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Retired Chief Clerk Maurice Tynes

Dear Editor,

I was shocked to hear Renward Wells, who is the leader of government business in the House of Assembly, publicly berate David Forbes, the clerk of the House, for allowing a Private Members Bill to be read for a first time. Even though Minister Wells was seated at the time, in the moment of his anger and frustration, he spoke loud enough that he could be clearly heard over the television.

Fred McAlpine, the member of Parliament for Pineridge, had given notice the previous week that he intended to go through the procedure of having a bill placed on the House agenda, which would repeal an existing piece of legislation. There was no objection to this being done at the time.

On December 2, at the appropriate time, McAlpine moved for the first reading of the bill. The clerk, on orders from the speaker, rose and read the bill a first time and tabled the bill.

Wells could then be clearly heard berating the clerk, blaming him for allowing the bill to be included on the House agenda and saying that if it was not for him, what happened in the House today would not have happened.

I wonder if Minister Wells is familiar with the Westminster convention that public servants should be anonymous. This convention shelters public servants from being included in controversy, especially political ones as the public officer is unable to defend himself in a public way.

The clerk of the House gives procedural advice to the speaker and to members of Parliament. That advice does not have to be accepted nor followed by the speaker. Whatever advice Forbes offered to the speaker was a confidential matter and he should not have been singled out for admonishment by Minister Wells. If the speaker orders the clerk to read a bill, the clerk does not have a discretion – he must follow the speaker’s orders.

The constitution empowers any parliamentarian (senator or member of Parliament) to introduce any bill or motion in Parliament. However, only a Cabinet minister may move a money bill.

The constitution defines a money bill as any bill which imposes or increases any tax, imposes any charge on the Consolidated Fund, alters any charge other than reducing it, compounding or remitting any debt due to The Bahamas. So, a money bill generally speaking, is a bill which imposes or increases taxes or charges. The Ocean Industries Bill nor the proposed bill to repeal it does any of those things.

The UK Parliament defines a money bill as “one which is certified by the speaker as such and is one which contains nothing other than financial measures”.

The UK Parliament also has a financial bill, which would have financial measures in addition to other measures. The bill, which was proposed to be repealed, contained many issues other than financial matters. While it is the speaker’s discretion to decide if a bill is a money bill, it is my view that the bill in question is not a money bill.

However, once the speaker ordered that the bill should proceed to first reading, there was no harm in the bill being read a first time.

The introduction and first reading of the bill did no injury to the constitution. Article 59(3)(a) reads: “Except on the recommendation of the Cabinet signified by a minister, the House of Assembly shall not – proceed upon any bill…”

Proceed, in this context, does not refer to first reading of a bill, as first reading is merely a procedure to have the proposed bill included on the House’s agenda. Proceed upon any bill refers to the substantive second reading motion and debate on a bill.

It includes the committal stage of the bill when members review the bill clause by clause, and it also includes the third reading and passing of the bill. If the bill was to be referred to a House committee, it should be referred after first reading and before debate on the matter.

I assume the bill was referred to a committee, so that the findings of the committee could better inform the debate on the bill. Once a bill is referred to a committee, the mover of the bill, McAlpine, loses control of the bill.

So, why was Minister Wells so adamant and resolute that the bill not be read a first time and included on the House agenda?

Most of the revenue items in the bill are exempted and the government receives mostly royalties. Are some private interests being protected? Or is there some deeper objection to the airing of the subject matter?

His conduct reminded me of a comment by William Waldegrave, a former UK Cabinet minister: “It is the definition of a feeble minister if he blames the civil service for not delivering his policies.”

It seems that Minister Wells was angry with the speaker, but not able to lash out at the speaker, he took his frustrations out on the public servant.

What a scaredy-cat!

Whatever the reason Minister Wells seemed so troubled, he was dead wrong to scold Forbes so publicly and the speaker ought to have protected Forbes.

In any case, the minister owes Forbes a public apology. Nothing less would suffice.

 Maurice Tynes

14 December Tribune