Mon | Jun 17, 2019

Editorial | Opportunity to fix integrity law

Published:Thursday | May 23, 2019 | 12:13 AM

Peter Phillips deserves plaudits for acknowledging that the parties colluded – although he didn’t put it that way – to limit the transparency of integrity investigations of politicians and public officials, and for now wanting to put things right. Prime Minister Andrew Holness should, with haste, make sure it happens.

This newspaper, of course, won’t revel in its vindication, but the background to the private member’s motion that Dr Phillips, the Opposition leader, tabled in the House on May 14 is important.

When the bill for the new Integrity Commission – which subsumed the separate bodies that policed legislators and public servants, as well as the office of the contractor general – was being debated, many people were despaired by the efforts of MPs to ensure that the agency wouldn’t be able to speak about investigations it undertook, until the probes were complete and reports tabled in Parliament. In the old construct, the argument went, politicians, including government ministers, as well as other public officials, had been embarrassed by the announcement of, and updates on, investigations being conducted by former contractor general Greg Christie, and his successor Dirk Harrison, although the target of the probes may have been eventually vindicated.

The restraint on transparency found expression in clause 53(3) of the Integrity Commission Act, which says that “investigations shall be kept confidential and no reports or public comments made” on them until they are revealed in Parliament. As Seymour Panton, one of the five commissioners, disclosed recently, they feel “trapped by the legislation”, not being able to speak in the face of public debate about the response to a raft of allegations of public corruption.

Dr Phillips, in his motion, admitted that “both sides of the Parliament” supported Clause 53(3), but conceded that in practice it appeared to be “inconsistent with the objective of transparency in the functioning of the commission”. He, therefore, urged Parliament to invoke section 60(1) of the act, which allows its review “from time to time”, although, according to section 60(2), the first of these must be “within five years” of the law coming into force. It has been in operation for 14 months. The priority of legislators is perhaps implied by the two-year outside limit they placed on a review of section 42(3)(b), which requires that the commission publishes, via the Gazette, the assets and liability filing of the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition.

IMPORTANT ADJUSTMENTS

While we agree with Dr Phillips that a committee of both houses of Parliament should review the law, including receiving submissions from the public, there are a number of specific adjustments, other than those relating to section 53(3), that this newspaper insists are important to enhancing transparency and fairness.

Recent events have shown that while reports may be prepared and sent to Parliament, they may not be immediately tabled. In that regard, we repeat our suggestions that Section 36(2) be amended so that if after 60 days a submitted report has not been tabled, the commission shall publish it, including by posting it on its website.

Additionally, the auditor general’s automatic membership of the commission should be changed. As the government’s chief auditor, some of the activities of that office will, perforce, overlap those of the Integrity Commission, with the possibility of investigators of either shop arriving at different conclusions. There is, in the circumstances, the potential for a conflict of interest, or a perception thereof, which is best avoided.

These issues, and others, should be well ventilated in the hearings of the joint select committee, which can only happen if the Government agrees to Dr Phillips’ motion. They should. Indeed, Prime Minister Holness should put his authority behind the effort.