Brown wants independent commission to hold House members accountable
An independent commission to investigate questionable conduct of lawmakers in the Houses of Parliament and make binding recommendations is urgently needed, according to opposition senator Lambert Brown.
Such a commission, with powers similar to others of the Parliament and Lords Conduct Committee in the United Kingdom, would immediately spring into action to adjudicate on issues such as the current “national and international embarrassment being facing the country, in which a video, however unclear, shows a defenceless woman being brutally beaten, and allegedly at the hands of an elected representative”.
“We have a Judicial Services Commission. We have a Services Commission. We have an Integrity Commission,” Brown told The Sunday Gleaner in an interview last Thursday, stressing that parliamentarians also needed to be accountable to a body.
Brown, a trade unionist, suggested that while the commission is conducting a probe, the individual being investigated should be immediately withdrawn from the House and lose all benefits.
Citing the 2020 resignation of Lord Ahmed, which came following a report by the Lords Conduct Committee in the United Kingdom, he said while there was no criminal charge, there was a moral obligation on the part of Ahmed, who retired from Parliament after a conduct report recommended he be expelled for “sexually exploiting a vulnerable woman”.
The committee concluded that Ahmed emotionally and sexually exploited Tahira Zaman, who went to him for help in 2017. He insisted that the allegations were untrue and had vowed to appeal against the decision, but the woman was “elated and relieved” at the report’s findings.
Brown’s comments came following days of discussion about a viral video in which a man could be seen attacking a woman with his fists and a stool. The police had sought Westmoreland Central Member of Parliament George Wright as a person of interest in the matter. However, the police have closed their investigation as Wright and Tannisha Singh – who had both made reports – indicated they did not wish to press charges and the video was inconclusive.
LEAVE OF ABSENCE
Wright has applied for leave of absence from the Lower House, to which he was elected less than eight months ago.
Former Acting Public Defender Matondo Mukulu would support the establishment of such a commission.
“Undoubtedly, I am in agreement with the proposal that we urgently need to enact a legislation to ensure that lawmakers and their colleagues are not the same persons who determine breaches of standards in public life. Our political history tells us two things: (a) we have managed to attract politicians who lack shame, and (b) our politicians have no concept of what constitutes standards in public life,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
“An independent commission, free of politicians, is our last hope as the Caribbean Westminster model, seemingly, has forgotten the importance of standards in public life,” he added.
Mukulu said that he was not in support of an amendment to the Standing Orders “as it would leave politicians in control of matters relating to punishment for their own conduct”.
“ … We should not have this as an option as, in the main, our political leaders lack the capacity to self-regulate,” he said.
“If a member is removed by the proposed commission, the consequences must be spelled out, but I cannot envisage a situation where a member of parliament is removed by the proposed commission and that person retains his or her pension. When the consequences of low-level reprehensible conduct includes a dent on their post-retirement earnings, I am confident that this will impact on their willingness to observe standards in their public lives,” he stated.
Under current legislative arrangement, a parliamentarian who is convicted for a crime but receives a sentence of less than six months does not lose their place in the House, according to Peter Bunting, a former minister of national security.
Bunting urged respect for the Constitution, which is the highest law of the land. He said where an action called for decency and morality, it was incumbent on an individual or a “government to do the right thing”. Both are currently falling short, he believes.
VIOLENCE CUTS AT THE HEART
“Violence cuts at the very heart of the society. It is part of the crime problem we have as a society. It’s what every government wants to solve to make the society safer for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, which are our women and children. It cannot be that we know or suspect that one amongst us is guilty of violence, and all we have done is offer a cop-out,” he said last week.
He challenged parliamentarians to hold themselves to a higher standard of behaviour in both public and private spheres.
On Friday, Senator Sophia Frazer-Binns said that the unwillingness to take action when it involved one of their own was an indictment on all legislators.
Government senators expressed disappointment that there was not a unified position on the statement from the House, but opposition senators said the statement made no reference to the video, and every effort has been made to avoid the linkages to the party and Government.
Member of Parliament Anthony Hylton said the opportunity for unity was missed immediately after the video surfaced and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) asked for a police probe, stripped Wright of government privileges, insisted on him taking leaving of absence, and instructed that he function as an independent member.
Hylton’s efforts to table a resolution for Wright’s removal two weeks ago were thwarted by Speaker Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, who told the House that while such a move was necessary, it was ill-timed. Shortly after came the police’s statement that it had concluded its probe. The resolution was tabled last week, but debate was again not held.
“A member of the House ... has applied for leave from the House, as provided by the Standing Orders. But given the circumstances, and its national public importance, and the action of the party which forms the Government, the implication is clear that there is a connection between both,” Hylton said last week.
“I say that no one granted leave of absence under any conditions connected to such a video should receive a salary. I believe there is a duty to disclose the reasons under which it is granted, and going forward, reasons must be stated if that is what it takes,” argued Hylton, stressing that leaves of absence are necessary from time to time.
An attorney-at-law, whose company works for the Government, described the situation as farcical.
“Everybody has tried to wipe their hands clean of the matter without anyone taking responsibility. Daryl Vaz and all the others who were forced to vacate the House after the 2007 general election because of non-Jamaican citizenship must be extremely offended, given the current situation,” said the functionary.
According to him, the police owe the country more, but also members of the Lower House, who “took cover through a door which says, ‘Leave our ranks. That way we don’t have to answer for you, and essentially, you are now a law unto yourself as another type of candidate’. This is downright dishonesty and that’s why Jamaica has a toxic smell in the soul of the country.”
The attorney lamented a possible situation in which a member over whom a cloud of controversy hangs could be in the House as an independent member who can “pass laws to impact a teenage first offender, but not himself”.
Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding has suggested that draft impeachment legislation should be updated and retabled to reflect current realities.
Bunting said recall legislation requires a vote by electors.
“What if the voters vote no to a recall, then the person stays. And depending on when such an event takes place, do you go twice in a term for a recall? So a complete overhaul of the current process is needed to reflect the realities in 2021 and going forward,” he argued.
“The decent thing to be done is for any legislator involved in such violent circumstances to resign. Where the individual fails to do the decent thing, the Government should,” said Bunting.