Thu | Dec 14, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | NIDS - when push come to shove

Published:Saturday | November 18, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The National Identification and Registration Act, which was recently passed in the Lower House of Parliament and later in the Upper House (i.e., the Senate) after a marathon sitting, has generated quite a bit of public discussion. The bill was passed in the Senate with 168 amendments and prior to that, in the Lower House with 100 amendments.

The debates around the bill over the last two weeks have been instructive. There are lots of teachable moments for the Government, the Opposition, the media, non-governmental organisations, and we the people.

The bill was tabled on March 21, 2017 by Prime Minister Andrew Holness to establish the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), which is the entity that the Registrar General's Department will be transformed into as part of the National Identification Project. The project was reintroduced by Holness last year, and the RGD is to have responsibility for its implementation.

Concerns have been raised regarding the level of consultation and the punitive nature of the bill, which stipulates, for example, that it is mandatory that all persons be part of the National Identification System, and that failure to do so will attract a fine of $100,000 or time in prison.

Equally, the biometric data requirements caused quite a bit of stir as well. I won't engage the discussion about the mischief in the proposed legislation that some of my colleagues and others, including the Opposition, argue require further amendments. I will allow those who have been following the process keenly to do so.

I can't recall the last time people, albeit 'late', appeared to have such vested interest in wanting to know more about a bill and demanding that there be greater consultation with them. But as Dionne Jackson Miller expressed on Twitter, the unfortunate reality is that people typically "pay attention to bills as they are about to pass." She stated, "I started talking about NIDS shortly after it was first laid. NO ONE paid attention. Does that mean you now push it through ignoring requests for more discussion?"

If nothing else, this experience has taught us that people from every nook and cranny across this island recognise the seriousness and far-reaching implications of the NIRA and are willing to engage in discussions about matters tabled in the House. The important thing is that those who follow these discussions need to translate it in such a way that everyone can understand how they are personally affected and why their voices matter.

 

HASTE WORRYING

 

The Government's seeming haste to pass the law with arguably limited consultation and public education is cause for concern.

I believe the nature of the bill requires due and robust public consultation and education. It's not unreasonable that people require that, and suggesting that this happen doesn't derail the project entirely; it merely calls for the timelines (agreed on with the IDB) to be readjusted. People do not readily understand law and policies. They often don't know what's being discussed in Parliament in detail, if at all. Information posted on social media, the NIDS website and media interviews done are useful but not enough.

The response to persons registering their concerns is appalling and should be discouraged. The fact that the idea was first mooted about 40 years ago, and that about five years ago, Portia Simpson Miller, as prime minister, spoke to the urgency of implementing a National Identification System, does not mean the public must not be provided with adequate (this is contestable) opportunities to provide input and share their concerns.

The tendency to frighten citizens into supporting initiatives someone in power decides is good for us and needed is rather reckless. Thankfully, the Government does not listen to them. While one appreciates the need for alacrity in these endeavours we must take care to ensure that in our haste to pass legislation, we do not ignore the citizens of this country who will be affected by these decisions.

Certainly, the Government's decisiveness and leadership around these critical issues is well appreciated. I would hope, though, that greater consideration be given to the critical need for robust consultation. The Government's consultation code, which was developed several years ago, under the leadership of then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, provides excellent guidance that shouldn't be ignored.

We must ensure that when laws are being created or amended that the public is duly consulted and educated about same. Government has an obligation to ensure people are aware about these critical issues. Asking them to do so isn't a favour that's being requested.

- Jaevion Nelson is a human-rights, and economic- and social-justice advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com, or tweet @jaevionn.