Mon | Jul 22, 2019

Editorial | Time to really snarl at MPs

Published:Friday | March 8, 2019 | 12:36 AM

When people throw their hat into the political ring, parading to be chosen as representatives of the people, they do so well aware of their obligation to greater scrutiny than ordinary citizens.

For as parliamentarians, with the power of people’s lives and control of the country’s resources, we want to be assured of their integrity and that public office is not seen as an end to private gain.

That is why the country asks, and politicians impliedly agree, that they file annual income, assets, and liability statements, with a commission that acts on behalf of the Jamaican people. It was a way, we hoped, of reasonably assuring that legislators would not accumulate wealth by corrupt, or unexplained means.

On the evidence, including the last three reports of the Integrity Commission, for the years 2014 to 2016, surreptitiously tabled in the House recently – after languishing at the Office of the Prime Minister, where we believe the one for 2017 remains – the process has not worked.

Sadly, this newspaper cannot declare, without fear of credible contradiction, that Jamaica’s legislators, or the majority of them, are not corrupt.

Had we forgotten, we were reminded by these reports, how legislators regularly, wantonly, contemptuously even, ignored their obligation under the integrity law, and how they have been enabled by political leaders, who seemingly evangelise against corruption.

In our search for the silver lining, we hang some hope on the new integrity law, passed last year, which, on the face of it, allows politicians less room to ­manipulate the process in their favour.

A COLLECTIVE OF RECIDIVISTS

Take the case of the 2014 report by the old Integrity Commission, the watchdog over MPs and senators, whose financial declarations are due on the last day of the calendar year, in this case 2013, but for which they have a filing deadline of March 31 of the ensuing year (2014).

Of the 87 filings the commission should have received, 59, or 68 per cent, were on time, meaning that nearly a third were late.

Over the year, 21 current and former legislators were reported to parliamentary leaders for ­failing to file reports or for not providing additional ­information requested by the commission.

Indeed, in one instance, up to the end of last August, one former MP, and prominent lawyer, Ernest Smith, who left the House in 2012, had not filed his declaration for that year. The Smith case was referred to the director of public prosecutions (DPP) in 2014, more than three years before the creation of the new Integrity Commission, with its own prosecutor. Inexplicably, little appears to have happened on that front as is usually the case with errant MPs.

Judging from the ongoing complaint by the Integrity Commission of the failure of legislators to meet filing deadlines, the often incompleteness of those filings and the tardiness of legislators in ­providing additional, or clarifying information when requested, Jamaica’s Parliament appears to be a ­collective of recidivists.

You can expect that more than a third of its ­members won’t meet the deadlines for filings and that the documents of a substantial portion of those who file will be woefully inadequate.

“The failure of parliamentarians to properly file ­statutory declaration forms and to furnish the required conformation of account balances and/or financial statements prevents the commission from satisfactorily concluding the examination of statutory declarations in a timely manner,” the body complained in its 2016 report.

“This unsatisfactory action continues, despite reminders sent to parliamentarians annually that supporting documents are expected along with their statutory declarations.”

Notably, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, then the opposition leader, was one of the MPs whose “inadequate response” to follow-up queries held up the green-lighting of his declaration. Ironically Mr Holness, MP, was reported to Andrew Holness, leader of the opposition.

The new integrity law, with its independent prosecutor, allows, without the intermediation of the DPP, the direct prosecution of parliamentarians, who fail to meet their obligations, or in circumstances, offer that they pay a fixed penalty rather than face prosecution.

Hopefully, the commission will employ these tools.