VIDEO: Witter to probe legitimacy of scrap metal shutdown

BY COREY ROBINSON Observer staff reporter

Thursday, August 04, 2011

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PUBLIC Defender Earl Witter yesterday described as unfair the Government's decision to shut down the local scrap metal trade, and said his office would be embarking on a month-long investigation to determine whether the ban is justified.

At a press conference at his Harbour Street office in Kingston, Witter contended that the move had put legitimate dealers out of pocket and that findings from his probe would be used to help the authorities correct problems being experienced in the industry.

"Does the decision taken by the honourable minister of investment, industry and commerce represent the effectual discharge of the responsibility of the executive arm of the state, or does it amount to an abdication of that function?" asked Witter during yesterday's press conference.

"It needs to be determined that in the prevailing economic and social environment in our country it, in all likelihood, is not fair and therefore unjust, and therefore is substance of injustice for the honourable minister, by the stroke of a pen, to lock down a trade and thereby punish the honest dealers that play by the rules," he added.

Last Tuesday, Investment, Industry and Commerce Minister Dr Chistopher Tufton announced that all scrap metal exports would be banned indefinitely as the Government moved to save public and private properties from thieves.

Scrap metal scavengers have pillaged an estimated $1-billion worth of metal from state and private properties over the past three years. Among the metals stolen are railway lines, electricity wires, bridge rails, cultural artefacts, gates and other metals from private properties.

The announcement of the indefinite ban was greeted with widespread support from businesses, members of the general public as well as the National Democratic Movement, and howls of protest from players in the industry and the Opposition People's National Party.

Yesterday, Witter made it clear that he was not supportive of any illegal activity, and that he had devised methods of screening complainants.

"The activities of the trade, in recent times, is of much concern to this office as any other right-thinking Jamaican. Those activities, if left unchecked, would result in perhaps every piece of metal being consigned to export," he said.

He listed three types of operatives of the trade: At the upper end there are the exporters; in the middle, the dealers; and at the bottom the unskilled gatherers, he explained.

"We are interested in the honest dealer, gatherer, and honest exporter who plays by the rules and who may have been, by this act of the minister, shafted. And we do that because we have a responsibility to look into this whole business," said Witter, adding that vandals must be infected with a "disease of the mind".

"A way has to be found to suppress effectively that kind of activity, and under our present system of government it is the duty of the Government to do that and to put in place the system which can work the results that we seek," he said.

Witter said that he had been in dialogue with members of the Scrap Metal Federation -- which represents licensed exporters and dealers -- and said that the organisation has decided to seek legal recourse independently. He, nonetheless, extended his invitation to the body, but noted that his primary concern was with regards to the gatherers.

"We desire to let it be known to any plain and honest dealer who complains to this office that by being put out of business... by this decision taken by the honourable minister, has the right to complain to the public defender, who has the right to investigate his complaint and seek the appropriate remedy," Witter said.

According to Witter, the findings of the investigation will be submitted to the industry ministry within weeks.

In the meantime, Witter said that he will also be investigating the processes employed by the police in the seizure of goods from hawkers and peddlers in the Corporate Area. According to him, confiscated items are not being appropriately logged and secured, and thus unlawfully end up in the homes of individuals.

"As regards to these perishables, what we would be seeking to find out from the police is, what systems they have enforced regarding the destination of these perishables after seizures? What becomes of it?" he said.

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