Wed | Mar 3, 2021

Editorial | Make NIDS body commission of Parliament

Published:Monday | February 1, 2021 | 12:05 AM

ALTHOUGH THE draft bill for the establishment of a national identification system (NIDS) cures the obvious mischiefs that rendered the previous law unconstitutional, the new effort can only benefit, as we observed previously, from robust debate of its content.

That is why this newspaper endorsed the bill’s review by a joint select committee of Parliament and urged civil society groups to respond to the committee’s call, even in the relatively short time allowed, for submissions on its proposals. We hope many have.

The value of rigorous discussion and analysis is already evident from the interventions at the committee’s early hearings, including a suggestion by Julian Robinson, the shadow finance minister, that finds favour with this newspaper. He called for the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), which will issue IDs and manage the database on which these are based, to be made a commission of Parliament, rather than being under the direct authority of a Cabinet minister.

“This (NIRA) would be a body like no other this country would have seen,” Mr Robsinson, whose constitutional challenge of the previous law, when he was general secretary of the People’s National Party, caused its collapse. “It would have information on every single individual who chooses to participate in NIDS, but so critical and important that it should have a level of independence from the political directorate… I think that this should be considered in our deliberations.”

LOW TRUST

What Mr Robinson alludes to is that the low trust Jamaicans have in public officials and political institutions, which could negatively affect confidence in NIDS, thereby limiting participation in the scheme.

Indeed, surveys of Jamaicans, whether by domestic or international organisations, consistently show that more than seven of 10 Jamaicans believe that they live in a corrupt, or very corrupt, country. Less than half have faith in politicians or in Parliament.

The persistence of this drag was underlined again last week with the publication of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, highlighting Jamaica’s inability to escape the pack of countries deemed to have a significant problem of corruption. Although the country improved, from 74 to 69, in the ranking of the world’s least corrupt countries, our score on the index moved a single point, to 44, from 43, out of 100. A score of at least 50 is required to put a country in the breakout group.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his Government have, more recently, attempted to have the narrative about NIDS that transcends its potential efficacy as a crime-fighting tool, to among other things, Jamaica’s participation in the global digital economy. So, while enrolment would not be compulsory and people will not be denied Government services and benefits because they do not have a national ID – as was intended under the struck-down law – the administration has an interest in widespread registration with NIRA.

The authority, however, will need public trust. Jamaicans must have confidence that it will not be open to arbitrary access and abuse by politicians with state power. There must be a real and perceived arm’s-length relationship between the authority and the political executive. Over the past four decades or so, we have achieved significant success around this issue of trust of sensitive institutions by making them commissions of Parliament.

The Electoral Commission of Jamaica, and its role in transforming the quality of elections in the island, benefited in no small measure from its independence as a commission of Parliament. The transformative achievements of the Independent Commission of Investigations in holding the police accountable for abuse, is another case in point. There are signs, too, that similar gains are being made with the employment of the model at the Integrity Commission. There is no need to attempt a reinventing of the wheel. The model should be used with NIRA.

Some ministers may get their noses out of joint over the matter, seeing the proposal as an affront to their integrity. So be it. What is at stake is a greater public good.