28 April, 2009

Integrity Law

Just passing a law does not achieve much. We need integrity legislation in Anguilla. No thinking person in Anguilla doubts that proposition. An Integrity in Public Life Act is the law that would, among other things, require members of the House of Assembly, members of Executive Council, and other senior public officers, to state on oath their assets and liabilities. They would have to make regular filings and declare gifts given to them while in office. There would be severe penalties if they lie or fail to make the declaration. The Anguilla Constitution 1982 has set up a Register of Interests. By itself, the Constitution does not achieve anything to ensure integrity in public office. There needs to be a law to give effect to the constitutional provision, to set out the details of the mechanism.

The official explanation of the advantage of such a law is that it forces public officers to declare their interests when they meet to discuss policy, make decisions, and pass laws. That is, it makes people think of conflicts of interest. That is polite mumbo jumbo. The real reason for the law is that the assets of the public officer in question becomes public knowledge. If he acquires sudden wealth while approving licences and permits, questions are likely to be asked. The risk of public exposure and even prosecution will give the conscience a boost. Such a law is an aid to the personal integrity impulse, so to say. It is like the Vitamin B12 injection doctors give to the elderly. It boosts our resistance and inoculates us against infection.

So, it should be no surprise that Anguillians were nearly unanimous in 2006 when the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission sought their views on the subject of the need for integrity legislation. Paragraph 135 of the final Report contained the recommendation of the Commission. There must be strengthened anti-corruption provisions in our proposed new Constitution. An appropriate law, including severe penalties for any evasiveness or falsehood, must be put in place without delay.

With any luck, we will get the new law in due course. When we do so, that will not be the end of the matter. There is the little matter of how the Act is drafted, and how it is amended in the House of Assembly. It can be watered down to meaninglessness. Turks and Caicos Islands has such an Act. It has been a complete waste of time. The politicians have ensured that it is no use at all. I was reading all about it in a recent article in Caribbean Net News. This is the gist of the TCI integrity legislation story:

2006 September – The Leader of the Opposition presents in the House of Assembly an anti-corruption Bill. It is based on legislation that had been effective in Trinidad. This Bill is never debated. It is killed in the House by the incumbent party.

2008 January – The FCO provides a draft Integrity in Office Bill to the A-G’s Chambers. He is told to prepare it for passage through the House of Assembly. The draft duly goes to Cabinet and then to the House. It will provide that officials must periodically declare their assets. They must declare gifts of $5,000.00 and up. The Commission will consist of five members. It is empowered to investigate and adjudicate complaints leveled against government office holders. The Commission will have the power to enforce sanctions against an offending official. He can be fined, assessed jail time, and even be forced to step down from office. There will be a judge from a Commonwealth country on the Commission to ensure independence and impartiality.

2008 May – In Committee Stage, members of the governing party make amendments. These are designed to water down the Bill. The fines and jail terms are reduced. The value of the gifts that have to be declared are raised to $10,000.00. The requirement for a Commonwealth judge is replaced by a one for a TCI judge. The TCI House of Assembly passes the Bill. The Governor assents to it. The Commission is never put in place. Apparently, no TCI judge willing to serve has ever been found.

2009 April – The Auld Commission comes out with its scathing interim report on corruption in TCI. An amendment to the law is proposed at a sitting of the House of Assembly. It would revert to a Commonwealth judge. It would return to the $5,000.00 standard. The former Ministers who have now resigned oppose the amendments. But, with the support of the Opposition, the amending Bill is passed.

The same thing could happen in Anguilla. Without vigilance, an ineffective piece of integrity legislation could be drawn like wool over our eyes. It is only if there is a genuine and heart-felt demand by the public for integrity legislation that the politicians will be reluctant to sabotage it.

Are we up to the challenge?

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