By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE controversial Interception of Communications Bill was passed the House of Assembly yesterday with no input from Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis, once a fervent critic of the bill.
Official Opposition Leader Philip Davis remarked on Dr Minnis’ silence on the bill, telling The Tribune he thought Dr Minnis would provide some assurance on what his party dubbed “a spy bill”.
“An important piece of legislation like that you would have thought you would hear from the leader of the country having regard to how they characterized it before the election,” Mr Davis said.
“[Dr Minnis] supported the bill now and his support of the bill is at odds with what he had to say about it in the past. They dubbed it a spy bill. The bill is a necessary tool in the fight against crime. As prime minister, at least speak of policy and give some assurance to the citizens at large that the execution would be done in accordance with law and would not be abused.”
There was also strong push-back from Englerston MP Glenys Hanna Martin over the lack of transparency and protections in segments of the legislation.
She raised several questions over the purported changes the Minnis administration made to the bill first introduced by the former Christie administration, and implored the Minnis administration to address, in Parliament, all the concerns surrounding the troubled legislation.
One point of concern is a provision in the Bill that mandates that any general worker must intercept a piece of communication if told to by law enforcement, with any refusal being viewed as an offence to the law.
“I don’t recall this being in the prior legislation,” Mrs Hanna-Martin said, “because what you are doing now is putting obligation on a postal worker to co-operate with a law enforcement agency to intercept a communication, whether they want to or not.”
“And if they don’t do it, they are guilty of a criminal offence. I don’t know if I am correct in the way I am reading it,” she furthered.
In response, Yamacraw MP Elsworth Johnson, who presented to the Bill to Parliament on behalf of the government, said: “Yes, you are.”
Mrs Hanna Martin remarked: “That is a serious thing.”
At another point in the bill’s presentation, Mrs Hanna Martin raised concern over legal authority being granted to the Office of the Attorney General.
Her argument was based on concerns raised by the Free National Movement in the lead up to the 2017 general election.
“The side opposite said we can’t trust the position,” Mrs Hanna Martin said.
In response, Mr Johnson insisted the bill, as worded, grants power of procedure to the Commissioner of Police and not the Attorney General.
Mrs Hanna Martin next raised an issue with clause 21 of the Bill, sub-clause 1, which addresses the handling of information intercepted by authorities.
The Englerston MP requested the government clarify how the process would protect any information obtained that doesn’t directly connect to the case being made against a person,
In response, Deputy Speaker Don Saunders warned it was not the time to “re-debate” the clauses of the Bill.
Despite his statement, Mrs Hanna Martin again requested some form of clarification.
Mr Saunders responded: “Englerston, member for Englerston, I am not in any way trying to circumvent you from asking the question. I am just putting members on notice that this isn’t going to be an opportunity for us to go to great lengths to debate. But I do get your point.”
Looking to quell mounting tensions at the time, both Mr Johnson and Opposition Leader Philip “Brave” Davis offered their input.
Mr Davis argued the clause should, in its wording, specify protected information.
However, Mr Johnson asserted if authorities lawfully discover any other criminal information, the law allows them to go back to a judge and request they be permitted to have that information also.
In standing to answer the statement, Mrs Hanna Martin said the clause was not clear in its intent.
In support of Mrs Hanna Martin, Mr Davis said: “The checks and balances raised by the member for Englerston has a larger input on the context on the public understanding what is being done with respect to this bill.”
He continued: “For example, in Trinidad, the Commissioner of Police, he has to file a report annually with respect to these matters. Then that report is made public. It doesn’t identify, it doesn’t detail the names of the persons, but at least you understand what is going on.
“In Jamaica, they have a similar act. By practice, not as I am aware by any permission of the law, they file, they lay in Parliament a report on how the act is being administered. And this also informs whether or not any provisions of the act is required to be amended as we go on. It is restricted just to events and what is happening.”
Mr Davis said similar criteria is also made clear in Britain, where reports are filed in Parliament.
He insisted a similar mechanism be put in place in the Bahamas.
Following Mr Davis’ point, Mrs Hanna Martin added: “I think that it should be a matter of practice, but it should be enshrined in the law because there should be checks and balances in it. I do not want to give carte blanche to any the discretion of a private entity or an agency and there is no protection for the individual.”
She added: “I want to seriously, we want to recommend, I think the opposition wants to recommend an amendment to this bill that puts in place, as is being recommended by Cat Island, a reporting obligation which outlines what happens.
“I am not sure how it happens in other jurisdictions with the information, you listen to hours and hours and hours of someone’s conversations and then you leave it to the discretion of the officer to redact or to reserve exculpatory (information).
“I think that there should be protections.
“We hope and expect that these officers should do their jobs above board and they do, by and large, but there should be protections.”
In response, Mr Johnson said the input was “duly noted” and proceeded with the remaining clauses.
Confused by the continuation, Mrs Hanna Martin said the opposition was moving to amend the clause.
However, several members on the governing side objected to the amendment, claiming there was never any firm call for an amendment on the part of the opposition.
St Anne’s MP Brent Symonette said: “If she has an amendment it can be raised in the Senate.”
Mrs Hanna Martin said in protest, to no avail: “There has to be transparency… I have concerns.”
Deputy Speaker Saunders, in an attempt to stop Mrs Hanna Martin, added: “I get your point and I think the house gets your point, but I think we are beating this horse to death.”
The Interception of Communication was subsequently passed by the House.
It now moves to the Senate for debate and passage.
The Free National Movement’s advancement of the Bill comes a little more than a year after the party used the Christie administration’s draft Bill to castigate the Progressive Liberal Party in their general election campaign.