Sun | Oct 1, 2023

Editorial | Raising IC threshold sensible

Published:Friday | September 15, 2023 | 12:06 AM

The Integrity Commission’s (IC) recommendation for a 243 per cent rise, to J$12 million, in the salary threshold for government employees to file annual assets and liabilities reports is, intuitively, a sensible ask.

It should, in the face of recent substantial salary increases to public officials, prevent the commission becoming overwhelmed with declarations, thus allowing it space to get on with its real job: properly examining the filings for correctness, thereby providing a deterrent to corruption.

However, the idea of the IC adopting a position-based criteria for declarations – which it is apparently contemplating – should be seriously examined for Jamaica’s circumstances. For it can’t be without reason that it is the most commonly used method by oversight bodies in countries with independent, stand-alone anti-corruption agencies.

STATUTORY DECLARATIONS

In Jamaica, all legislators are required to file these statutory declarations, as well as police officers and public sector workers who earn J$3.5 million or above.

That salary threshold was established at the law’s passage in 2017. At the time, many people considered the threshold too low, and that the focus on salary rather than on the jobs that people do made the process insufficiently targeted on officials with the greatest opportunity to engage in corruption.

Salary increments over the past five years would have caused an increase, though small, in the number of public sector workers covered by the IC law. But, clearly, the significantly increased salaries that came with last year’s public sector job reclassification will substantially drive those numbers upwards, although there is no immediate report of by how much.

Apart from the 84 legislators (House of Representatives and the Senate), approximately 44,350 other public sector employees are required to file income and liability declarations. For the 2022/23 fiscal year, 71 per cent did so within the stipulated time.

In the first five years of its operation, the IC – using, it says, risk assessment and the stratified random sampling method – deeply examined just over one thousand, or approximately one per cent, of the 143,000 declarations filed with it. Perhaps significantly, 53 per cent of those deeper reviews were in the last year, which might suggest that the IC is getting better at the process.

Notably, too, at the time of the IC’s latest full report, for 2022/23, 52, or approximately five per cent of the reviewed declarations were referred for investigation. The commission, at the end of the review period, had nearly 500 declarations under review.

Six legislators and 28 other public officials, the commission disclosed in its 2022/23 annual report, had been referred to its investigative division for possible illicit enrichment. In the previous year, the numbers were one and three, respectively.

GAG CLAUSE

Of course, the controversial gag clause in the Integrity Commission Act prevents the IC from naming the people under investigation, or even saying that it has opened an investigation, until the probe is done and the report has been tabled in Parliament.

While it isn’t clear by how much the public sector job reclassification and attendant salary rises will increase the number of officials having to comply with the IC’s regulations, this newspaper agrees with Craig Beresford, the commission’s director of information and complaints, that there has to be a balance between receiving the information and being able to use it effectively to combat corruption.

“Where the Integrity Commission must be guarded is extending the requirement to more than 40,000 public officials who are now required to file statutory declarations, as its current resources cannot feasibly review in excess of 40,000 declarations annually,” Mr Beresford told the IC’s parliamentary oversight committee.

Which makes sense. Therefore, the committee, as a first step, should propose, in accordance with Section 39 of the law, an immediate upward adjustment of the salary threshold.

That, for the sake of management efficiency, should happen even ahead of the completion of the review of legislation by a joint parliamentary committee.

At the same time, the commission must accelerate the establishment of digital portal for the filing of statutory declarations. Digitisation will make it easier for IC staff to manage the data and more easily compare current with previous filings.

This will have two potentially significant effects. The IC will become more efficient and better able to spot, and hopefully prosecute, acts of corruption. Which always is the best deterrent.

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Score one for transparency

The Gleaner welcomes the Integrity Commission’s decision, implemented this week, of publicly announcing every time it sends a report to Parliament for tabling.

It seems that the commission’s interpretation of the law means that it can’t even say what these reports are about. Nonetheless, the action aids transparency. The reports can’t merely be sat upon interminably, without being brought to light. At least people, including parliamentarians, will be in a position to ask for the whereabouts of the documents.

It is noted that, in the report(s) sent to Parliament this week, copies were forwarded to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. Nothing, apparently, was sent to the Deputy President of the Senate.

Good order requires that the IC fix that obvious oversight, for it couldn’t have been deliberate.