Stalled on procedure

Auditor General Leigh Trotman (right) and other officials at Parliament today.
Auditor General Leigh Trotman (right) and other officials at Parliament today.

Sittings of Parliaments’ Public Accounts Committee have been controversially suspended in light of major differences among Government and Opposition members about the rules and procedures governing its proceedings.

Flared tempers and raised voices were a feature of today’s contentious PAC meeting in the Senate Chamber, prompting the moving and passing of a motion requesting the full membership of both Houses of Parliament to determine how the committee will conduct its business in future.

As a result of today’s conflict, none of the public officers summoned to give evidence before the committee, including National Housing Corporation officials, were able to speak during the two and a half hour sitting.

The major contention surrounded the need for specific rules and procedures to govern the committee’s work, whether the PAC Act passed in 2003 should supersede Parliament’s Standing Orders, if the PAC’s proceedings should be reported by the media before a report is made to Parliament, and the rights of witnesses to legal representation.

Government members, led Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, told the meeting the Standing Orders should take precedence in light of the conflict with the PAC legislation and suggested retention of independent counsel to give a legal opinion on this and related matters. But chairman of the committee, Opposition Leader Mia Mottley, and other Opposition representatives said the relevant act, under which public hearings were allowed, should not be superseded by the Standing Orders of the House, except where the legislation was silent.

“I am suggesting that before we proceed that we need to have a clear determination as to what procedures will govern proceedings at our meetings,” Brathwaite said.

“I am also suggesting that there are some conflicts between the Public Accounts Committee Act and our Standing Orders with respect to publication of our proceedings and I would like that clarified not for my own benefit but for the benefit of our local newspapers who I believe could run afoul of the Standing Orders of this Honourable House in publishing proceedings of this committee…

“It is necessary that we have clarification on a few of those matters … so that we can agree on a way forward procedurally, that is fundamental, the issue of publication, the inconsistency between section 10 of the act and the Standing Orders.”

Brathwaite’s views were shared by other Government members at the meeting, including Minister of Industry, International Business Commerce and Small Business Development, Donville Inniss, Minister of Tourism and International Transport, Richard Sealy, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Senator Maxine McClean, Minister in the Office of Prime Minister Senator Darcy Boyce, and Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Economic Affairs Senator Jepter Ince.

But Mottley and her side said there was no need for special rules and procedures to govern PAC sittings, noting the committee’s work was governed by legislation and otherwise Parliament’s usual rules and regulations would suffice.

This view was expressed by Mottley, St. James Central MP Kerrie Symmonds and Senators Dr. Jerome Walcott and Wilfred Abrahams. As a result of the disagreement, Mottley moved a motion stating that the committee “requests of the House a determination as to whether Order 61 shall be suspended for the functioning of the Public Accounts Committee”.

“I would like to move that we suspend all further hearing today and that we get this matter resolved by the House of Assembly and by the Senate and that we seek to meet on the next occasion. If the House of Assembly’s will is that it should not be suspended so be it, if it’s the Senate’s will that it should not be suspended so be it. With or without publication the Public Accounts Committee work will be done,” she stated.

Mottley also said a ban on publication by the media did not preclude the meetings from being streamed online or “prevent this House from having a hundred people sitting down inside here listening to the evidence”.

“If the House’s judgment is that there should be no publication then that will be the case but equally the committee’s work will continue at all costs,” she said. (SC)

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