAL: Ode to corruption
It is intended to be far-reaching because I do not believe, and recent evidence has shown, that corruption is not the exclusive preserve of people in the public sector. – Prime Minister Freundel Stuart on the just passed Prevention Of Corruption Bill, 2010.
The cynic in me was just beginning to think that politicians in Barbados were even more cynical than some journalists and that anti-corruption legislation would not reach the statute books in our lifetimes.
Such cynicism was fuelled by the very hard to miss similarities in the timing of debate in Parliament on the Prevention Of Corruption Bill, 2010 and the forerunner Integrity In Public Life Bill passed only by the House of Assembly in 1981 but not the Senate: both events occurred on the eve of crucial general elections that pundits insisted then, and are suggesting today about the pending 2013 poll, would lead to a change in Government.
Of course, history would record that in 1981, the incumbent Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Administration retained the reins of Government, and if you listen to supporters of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), a similar good fortune awaits the present rulers.
History would also record that some of the same concerns expressed in 1981 about key provisions of the bill were repeated with equal stridency in 2012, and essentially from the same quarters: that requiring people in public life, including MPs, their spouses and children under 18, to declare their assets would deter outstanding civic-minded people from offering their talents to public service.
The fact that some members of the then ruling BLP were opposed to the proposed integrity legislation in 1981 would have contributed in no small measure to the demise of the bill, which was stymied in the Senate through a combination of internal opposition, Independent senators, senior civil servants and influential members of statutory boards.
The 1981 general election intervened but the proposed legislation was not reintroduced by the BLP after it was returned to office, and the draft bill died.
A key member of that BLP Cabinet later explained to me that one reason the party has not been enamoured of the legislation was that some MPs did not think their spouses, who were not paid from the public purse, should have to declare their earnings and assets, especially when in this small society such information could be used by rabble-rousers at political meetings to cause embarrassment.
The ruling DLP in 2012 also faced internal dissent, with one MP, Minister of Health Donville Inniss, publicly declaring that he did not feel elected members of Parliament should “declare our assets to the world”.
Though MPs on both sides of the aisle were courageous enough to state their opposition to the bill, mainly on the declaration of assets provision, the fact is that the caucuses in both political parties were strong enough and persuasive enough to secure its passage in both houses of Parliament this time around.
The suspicion and cynicism arose among observers who felt that with an election in the offing, the politicians on both sides would feel comfortable enough with supporting the general purpose of the bill, but dissenting from the majority on certain provisions, secure in the knowledge that the bill will never reach the stages of assent and proclamation to become the law of the land.
A perusal of the report of the 12-member Joint Select Committee (JSC) would yield some revealing insight into the thinking not only of MPs, but also representatives of national bodies which did not deign to comment on the draft.
I must digress to state that I was horrified to learn through this report that one of those bodies, the Barbados Bar Association, some of whose most prominent members were involved in the preparation of the proposed legislation, and some of whom would be directly affected by its provisions, did not accept – without a public explanation – an April 12 invitation from the JSC to make an oral presentation on April 25.
The failure to do so is mind-boggling, to say the least, and it would be more than a little useful to hear a rationale.
Apart from what could be considered the “dissenting report” from Deputy Leader of the Opposition Dale Marshall, there was a telling appendix from the Chief Parliamentary Counsel’s Office on the nexus of corruption by the public sector and the private sector.
There is the longheld view, shared by many including Prime Minister Stuart, that such legislation has to be as comprehensive and tough as possible since corruption is not the “exclusive preserve” of the public sector.
“Citizens have as much to be protected from that kind of thing in the private sphere as in the public sphere . . . ,” Stuart declared.
It is a view that was once put in stark relief by former Minister of Finance Dr Richie Haynes: “Most of the stealing in Government takes place where Government interfaces with the private sector of Barbados. You can’t steal salaries and you can’t steal debt payments. The next big chunk would have to be in terms of contracts, tenders . . . and that is where the ‘tiefing’ takes place.”
The private sector’s view, as expressed in a submission to the JSC, was that the requirement for the filing of annual declarations by “Persons in Public Life”, as defined in the legislation, would present some “practical challenges”, including the likelihood that the filing requirement may deter otherwise suitably qualified individuals from serving on the boards of Government entities as they may consider the declarations to be “an invasion of their privacy and that of their immediate family”.
“The declarations may also have the unintended consequence of revealing breaches of other legal requirements, and this may serve as a deterrent to public service at the highest levels.”
The Private Sector Association noted that other jurisdictions such as Antigua and Jamaica have reported significant numbers of public officials who have been delinquent in filing declarations, and challenges in having those individuals prosecuted.
Trinidad has reported significant delays in verifying the accuracy of the filed declarations as this is a manual and time-consuming process; and the low effectiveness of the examination of declarations to detect evidence of corruption or discrepancies between assets and reported income.
In its minutes to the JSC, the Parliamentary Counsel’s Office noted that corruption of any kind, whether in the public sector or the private, undermined the stability of society and threatened its sustainability.
“Consequently, special legislation to combat corruption should, where possible, seek to address the issue in as comprehensive a manner as possible.
“The private sector plays a pivotal and expanding role in improving the well-being of societies, communities and individuals. It can help produce the economic wealth that lifts people out of poverty and expands access to health care, education and other vital public services.
“It can create economic opportunities to fulfil the aspirations of the young, the poor, the disenfranchised and all people intent on staking out their individual path to continuing improvement and a prosperous future for their families. It can generate ideas, innovation and efficiency in the use of resources to help meet the environmental challenges of our times.
“The private sector can also fail on all these counts, however. It can enrich a few at the cost of the many. It can recklessly overexploit the environment and obstruct innovation. It can disenfranchise, destabilize society and foster corruption, whether in communities, markets, governments or intentional relations, ultimately undermining the prerequisites for its own existence.
“Corruption risks in the business sector and success in controlling them are crucial determinants of whether businesses and markets can live up to their productive, contributory role, or succumb to their destructive potential (2009 Global Report: Corruption And The Private Sector)
“Corruption in the private sector represents the supply side of public sector corruption. It cannot be expected that a person who engages in corrupt practices within the private sector will, in his dealings with public officials, come with clean hands.
“The provisions in the bill that speak to the private sector seek, among other things, to take a penetrating strike at corruption.”
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.