Senate gives nod after another marathon debate

Senior staff reporter

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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The Senate last night finally approved the long-awaited National Identification and Registration Act, 2017 (NIDS Bill) after another marathon sitting at Gordon House.

The Bill was passed with 168 amendments, in addition to the 100 amendments previously made in the House of Representatives in September.

However, unlike last Friday's debate — which started at 10:00 am and ended on a purely sour note at approximately 1:20 am Saturday, releasing exhausted senators and government staff — yesterday's deliberations ended on a high note, although the Opposition called for a “divide” vote at the end the process that failed by an 11-6 result in favour of the Government.

The significant changes created over the two days of marathon debating included a bipartisan agreement to remove the public defender from the list of persons designated to sit on the new National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) board as an ex-officio member. The replacement will be “a representative of the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities”.

The public defender was removed from the list following a comment from Government Senator Ransford Braham, who felt that a conflict of interest could arise between the Office of the Public Defender and its clients.

That decision also seemed to have brought some closure to the incident last Friday night involving Leader of Government Business Senator Kamina Johnson Smith and Opposition member Dr Floyd Morris.

Senator Johnson Smith had suggested that, as a new PhD graduate, Senator Morris, who is blind, should have been able to handle a set of amendments she had sent to the Senate in time for the start of Friday's sitting, and not seek a suspension of the sitting to accommodate him.

The comment triggered criticism and Johnson Smith withdrew it and apologised.

Yesterday, Johnson Smith made a second apology to Morris at the start of the sitting. This followed a meeting called by Senate President Tom Tavares Finson, involving Johnson Smith, Morris, and Leader of Opposition Business Senator Donna Scott-Mottley, which ended on a positive note.

Yesterday's amendments included changes to the controversial clause 40, which was amended to ensure that “every registered individual” is entitled to obtain from the NIRA, in such form and manner as may be specified in the regulations, a record of all requests made to the authority about their personal data.

Another controversial clause, number 41, which deals with disclosures required by law in connection with legal proceedings or for obtaining legal advice, now states that personal data are exempt from non-disclosure provisions where the disclosure is required by or under any enactment by rule of law or by a court order.

Signing off on the conclusion to the day's proceedings, Scott-Mottley said that it was obvious that it came as a surprise to the Government that the Opposition did not vote for the Bill.

“I want to make a point that we have worked very hard over the last two days, and we have actually achieved 168 amendments in all. This is an indication of the very point that we have made, that the Bill would have benefited from the widest consultations,” she said.

She insisted that it should have been sent to a joint select committee of Parliament, at the early stage, and that if the spirit of cooperation enjoyed yesterday was there initially, there would have been a better feel for a full agreement.

She urged the Government to ensure that the public education programme will be done in a way to enjoy full participation of the public.

Johnson Smith described the exercise as “testing”, and said that she wished the spirit of cooperation was present from Friday.

“I do wish that we had been able to have the same feeling of cooperation from earlier in the process than we actually achieved. But, good work was done notwithstanding,” she said.

“I, however, don't share the view that what we have accomplished has demonstrated that the Bill should have been put before a joint select committee. I believe that it is actually the converse: We have demonstrated that with focus, with energy, and with cooperation we can make changes in a timely manner, especially in circumstances where we commence the intensified education campaign,” she added.

The Bill will return to the House of Representatives for final review.

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