If a law is not enforced, is it a law?

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A good friend of the Observer, who was dismayed by the level of disrespect for our laws, once said jokingly, “Antigua is the only place where the constitution is written in pencil and the laws in invisible ink.”  That biting satire demonstrated the wit and wisdom of our friend and summed up the state of affairs in our bit of paradise in just a few words.  We often reflect on those words and it has become part of our vernacular – utilised when we are confronted with an egregious disrespect of our laws, especially by those in power.
Those powerful words recently came to mind when the Chairman of the Integrity Commission, Radford Hill, revealed that compliance across the public service is only around 50 per cent. What that means is that on a regular basis only about half of those who are required to file declarations of their assets with the commission do so.  The other half deliberately ignores the law and their responsibility to the people of this nation.
How is this allowed to happen and worse, how is it allowed to continue?  The answer to both is rooted in the lack of enforcement of our laws.  According to Hill, “To be honest, I have to admit we have had less than a penal approach to this and we have to look into it further.”  He added, “We did not want to come down hard on people because our predecessors didn’t have a good record of compliance.”  What does that mean?  We have never adhered to the law so we won’t start now?  Please, enlighten us.
According to the chairman, non-compliance occurs at all levels of government including ministers of government.  This is just another example of why Antigua & Barbuda is the way it is.  If the people in charge are not following the laws and not being held accountable for flouting them, then it sets an example for everyone else. That said, we are heartened to hear from Mr Hill that Prime Minister Browne is “very compliant”.  Maybe he can bring pressure to bear on his colleagues so that they follow his lead and comply with the law.
So, essentially, the situation that we have today is one where the very laws that are meant to add a level of transparency are being ignored and those tasked with enforcement have decided accountability is not their focus or achievable. Mr Hill admitted that during his tenure, the commission had been “merely concerned in encouraging and sending out reminders to persons who need to file.”  Not to be too harsh on the chairman because we recognise that the commission is essentially a toothless institution, but this encouragement and reminder strategy seems to be more begging than anything else.
The government appears to create these types of institutions to give the public a false sense of security when, in fact, they have little power to do anything.  If it is not weak legislative support then the oversight institutions are invariably starved of resources necessary to discharge their responsibilities.  Mr Hill highlighted his dissatisfaction with the limited powers of the commission and declared that he would seek amendments to give it more powers of investigation and staff, as well as independent control over an allotted budget.
According to Hill, “Right now we cannot initiate investigations on a matter unless a complaint is made to us.”  So regardless of what information may come the way of the five-person commission, they can take no action unless it is accompanied by a complaint. What kind of craziness is that?
And if that is not enough, Hill says that the commission is suffering from a shortage of human resources, however, it seems that his requests for an increase have been met with nothing more than pleasant replies.  This refrain is all too familiar and it is time that we address the issues before us in a concise and effective manner otherwise we are really just making a mockery of the system.
The Integrity in Public Life Act was part of the much-touted trilogy of legislation which was enacted to  “promote the dissemination of information by public officials, the maintenance of integrity by public officials, and prohibit corruption by public officials.”  That trilogy also includes The Freedom of Information Act and The Prevention of Corruption Act.  But think of it for a while.  What benefits have we seen from this legislation?
A law without enforcement is a waste of ink, paper and other resources.  The overall intent of the laws is laid out above but have we seen any greater dissemination of information by public officials?  Do you feel that the integrity of our public officials has been maintained? And, really, do you think that any of this has had a positive effect on the corruption in our bit of paradise?  If it wasn’t obvious, those are rhetorical questions.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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