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PM : WE WILL LISTEN

By Andre Bagoo and Clint Chan Tack Thursday, April 4 2013

click on pic to zoom in

FACING continued fire from Independent Senators on legislation designed to give soldiers powers of arrest, the Government yesterday called a ceasefire: standing down debate of the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence and Police Complaints) Bill 2013 for about three weeks in a clear retreat designed to save the bill from being defeated at a vote.

The suspension of debate came after four of the nine Independent Senators, over the course of two straight days of sittings, openly expressed objection to the legislation. Up to yesterday afternoon, Independents Elton Prescott SC, Corinne Baptiste-McKnight, Dr Victor Wheeler and Subhas Ramkhelawan had spoken in the debate criticising the bill in strong terms.

The views of the Independents are crucial since at least four Independents must support the legislation in order to make up the required three-fifths majority to secure passage. Five Independents are yet to speak, meaning while passage of the bill can still be secured, with each passing hour in the debate yesterday, the prospect of a victory for Government became more remote.

The white flag was raised in the Parliament chamber at about 4.30 pm when Government Whip in the Senate Ganga Singh moved a motion calling for debate to be suspended until April 23.

“Madam Vice-President, having regard to sentiments expressed by ... members of this House, which the Government is taking into consideration, I would like to adjourn this House to April 9, when we will debate the Motor Vehicles and Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, 2013,” Singh moved. He added: “We would continue the debate on this issue on Tuesday April 23.” Opposition and Independent senators thumped their desks as Singh took his seat and Senate Vice-President Lyndira Oudit put the motion to adjourn the Senate to a simple vote.

Before the adjournment, a fifth Independent, Senator Helen Drayton, was poised to speak on the bill. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who called for support for the same legislation in the House of Representatives when it was being debated there on March 15, yesterday said Cabinet would listen to the concerns raised by the senators and consider amendments to the law.

“We listen and then we lead,” she told Newsday. “We will listen to what they have to say. They can guide us. We will consider amendments at Cabinet.” The Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, today holds its weekly meeting at the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair from 10 am.

While Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and senior Government senators had on Sunday expressed optimism that the Government could take the bill through all of its stages on Tuesday, by the time the 16th sitting of the Third Session of the Tenth Parliament was underway, it was clear this was not to be. In the course of that sitting, three Independents expressed objection to the bill in succession. Senator Elton Prescott SC, the first Independent to speak, said the legislation was unnecessary.

“It does not seem to me that we need new legislation,” he said just before the 4.30 pm tea-break on Tuesday. Then, Senator Corinne Baptiste McKnight described the bill as “a terrible injustice” on soldiers and one that “does violence” to the people, Parliament is meant to protect.”

“This bill is not moving us in the right direction. It is not going to make the wrong right,” she said, hours later at about 8.30 pm. Third was Dr Victor Wheeler who said the bill was “potentially dangerous”, just before Tuesday’s sitting ended.

On Tuesday night, the Government had the option to adjourn to 10 am yesterday but opted to adjourn to 1.30 pm instead, a move which made clear that by even this stage the hope of taking the bill all the way through to a vote was fading.

By yesterday morning, Ramlogan told Newsday, “I don’t think the Senate will be able to complete the bill today. It was never the intention to complete it today.” He said no amendments were prepared overnight on Tuesday ahead of yesterday’s sitting in a bid to woo support of the remaining Independents.

By 3 pm yesterday, the fourth Independent to speak, Subhas Ramkhelawan, indicated he was not supporting the bill in its current form, saying the State was doing things backwards because there were no regulations in place to govern the conduct of Defence Force personnel given arrest powers.

“We have had too many situations where regulations come after the fact like cat in bag, and this is too important for that,” he said. Less than two hours later, the Government suspended the debate, adjourning the Senate.

The developments came after fraught behind-the-scenes talks between all benches over the timing of the debate. At one stage, the Government had hoped to have the Senate debate the legislation as early as March 19, but the Opposition and Independents objected citing the need to have a Private Members’ Day and more time to study the Defence Force legislation. The Government relented, setting April 2 (Tuesday) as the date to start debate.

The fate of the bill in the Senate now rests with the Government. Several options which the Whip will have to consider include: withdrawing the bill and dropping the matter completely, amending the bill on the Senate floor, referring the bill to a Parliament committee for detailed study and recommendation – a potentially time-consuming process which could take months – and removing the requirement for a three-fifths majority by way of a simple amendment on the Senate floor, meaning the legislation could pass without the support of Independents. Additionally, no action could be taken and the bill could be allowed to lapse with the expiration of the session toward mid-year.

Speaking to reporters after the adjournment of the Senate yesterday, Singh said: “Clearly I think there are certain sentiments expressed and we have to take that into consideration particularly by the Independent senators. We are going to address the issues raised by them and there are still five Independent senators to speak. Therefore if we address the issues raised by the current crop of senators who have spoken, including those in the Opposition, then we expect safe passage of the bill.”

Asked by Newsday if amendments to the legislation would be forthcoming, Singh replied: “Yes. The whole question of the protocols, the whole question of the regulations, the whole question of the standing orders. Those are issues that will be dealt with and brought back to the House (Senate), hopefully by the 23rd (of April).”

Also commenting on the adjournment, Independent Senator Subhas Ramkhelawan said: “I think it is a good, careful decision because of the points that have been raised in the Senate.” While he could not speak for all Independent senators, Ramkhelawan said: “Speaking for myself, I think that power of arrest needs to be carefully, carefully considered.”

Opposition Whip Pennelope Beckles-Robinson saw it as “almost an admission of a defeat”.

“After the contributions yesterday of the Opposition and the Independent (senators), they obviously had to rethink their position,” she said. “The concerns are extremely genuine and persons presented hard facts. The Government clearly did not have a choice. You see that the debate ended abruptly and that was a clear indication when they realised that they would not have gotten the votes.”

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