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MPs waste time on critical review of Office of Political Ombudsman

BY BALFORD HENRY Sunday Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 30, 2012    

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THE outcome of last Thursday's sitting of the Human Resources and Social Development Committee at Gordon House was, to say the least, disappointing for young, eager members of Parliament.

It is, perhaps, much easier to understand why people have lost interest in the work of Parliament and its committees after this episode:

On January 31, South West St Catherine Member of Parliament (Opposition) Everald Warmington tabled a motion suggesting that the Office of the Political Ombudsman had become irrelevant and expensive.

The motion read, in part: "WHEREAS, in light of budgetary constraints, the issue of value for money is raised, in that it now costs the Jamaican taxpayers $18.6 million annually to maintain the Political Ombudsman and his office:

BE IT RESOLVED that Parliament review and revise the term and objectives of the Office of the Political Ombudsman with a view to determine:

(a) Its relevance to the existing political structure; (b) If the expenditure of the office is justified."

Warmington argued that the original mandate of the ombudsman had been met and the time had come to move on.

On April 17, Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives Phillip Paulwell announced that a Parliamentary committee would examine the issue.

However, the reference to the committee was made under Section 26 of the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives which states:

Every private member's motion carried by the House which requires action on national policy issues or constituency representational issues shall stand referred to the Select Committee whose terms of reference relate to the subject matter of the motion, for the question of the appropriateness of the subject for submission to the Cabinet to be considered, and the committee shall submit its report thereon within 14 days of the referral of the motion."

Those 14 days started on April 17, and on May 1 the committee was granted more time to conclude its assessment at the behest of committee Chairman Rudyard Spencer. Other extensions would follow.

The committee heard from several sources including: social justice advocate Betty Ann Blaine; the National Democratic Movement; the National Integrity Action -- headed by Professor Trevor Munroe -- which also covered the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition and the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica; Citizens' Action for Free and Fair Elections; the General Secretary of the People's National Party Peter Bunting; and the current Ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair.

However, at Thursday's meeting, more than five months after the first sitting, the Clerk to Parliament, Heather Cooke, informed the committee that it had wasted its efforts, going beyond both its time and its scope.

"The committee's sole purpose is to determine whether the subject matter should be referred to the Cabinet," Cooke said, pointing out that it was the Cabinet's job to review the matter, and all the committee should have done was decide on the appropriateness of referring the matter.

This was set out in a memorandum from Parliament's legal adviser, Camika Facey, dated July 17, which was addressed to the committee chairman.

Spencer said that while he was aware of the 14-day time limit -- which was why he had sought extensions each time it was exceeded -- it was the first time he was hearing about exceeding the terms of reference.

It was a disappointing end to the lengthy and very stimulating deliberations which had characterised the meetings, and the young MPs on the committee were obviously disappointed.

"It is quite embarrassing that such a letter should be read to us at this time," first-time Government MP Jolyan Silvera remarked.

"We've completed our task. We've other things to do, we have to move on," his colleague, Dr Dayton Campbell, said.

"We went through an exercise that may not have been necessary... We must ensure that we do not end up with egg on our faces," said Opposition member Olivia "Babsy" Grange.

"There is no question of egg on anyone's face... the report will be comprehensive, not a one-liner, and we will refer the issue to Cabinet," Spencer insisted.

There is yet to be any comment or explanation from the Speaker or the Leader of the House.

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