HUMAN rights advocacy group Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ) is calling for the Integrity Commission to be enshrined in the constitution and for its investigative powers to be broadened to allow it to make arrests and conduct searches.
JFJ made the recommendations on Wednesday at the second meeting this week of the parliamentary joint select committee (JSC) reviewing the Integrity Commission Act.
Executive director of JFJ Mickel Jackson asked the JSC to consider, as has been for other commissions of Parliament and the proposed national human rights institute, “upgrading” the commission, thereby giving it ultimate independence.
“When you have a body such as this that reports to Parliament, and there are certain provisions in the law that can be changed, [they] may very well stand the possibility of undermining some operational provisions that would safeguard its independence,” Jackson stated, while making it clear that the view was not directed at any parliamentarian.
JFJ also asked the committee to clarify whether, in instances where there is a difference of opinion between the director of corruption prevention and the director of public prosecutions (DPP) in any matter, the DPP’s opinion would prevail, given that it is a constitutional body and the commission is not.
Jackson urged the JSC to consider amendments to give the commission powers of arrest, similar to those which existed in the repealed Contractor General Act. The functions of the Office of the Contractor General, the Corruption Prevention Commission, and the Parliamentary Integrity Commission were subsumed into the Integrity Commission when it was established in February 2017.
Meanwhile, as she did during arguments proffered by head of National Integrity Action, Dr Trevor Monroe, earlier in the sitting to remove or amend the so-called gag clause (Section 53:2) in the Integrity Commission Act, Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs Marlene Malahoo Forte pushed back at a similar proposal by JFJ.
She said the alternative to the tabling of a notice to Parliament — an alternative to making public updates — was of no less threat to an investigation than any proposal for the commission to make public statements about a probe.
Malahoo Forte argued that, notwithstanding the gag clause, the law already gives the commission a wide range of powers across multiple clauses to effectively carry out its mandate, including the ability to undertake further administrative action, or initiate proceedings. This precludes the prohibition on disclosures set out in Section 53:3.
The minister said she was baffled as to the umbrage being taken by the commission to being asked to report to Parliament first. She said the impression was being given that, unless the clause is removed, parliamentarians are complicit in corruption.
“When you read how the law empowers the commission and the functions and objects, I am still trying to understand why is the picture being painted that unless we emerge from this deliberation and do away with the restriction on disclosure, then all of us would be complicit in corruption and would somehow be conspiring to disable the Integrity Commission from doing its work,” she said.
The minister insisted that the clause was being interpreted in isolation, without sufficient regard to the extensive powers provided in the Act.
Jackson stressed that JFJ is seeking a discretionary clause, rather than what is perceived as a blanket gag order, pointing out that the commission is not seeing eye to eye on the level of latitude which the minister said exists in the Bill.
She argued further that even as Parliament tries to protect people and entities in the public sector from reputational damage in instances in which allegations are not found to be true, a balance must be struck to ensure that the commission itself is protected from having its reputation undermined.
Jackson stressed that JFJ wasn’t asking for a blanket provision to allow the commission to speak as it wishes, pointing out also that the ability to make announcements on investigations would also encourage people to give information to the commission.
Malahoo Forte pointed to the level of work which had gone into promulgating the law and establishing the commission.
“Maybe it’s a time to examine all our motives, because Parliament passed a law that went above and beyond the model, taking into account peculiarities in the Jamaican society. The Parliament then approved a budget to enable the Integrity Commission to be fit for purpose, and in all of this we are still hearing that it cannot do its work,” she asserted.