Editorial | The PNP has blame, too, on NIDS
The People's National Party's (PNP) members of the Senate will likely receive, and probably deserve, a fair amount of plaudits for the resistance they mounted against what they deemed undue haste by the government side in passing the law to establish a National Identification System (NIDS).
But as justified, honourable and heroic as their efforts might have been, the PNP can't swaddle itself in a cloak of blamelessness for having to mount a last-minute, rearguard action to force the Government into broader consultation on the legislation. And that harks back to advice we previously offered to the opposition party about what is expected of its shadow Cabinet and how it ought to function.
The ID bill was approved by the Senate on Monday. Because of several amendments, it will have to go back to the House, most likely at its next sitting on Tuesday, for final passage. Ultimately, this law will create, starting in 2019, a compulsory identification system for Jamaicans. Its cards will be mandatory for the transaction of any form of business with the Government and, if they so demand, private enterprises.
Critics have concerns about several of the law's provisions, including its possibility for excluding some people from government services. Other fears include one that citizens of liberal democracies often have of their governments: that they might morph into Big Brother. They worry about the uses to which governments might put the personal information they gather on them.
CONCERNS ABOUT INTRUSIVENESS
In this regard, the centrepiece of the NIDS is the biometric information ranging from fingerprints to retinal scans, depending on what the authority chooses that it will demand of citizens to provide an uncompromisable system. The law, on the face of it, provides for the secure storage of people's personal data and places restrictions on how it can be used and/or shared. Moreover, the Holness administration insists that such information is critical to the orderly and economic delivery by the Government of goods and services, as well as being crucial to combating crime, an issue with which Jamaicans are very concerned.
But inevitably, questions have been raised about the law's perceived intrusiveness and whether elements of it may impinge on people's constitutional rights to privacy. Some of these concerns were inherent in the opposition senators' proposal for the delay of the debate and for the bill to be sent to a joint select committee of Parliament, allowing other stakeholders a chance to weigh in on its provisions.
The government side rejected these suggestions on two grounds: they had already held wide-ranging consultations with interests groups; and passage of the law was time-sensitive. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is to lend Jamaica US$68 million to finance the project. The law has to be in place for the IDB to approve that loan at their December meeting to be in the current budget cycle, or wait another year.
While we are sympathetic to these concerns, this newspaper would have preferred a broader debate of the issues, notwithstanding an opportunity for a review in 18 months. However, the PNP can't claim to have been ignorant of the bill and its contents before last week. It was on the table of the House for several months.
Indeed, in March, we foretold the concerns over privacy, and in June, while highlighting some of the bill's potential positives, warned that they would only materialise if the law could "stand up constitutionally". In early September, we urged the prime minister to lead a "deep and broad discussion on the law".
That obligation, however, rested not only with the Government. If the PNP sees itself as the alternative government, it has a responsibility to sometimes lead and engage in substantive discussions on issues of importance to Jamaicans. It must show that it has credible alternative policies, rather than being merely a vehicle for criticism. On this issue, the party was slow off the mark.