Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Submission from Mr John Barritt JP MP, Opposition House Leader and Party Whip, Bermuda

  I write with reference to the on-going inquiry of the Foreign Affairs Committee into security and good governance of the Overseas Territories of the United Kingdom, of which Bermuda is one, and in my capacity as Opposition House Leader and party whip for the United Bermuda Party.

  I attach for the Committee's review and consideration a submission on behalf of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition here in Bermuda which—as you will note above— also features three attachments.

  1.  Whilst we in the Opposition United Bermuda Party recognise that many of the matters to which we wish to draw to the committee's attention are matters for the Legislature of Bermuda, we nonetheless do so because they should, in our view, form a part of your review and assessment as they pertain to the issues of transparency and accountability in the Overseas Territories [in our case Bermuda] as well to standards of governance.

  2.  We do not believe the Legislature is as effective as it should be or could be. For instance, it has been some thirty (30) years since the Rules ("Rules") of the House of Assembly of Bermuda ("House") were reviewed and up-dated.

  3.  Three of the more important standing committees of the House still meet in private: the Private Bills Committee, the Joint Select Committee on the Register of Members' Interests and the Public Accounts Committee ("PAC").

  4.  It is in our view unacceptable that committees of the House continue to sit in camera. It is certainly contrary to widespread modern parliamentary practice. It is also contrary to the Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures ("Recommended Benchmarks") which were the outcome of a Study Group hosted (ironically) by the Legislature of Bermuda on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the World Bank Institute with support from the United Nations Development Programme, the European Parliament and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs: See The Parliamentarian 2007/Issue One, pp 21-24.

  5.  Not surprisingly, PAC itself recently recommended that its meetings be open to press and public, but the committee's recommendation failed to obtain the necessary support from the Rules and Privileges Committee of the House which is controlled by a majority of Government members.

  6.  PAC has an important role to play in monitoring Government expenditure and following up on matters raised by the Auditor General in his annual report, as well as in any other special reports issued by his office from time to time. Unfortunately it is not as active and as effective as it should be. Whilst the PAC is chaired by an Opposition member [typically the shadow spokesman for finance] meetings sometimes fail for lack of a quorum. Membership is currently set at five members—two from the Opposition and three from Government. The committee's work can be stymied should the Government members decline to attend: a quorum is three (3). PAC recommended in its 2004 report that the quorum remain at three (3), but that the membership be increased to seven (7), one additional member for each of Government and Opposition. This recommendation has not been acted on.

  7.  The Rules governing the practice of asking Parliamentary questions ("PQs") are also out-dated. Questions are required to be submitted in writing ten (10) days in advance. The Rules limit each member to three questions for oral answer per sitting day: the House normally only meets once a week when in session except for a two week period following presentation of the Government Budget when it meets three days a week ("Budget Debate"). The Speaker has also ruled that no Minister can be asked more than three questions per sitting day, which constitutes a further limitation as some Ministers have responsibility for multiple departments.

  8.  The transparency and accountability that comes from asking PQs is further limited because questions that cannot be asked and answered within the first hour of meeting are reduced to writing and thus there is no opportunity for supplementary questions on the floor of the House. There is no sanction for Ministers who decline to answer questions or defer them to when they prefer to answer them. On the other hand, Government Ministers are at liberty in the first hour to read Ministerial statements which are not subject at that time to either question or debate: [although the statements can become the subject of comment, much later in the day, at the end of the day of meeting on the motion to adjourn when members are free to speak on any subject for up to twenty (20) minutes].

  9.  The annual Budget Debate is limited to a maximum of 42 hours debate in committee of the whole House, "unless the House otherwise agrees". While the Opposition has the right to determine the order in which the heads of expenditure are considered, your committee should be aware of the stultifying practice which has been allowed to develop over the years: which is the reading of voluminous briefs prepared by civil servants for Ministers to read, at length, and for hours, literally, all with the effect to stifling debate and preventing a close examination of line items of expenditure. It hardly makes possible the meaningful oversight which might reasonably be expected—and required—in a modern parliamentary jurisdiction: see Recommended Benchmarks, 7, Oversight Function. This practice also underscores the growing need for a more active PAC and meetings open to the public and press.

  10.  The Opposition has attempted to institute change in the above areas, but on each occasion over the past eight years, those recommendations have been referred by motion in the House to the Rules and Privileges Committee where they have not found favour with a committee that is subject to a Government majority.

  11.  The Legislature of Bermuda continues to be treated as another Government department, the responsibility for which is assigned to a Government Minister. This practice neither enhances nor facilitates the development of an independent Legislature and calls into question whether the Legislature is or can be subject to undue political pressure or interference through funding.

  12.  We believe a modern parliamentary jurisdiction—which Bermuda aspires to be—should either by legislation or resolution establish an independent (of the executive) and/or corporate body (which is also bi-partisan in composition) to be responsible for the provision of services and funding entitlements for parliamentary purposes as well as providing for the overall governance of Parliament: see Recommended Benchmarks, 5.4. Organisation and Management.

  13.  While there is provision in the Rules governing the behaviour of members inside the House, the enforcement of which is left to the Speaker or the person in the chair at the relevant time, there is no written code of conduct to which members are expected to adhere and by which they can be judged by the public. This too, should be a feature of a modern parliamentary jurisdiction: see Recommended Benchmarks, 10. Ethical Governance, specifically 10.1.2.

  14.  There is a Register of Members' Interests ("the Register") under which members are expected to voluntarily disclose required, relevant financial assets and holdings. The Clerk to the Legislature maintains the Register but there is no sanction should a member decline to make disclosure. The Register is made available for public inspection.

  15.  The Rules do provide that "no member shall vote on any question in which he has a direct or pecuniary interest, peculiar to such member as distinguished from the public at large". Members are expected to voluntarily disclose that interest or be challenged by any other member prior to any vote. The Speaker then rules whether or not the member can vote.

  16.  There is also the matter of disclosure of interests as required under the Bermuda Constitution Order 1968 ("the Order") with respect to Government contracts, the relevant two sections of which read as follows:

    "30  (6)  Subject to such exceptions and limitations as may be prescribed by the Legislature, a person shall not be qualified to be elected as a member of the House of Assembly if he has an interest in any Government contract and has not, within seven days of his nomination as a candidate for election, disclosed the nature of the contract and his interest therein by means of a notice published in the Gazette or in a newspaper published and circulating in Bermuda".

    "31  (1)  The seat of a member of either House shall become vacant—

          (f)  subject to such exceptions and limitations as may be prescribed by the Legislature, if he acquires an interest in any Government contract and has not, within seven days of acquiring that interest, disclosed the nature of the contract and his interest therein by means of a notice published in the Gazette or in a newspaper published and circulating in Bermuda".

  A number of exceptions and limitations are prescribed by section 10 of the Legislature (Qualification and Disqualification) Act 1968 ("the Act").

  17.  There is however, no established independent mechanism for oversight and enforcement when it comes to disclosure of relevant interests and any conflicts that may arise as a result. The potential for conflict is likely in a small community like Bermuda where members of the House are typically part-time and are permitted to pursue their private businesses interests and professions during their tenure in office. We believe that a strengthening of oversight and enforcement is required, again in keeping with modern practice: see Recommended Benchmarks, 10 Ethical Governance, specifically 10.1.3. and 10.1.4.

  18.  As a matter of good practice, we support the stated intention of Her Majesty's UK Government to extend the UN Convention Against Corruption to Bermuda and other Overseas Territories. It is our understanding that this has been discussed with the Overseas Territories at recent Consultative Conferences and believe that it may well facilitate the introduction and development of "Integrity In Public Service" Legislation in Bermuda. In light of recent experience in Bermuda with a Government-funded quango (Bermuda Housing Corporation) and allegations of improprieties that warranted criminal investigation, as well as the Auditor General's reported concerns about a "growing culture of opportunity for dishonesty" within government, it is clear that our anti-corruption legislative framework needs to be overhauled and modernised.

  19.  The committee may not be aware of the Opposition United Bermuda Party's position generally on matters of good governance and so I attach for your information and review a copy of the relevant section party's platform at the last election (December 2007).[255] These obviously represent some of the reforms and changes which we would have instituted had we been elected the Government, and might reasonably be regarded as our recommendations for consideration by the committee in its deliberations.

  20.  On the matter of any future constitutional change, I also attach for the committee's information and review a copy of a letter dated 28 January 2004, from then Opposition Leader Dr the Hon Grant Gibbons to then Governor of Bermuda, Sir John Vereker, which fairly sets out position today of the United Bermuda Party on how it should be undertaken.

31 January 2008

255   Not printed as publicly available. Back

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