Saturday, December 16, 2017

Time to review integrity law


Mark Fraser

It must strike everyone as phenomenal when the names of as many as 342 accomplished and public-spirited citizens are published in the manner of persons wanted by the authorities for being perpetrators of illegality.

This, however, is what arises from the Integrity Commission’s advertised listing this week of those who did not submit “declarations of income, assets, and liabilities and statements of registrable interests for the year ended December 31, 2011”.

Perusal of the list shows names including MPs as prominent as the Opposition Leader, senators, the Minority Leader in the Tobago House of Assembly, and public officials as exalted as permanent secretaries.

While others equally bound by the Integrity legislation had managed to file the required returns on time, the large number of persons with outstanding obligations suggests a deep dysfunction of the legislation.

This is not the first time this point is being made. In turning down an invitation to join the board of Caribbean Airlines some time ago, economist Terrence Farrell had challenged the value of these filings and calling for the repeal of the Integrity in Public Life Act, 2000 and its replacement with more effective legislation.

Dr Farrell argued that the broad catchment of persons falling within the legislation’s ambit seemed to be based on the view that everyone in public life is “likely to be, or could be, or will be corrupt”. He felt that far too much of the Commission’s resources were being wasted on policing the filing of declarations when the public interest needed its energies to be focused on investigation of suspect activity.

The Integrity in Public Life Act 2000 became law as a welcome intervention against corruption and theft of state resources. If the experience of the past 12 years has taught us anything, however, it is that legislation can be counter-productive to purpose. There is no discernible sign that public confidence in the integrity of public officials has increased, nor have we seen the kind of dramatic investigative breakthroughs against corrupt acts for which the public had hoped.

Instead, the Integrity Commission seems to be floundering against the rocks of bureaucracy, internal and external issues of trust and the cheap politicking that keeps dragging it into rivalries between political parties and making it a target for political potshots.

Combined, the consequence of all this is to discourage credible and knowledgeable people from entering public life. This is not a luxury we can afford.

We have recognised for a long time now that the Integrity in Public Life Act, 2000 needs to be reviewed and refined if it is to deliver on its promise.

The widespread delinquency in filings that has now been made public offers a good departure point for us to begin questioning the efficacy of its processes as well as the effectiveness of the law itself.

Doing nothing will reduce this legislation to yet another fig leaf, providing mere façade when what is needed is real shelter.

Integrity in public life is far too important to the quality of our democracy for it to be made a mockery of by ineffective legislation.