Wed | Mar 3, 2021

Editorial | New MPs should take on corruption

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2021 | 12:13 AM

Her suggestion of a hatchet job notwithstanding, the rigour with which Government members of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee questioned Permanent Secretary Colette Roberts Risden about her stewardship at the labour and social security ministry was encouraging. For while it was mostly members from the latest cohort of MPs who were at the forefront of the assault, we hope the event marked a new departure for the likes of Heroy Clarke, who, until now, seemed to believe that his role at parliamentary committee hearings was about shielding the administration from potential embarrassment, rather than getting at the truth and protecting the public’s interest.

If there is indeed a change, that would be an important step towards the transparency, good governance and accountability promised by Prime Minister Andrew Holness after his party’s landslide victory in last September’s general election, as part of the fight against Jamaica’s chronic problem of corruption, of which we were reminded recently by the country’s showing on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index (CPI). While Jamaica improved its CPI ranking five places, to tie with five other countries for the 69th spot as the world’s least corrupt state, our score of 44, out of a possible 100, was better than the previous year’s by only a single point. That, after a retreat, merely put us back to where it was two years ago. Importantly, a score of 50 is required for countries to be deemed not to have a significant problem of corruption.

In this regard, any attempt by parliamentarians to get from a ministry’s chief accounting officer explanations of how she dealt with perceived lax management systems, as flagged by the auditor general, is welcome. And more so if taxpayers may have been exposed to the tune of J$3.3 billion – and counting. If Ms Roberts Risden has credible evidence that she did her job appropriately, or that she is a victim of an insidious plot by higher-ups to bring her down, she must expose it.

In the meantime, this newspaper prefers to interpret the new energy by the Government MPs who told civil servants to account as an embrace of Prime Minister Holness’ exhortation, during his last swearing-in speech, to behaviour that enhances accountability and limits possibility of corruption, allegations of which dogged the PM’s previous administration.

There are other things, though, which wouldn’t demand too much effort, that the Government can, and should do, as a matter of urgency, to advance the transparency and anti-corruption agenda. For this, we look for help from the Jamaica Labour Party’s energised Class of 2020. A good and easy place to start is with the recommendations of the integrity commissioners, in their last two annual reports, for amendments to the Integrity Commission Act (ICA), as well as other laws, to close loopholes in the integrity architecture.

ASSETS AND LIABILITY FILINGS

Take this simple one, on which this newspaper has commented before. Under the ICA, parliamentarians and public officials are supposed, in their annual assets and liability filings, to report on gifts over J$100,000. But gifts from family are exempt. That’s a gaping loophole through which the corrupt could easily pass. Or, as the commissioners put it: “It is conceivable that a relative of a parliamentarian or a public official could be used as a conduit for the exchange of an illicit benefit, designed to confer a benefit or an advantage to himself or another person.”

So, that specific gap should be closed, preferably by removing the proviso altogether. We are not much for the commissioner’s secondary proposal of “establishing a value threshold above which any such gift requires a mandatory disclosure upon receipt and at the time of filing a statutory declaration”. We would, however, very grudgingly accept it as a first step forward.

It would make sense, as the commission proposed, for parliamentarians to report their membership of political, trade and professional organisations; directorships of companies; participation in corporate entities, including trusts, in which they have beneficial interests; as well as “any other substantial interest that may result in a potential conflict of interest”. Indeed, it is a compelling argument by the Integrity Commission that this information would help in its efforts to detect and investigate matters relating to actual, potential or perceived conflicts of interest and nepotism and other corruption enabling acts.

We also agree with the commissioners that it is a lacuna in the law that it isn’t a specific offence when government officials fail to inform the commission’s director of investigations about matters such as the award, variation and termination of government contracts and provide documentations thereto, although the law makes the provision of such information an obligation.

The attention to corruption in Jamaica is, understandably, primarily on what happens in the public sector. Politicians and public officials hold sway over vast amounts of taxpayers’ resources in a poor country. But often, corrupt behaviour, especially the acceptance of graft and kickback, happens in partnership with private interests. One hand, as the saying goes, won’t clap.

An anti-corruption regime, therefore, should also place an obligation on private individuals and firms to specifically eschew bribery as a business practice. This newspaper, in the circumstances, backs the Integrity Commission’s call for amendments to the bribery laws to create a strict liability offence if a firm hadn’t taken “the necessary preventative steps to guard against bribery involving its officials or any party acting on its behalf, in relation to bribery matters”.

Having had our, and the public’s, appetite excited by the display of Heroy Clarke, Juliet Holness, and the newer members of the cohort, such as Morland Wilson, Kerensia Morrison, Michelle Charles, Donovan Williams, Dwight Sibblies and the others, we now look forward for their agitation to have these proposed changes to the legislation taken before Parliament and passed into law. Indeed, some of the members of the Class of 2020 could form the nucleus of a backbench group that makes anti-corruption and transparency issues a key focus.