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PASSED! - 51 MPs vote in favour of Charter of Rights Bill

Portia says interest of people above party politics in historic vote

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY Senior staff reporter dunkleya@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, March 23, 2011    

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FIFTY-one members of Parliament yesterday voted in support of the Charter of Rights Bill, which has been the subject of intense debate for close to 20 years.

The vote was taken at 5:59 pm, and without drama.

Debate on the new Charter, which will replace Chapter III of the present Constitution, has crossed both political administrations with the Bruce Golding-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government being the latest to resume the dialogue in October of 2009 and even then, there were setbacks.

Yesterday, the Bill, An Act to Amend the Constitution of Jamaica to Provide for A Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and for Connected Matters, was given overwhelming support with 51 MPs voting in favour. The Opposition People's National Party's (PNP's) Dr Peter Phillips, Roger Clarke, Kern Spencer, Natalie Neita Headley, Dean Peart, Michael Peart, Dr Patrick Harris and the JLP's Olivia 'Babsy' Grange were absent for the vote.

The companion provision, an Act to Amend the Constitution of Jamaica, which was piloted simultaneously, was also approved with 50 votes in favour. Central Kingston member of parliament Ronald Thwaites refrained from voting.

At the end of the voting, MPs from both sides of the divide rose to their feet applauding.

"Sister P (Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller), we should do this more often," Government MP Daryl Vaz said, eliciting chuckles.

The Bill, which has been before Parliament for nearly 17 years, provides for the protection of property rights; protection from searches; respect for private and family life and privacy of home and of communication; and the entitlement of every child who is a citizen to publicly funded education, in a public education institution at the pre-primary and primary levels, among other things.

The JLP, in its manifesto leading to the 2007 general elections, had pledged to seek entrenchment in the Constitution of a new Charter of Rights to guarantee the fundamental rights of every citizen and establish a Citizens' Protection Bureau. The bureau is expected to have expanded powers to defend the rights of and secure redress for citizens whose constitutional rights may be violated.

Commenting ahead of the historic vote yesterday, Simpson Miller said the Opposition had decided to take the high road as far as completing the discussions on the Charter was concerned.

"The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was started by our administration... and the present Government completed the charge. In our almost 49 years of Independence we have never had an amendment of an entrenched Constitutional provision largely because an Opposition could not resist using the effective veto to reflexively frustrate the policies of the Government of the day and I am pleased to declare that this Opposition is going to take the historic and progressive decision that we are putting principle and the interest of the people above party politics," she said.

In 2008, debate on the Charter was set back as it was necessary to resolve the issue of the retention or removal of capital punishment from the Constitution. A subsequent 'yes' vote by both Houses of Parliament cleared the way for the bill to be fully debated and passed, only to be stymied by yet another constitutional provision.

In the meantime, the Government and parliamentary Opposition have set a June 30 deadline for reaching consensus on the Caribbean Court of Justice as Jamaica's final appeal court, Golding announced later.

The Government and Opposition have tussled for several years over whether Jamaica should accept the CCJ as its final appellate court.

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