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Signature legislation

Last week the Democratic Labour Party successfully ushered its signature piece of legislation through both chambers of Parliament. I speak of the Prevention of Corruption Bill, 2012.

The bill, which makes provision for the prevention of corruption and the implementation of (a) the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, (b) Articles 8 and 9 of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime relating to Corruption, and (c) the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, was a centrepiece of the DLP’s 2008 manifesto.

The Stuart Administration has taken a bold and progressive step in defence of the public’s interests. The creation of this new legal framework aims to protect citizens, residents and guests from the corrosive vices of greed and corruption. It is intended to safeguard integrity in public office, a seemingly scarce virtue.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it is in the implementation and enforcement of the Prevention of Corruption Bill that will ultimately determine its effectiveness. I have read the objections of some MPs and senators, but in this case I prefer to subscribe to the edict of the late US President, Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” Many a politician has breached public trust but the majority have served nobly in service to country and party, indeed few have escaped the anguish of false accusations and the vilest of rumours and innuendo.

The perceptions created by unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, allegedly peddled by politicians who “seek office to enrich themselves”, also undermine the country’s social fabric by slowly decaying the faith of the governed in public administration. It is my view that the pending prevention of corruption framework would set appropriate standards of conduct and safeguards for public officials that could foster faith and trust in governance and defend the reputations of honest, hard working public officials.

The Prevention of Corruption Bill is amazingly comprehensive. In recognition of the prospect of private financial information infamously falling off the back of a truck, the drafters of the legislation seek to codify the confidentiality of financial disclosures. The penalty for leaks is as severe as the penalty for failure to comply with the annual disclosure requirements ?– a fine of $500,000, five years in prison or both. Subject to subsection (2) of the bill, every person in public life shall file with the commission, a declaration setting out (a) his assets, income and liabilities; (b) his office or offices; (c) the assets of his spouse and children who are under the age of 18 years and are not married; and (d) any gift or series of gifts in value exceeding $500 given to him, directly or indirectly, by a person who is not a member of his family or household or a relative.

The legislation, once given Royal Assent and proclamation, will give rise to the establishment of a Prevention of Corruption Commission whose members shall be appointed by the Governor General. Guidelines for the functions of the Commission, its staff, financing, independence and of course, custody of documents and declarations are all enshrined in the Act. For instance, in the performance of its functions the Commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any authority or person. The Commission will also have the power to issue summons, something which I don’t believe our parliament is permitted to do (this point is subject to correction).

Persons in public life, members of Parliament, members of the judiciary, blind trusts, political parties, and private sector peddlers of influence are all covered under the umbrella of the new legislation. Even members of the Foreign Service and diplomatic corps are covered.

Part V of the legislation is dedicated to preventing and remedying solicitation as well as embezzlement by persons in the private sector. Part VI of the bill is intended to take care of corrupt practices such as accepting, offering or soliciting an advantage, bribery in its many manifestations, trading of influence, solicitation by a foreign public official, possession of unexplained property, among other vices.

What I found particularly interesting is that the Prevention of Corruption Bill also empowers a customs officer, an immigration officer or a member of the police force to seize and detain property in the possession of any person to prevent its concealment, its loss or destruction or its use in committing, continuing or repeating an act of corruption, if that officer has reasonable grounds for believing or suspecting that the property was derived from an act of corruption.

Before you get too nervous about this provision, please be assured that any property seized under it may be returned to the ostensible owner not later than 14 working days from the date on which it was seized. However, provision is made for application to the courts for the continued detention of property seized. Furthermore, as with any other legislation, the Prevention of Corruption Bill is not above judicial review where appropriate.

I wish I had more latitude in these pages to discuss more of the 157-page bill. I am no lawyer but being an individual with an unwavering interest in the advancement of Barbados, the strengthening of its democratic institutions, the protection of the public purse and the safeguarding of private savings and investments I am delighted to hear of the passage of this legislation.

It is perhaps the most far reaching legislative instrument in three decades. Once the intent of the bill is achieved it will prove to be a fantastic instrument of developmental engineering that augurs well for the continued economic and social development of Barbados.

Kudos to the Government for its audacity and vision, and to those members of parliament and senators that appreciated the value of the Prevention of Corruption Bill, 2012 and voted for its passage in the House of Assembly and the Senate. It’s an early Christmas gift that perhaps will only be appreciated by the majority of Barbadians many years from now.

Transparency International has consistently ranked Barbados as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. This is testimony to the virtues of our people, but it is important to build on our successes, preserve our strengths and lay the foundation for good governance that meets the challenges of the 21st century. This new legislation fits that script. That’s why I endorse it and look forward to its orderly implementation.

Merry Christmas, Barbados! Let’s not forget the reason for the season as we celebrate and spread love and cheer throughout the rest of the year.

* Carlos R. Forte is a Commonwealth Scholar and Barbadian economist with local and international experience.

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