By Elesha George
Ordinary people will now be allowed to respond to statements made about them by a Member of Parliament (MP), since the Lower House passed the new Standing Orders 2020.
The new orders were voted and approved on Tuesday, 53 years after the permanent written rules to govern the House’s proceedings were adopted. The 1967 document afforded MPs parliamentary immunity which allowed them to make statements without the threat of prosecution.
However, section 15 of the new standing orders – Broadcasting and the Opportunity to Respond – gives a non-member of the House, who has been referred to in the House by name, or in a way that they are readily identifiable, the authority to make a submission to the Speaker of the House of Representatives in writing, if they feel that they have been adversely affected as a result of the reference.
A person may write to the Speaker if they feel that the statement made sullied their reputation or hurt their chances of securing or obtaining a job, trade or office; if they wish to submit a response to the reference made, or if they request that the response be incorporated in the parliamentary record.
All but the MP for St Peters, Asot Michael, agreed to the change in principle. MP for St Phillip’s North, Sir Robin Yearwood, who admitted that he was not initially in favour of the addition, rose in parliament to support the amendment, which he said brings certain responsibility on parliamentarians to be mindful not to defame or slander anyone while in the House.
“They can’t take you to court for what you say in here, but at least they could shed some light on the problems they will have out in society.”
City West MP and Prime Minister Gaston Browne also agreed that there needed to be some safeguard to prevent historical abuses from repeating themselves. His only argument was about the basis on which the public could be allowed to respond.
“The premise for someone to have the right to respond should not be based exclusively on whether the statement by the member affected the individual; it should be whether or not the statement was false in the first instance, because you can make a statement of fact that can adversely affect someone,” he said.
The respondent, he continued, should also have to present evidence to confirm that the statement was false or defamatory.
Opposition leader, Jamale Pringle, while supporting section 15 said sections 6, 7 and 8 of the standing orders could not stand, as it gives a Speaker full authority to decide whether the public’s claim will be heard in parliament.
“I think it’s giving the Speaker opportunity to rule over something that I think the whole committee should rule over,” he told other MPs.
MP Michael on the other hand felt that parliamentary immunity, once not abused, should be maintained and feared that adopting this addition would remove privilege from the members of the House.
He took special offence with the requirement that statements or queries be recorded in the Hansard – the parliament’s official transcripts.
“They have many forums to put their case, but not in the sacred Hansard. Hansard is sacrosanct and it is sacred,” he touted.
“They cannot get up here and have a voice so what’s the real purpose of it,” the MP noted further, adding, “I don’t understand it, the rationale of it. They’re not representing nobody.
“We are the custodians of the people of this country, we have a right to speak and we have certain immunities and certain privileges and we must not give up those rights.”
The MP said he felt strongly about the change, offering that if members of the public wanted to speak in parliament, they should run for office.
“If they want let them run for politics. Let them come and contest St Peters, let them answer me here in parliament and replace me, and then they will have a voice, and until then, we are the representatives of the people. They can write all what they want in the newspaper, they can get on the radio station – they’ll be subjected to litigation if we so desire to sue them,” he stressed.
The standing orders looked at, among other things, adopting a select committee for Bills, guidelines for the sitting of members, treatment of Bills to be tabled, what is allowed in ‘personal explanations’ and the suspension of members.
The Bill took effect on June 2.