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Gays may get privacy protection

By SEAN DOUGLAS Sunday, February 15 2009

WHILE the laws of Trinidad and Tobago ban homosexuality, the House of Representatives on Friday debated a bill that would to some extent protect the privacy of gays, among others.

The Data Protection Bill 2009 prohibits public and private agencies from “processing” people’s sensitive personal information including their sexual orientation. The bill might be viewed as a back-door move to give gays some legal protection, although this point was not exposed by a single MP present.

Information Minister, Neil Parsanlal, in piloting the Bill merely read aloud the Bill’s provisions that, with a few exceptions, prevent the disclosure of sensitive personal information. This information is defined as “racial or ethnic origins, political opinions, religious belief or other beliefs of a similar nature, physical or mental health or condition, sexual orientation or sexual life, or criminal or financial record”.

Parsanlal then related the Data Protection Bill (DP Bill) to the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act), saying: “The Data Protection Bill seeks to strike an appropriate balance between the granting of personal information. The Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act are two sides of the same coin.”

Although vowing not to ditch the FOI, he raised red flags in the minds of listeners as he said: “A request for information under the Freedom of Information Act will be treated as a request under the Data Protection Act...The two Acts will work in tandem.”

Parsanlal said clause 99 of the DP Bill amends the Freedom of Information Act. A glance at this clause shows that it alters section 38A of the FOI Act to replace a certain role of the Ombudsman – which is an office mandated in the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago – by a new office of Data Commissioner.

Parsanlal said the Commissioner would be appointed by the President and assured that therefore, by extension, he would also be accountable to Parliament.

Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal, leading off for the Opposition, was not impressed by what he had heard.

Noting the huge amount of information kept on people, he scoffed that even when you go to the police to report a crime you have to first give them a list of personal information such as the colour of your eyes.

Accusing the Government of ulterior motives in bringing the Bill, Moonilal quipped, “This is not the Data Protection Bill but the Data Prevention Bill.”

Siparia MP Kamla Persad-Bissessar muttered her agreement.

Saying he was glad Parsanlal had made the connection between the DP Bill and FOI Act, Moonilal half-jokingly likened the FOI Act to a hospital patient who is being gradually amputated every month, limb by limb. “Will the Data Protection Bill suffer the same fate as its sister legislation, the Freedom of Information Act?”

He then urged Government Ministers to get real. He said that while it “sounds good” for public consumption for the Information Minister to grandiosely liken the proposed Data Commissioner to his American counterpart, the whole issue needed to be put into context. Bringing the debate back down to earth, Moonilal explained: “There are health-centres in Trinidad that don’t even have a functioning telephone, such as St Margaret’s Health Centre.”

Moonilal warned against draconian provisions in the Bill such as empowering the Data Commissioner to be a “national macco”. Looking in the direction of Prime Minister Patrick Manning, Moonilal jested, “I thought that person exists already, but now they are legislating.” At that Basdeo Panday shouted, “He needs help.”

Saying foreign jurisdictions such as the UK and USA have limited the power of their Data Commissioner, Moonilal urged that such powers be vested in a board of persons rather than an individual.

Moonilal wondered whether the Data Protection Act would allow public officials to escape having to disclose their private affairs under the Integrity in Public Life Act, saying, “Any contradiction must be addressed.”

On the topic, he slammed former Integrity Commission chairman, Gordon Deane, whom he quipped had bailed out early from the fiasco which the previous week saw the current commissioners all resign over the Landate affair in which a judge has ruled they were unfair to Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley. Moonilal said the wrongdoing had been done under the chairmanship of Deane, who had then subsequently been promoted to head Atlantic LNG.

Moonilal scoffed: “Suppose Mr Gordon Deane becomes the Data Commissioner - we might have to log off and power down.”

Without calling names but in an apparent reference to Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira, Moonilal said that if a public official was involved in insider- trading by too quickly withdrawing their funds from a troubled bank, they should be guilty of an offence. He said the Data Protection Bill hints at protection for whistle-blowers but he urged that the provisions be expanded.

The House voted to send the Bill for discussion to a parliamentary joint select committee (JSC) of both Houses.

Earlier, Speaker Barry Sinanan denied House Leader Colm Imbert’s request to send Persad-Bissessar to the Privileges Committee for accusing Nunez-Tesheira of wrong-doing over her withdrawals from the troubled Clico Investment Bank.

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