Deal or no deal? - Prison debate leads to Opposition walkout in Parliament
Seven days after the British Government announced via a press release that it had signed a deal "to send Jamaican prisoners home", the United Kingdom last night had yet to amend its reports despite the Jamaican Government declaring them inaccurate.
The parliamentary Opposition said yesterday that the Government was not telling Jamaica the whole truth about the deal, which would see 300 prisoners returned to the island to complete their sentence.
Derrick Smith, leader of government business, said had it not been for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who "let the puss out of the bag" on the issue during his visit to the island, the country would have been kept in the dark about the deal.
While Britain has said that a deal has been struck for the transfer of the prisoners, National Security Minister Peter Bunting, in a statement to the House of Representatives yesterday, said a statement, which has been published on the website of the British Prime Minister's Office, is not true.
"This is not the case. The fact is that we have agreed to commence a process, which may, or may not, result in a prisoner-transfer agreement. We have brought these inaccuracies to the attention of the British High Commission locally and trust that it will be corrected," Bunting said.
"We have not signed a prisoner-transfer agreement (PTA). The British Government put an offer on the table, which is contingent upon our signing a prisoner-transfer agreement. We have said to them that in order to sign a prisoner-transfer agreement we first have to have legislation that will allow it," Bunting added.
His statement, however, was viewed as incredulous by the parliamentary Opposition which walked out of the House of Representatives, saying that Bunting was "deceptive" and that the Jamaican Government had not disclosed the full truth.
"I am quite convinced, based on what I have heard, especially coming out of the mouth of the UK prime minister, that this deal is a done deal, but the timing of the deal is not a good time (because) we have a certain event coming up," West Portland Member of Parliament Daryl Vaz said in a thinly veiled reference to a looming general election.
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness revealed that Jamaica, on June 26, 2007, during Portia Simpson Miller's first stint as prime minister and when Dr Peter Phillips was the national security minister, signed a PTA with Britain.
"I have heard that in previous administrations, a different type of prisoner-transfer agreement was signed, but it was never effected," Bunting acknowledged. "They were never made operational. I have never seen the particular document, and to my knowledge, no prisoner has been transferred under that agreement."
Holness argued that the memorandum of understanding for the currently proposed deal should be tabled in Parliament promptly, even as he made it clear that "we, on this side do not support any such agreement".
"We say to this Government, do not proceed any further with this agreement, and we would want from this minister today, I put it to you, that you will give a commitment here today that you will not proceed any further with this agreement," Holness said.
Bunting, however, fired back at Holness, telling him he was out of place to be seeking to instruct him.
"I think the leader of the opposition is being delusional. He obviously believes that for the brief period for which he was prime minister, he can still continue to give those types of instructions to Cabinet ministers," Bunting said.
"He is not in that position anymore, and I am not taking any instructions from him, and that's final," he added.
Bunting turned up in Gordon House with a statement yesterday amid much public outcry about plans by the Government to enter into the PTA with Britain in exchange for a £25-million grant for the building of a new prison.
"There is no guarantee at this time that this administration will sign a prisoner-transfer agreement with the UK. The Government of Jamaica will only sign the prisoner-transfer agreement after adequate public education and debate and the enactment of new legislation in the Jamaican Parliament," Bunting said.
"In fact, we will start this process with the establishment of a Special Select Committee that will receive written and oral submissions on this issue by technical experts and all interested parties, including civil society and the diaspora," he added.
Bunting said the report of this committee could recommend two courses of actions. He said that the committee might say, 'Abort this proposal at this time given the strong sentiments around the issue', or it might say, 'Proceed with legislation and with the negotiation on the prisoner-transfer agreement, but here are the conditions necessary to make it acceptable'.
House Leader Phillip Paulwell has said he will bring a resolution before the House next Tuesday to establish the Special Select Committee.
The parliamentary Opposition, however, said it is not in support of anything connected to a PTA.
"Stop right there!" said Smith.
Nothing that former Prime Minister Bruce Golding refused an offer for the PTA, Smith said that the British Government has now found a "weak and desperate government that would be prepared to accept the proposal".
"Do not do it!" Smith warned.
He said that it appears that discussions are far advanced and that Bunting is just about to put pen to paper.
But the minister said that all that he has signed is an MOU to open up discussions, and that would allow for a prisoner transfer with Britain.
Pressed by Holness on the matter, Bunting said: "We signed a memorandum of understanding which anticipated a certain process that could possibly take us to a prisoner-transfer agreement if successful".