At the first session of the new Parliament on September 29, 2020, Prime Minister Holness made a statement about the National Identification System (NIDS) and laid out the timetable in which he hopes to see the new NIDS Bill passed into law. With legislation that will have such far-reaching impact and which has already been the subject of much controversy, it is important that adequate time is allowed for public review of the Bill before it becomes law. I am concerned that the timetable laid out by the Prime Minister may not allow sufficient time for this much-needed public review.
In his statement in Parliament, PM Holness said that the draft Bill had been completed and was before the Legislative Committee (of Cabinet) and that it would be tabled in Parliament before the end of October. A Joint Select Committee of Parliament would then be established and it was his hope that the Bill would be passed by the end of the year.
In too many instances over the decades, the deadline given by Joint Select Committees for submissions hasn’t allowed adequate time for interested groups and individuals to review and analyse the draft legislation and prepare submissions. In the current situation, if the new NIDS Bill is tabled within the next two weeks, there would be only 7 to 9 weeks for the entire process to take place, if the Bill is to be passed into law before the end of December. That is,
- for the Joint Select Committee (JSC) to be established to consider the Bill and make a call for submissions;
- for the public to review the Bill and make submissions and appear before the Committee, if asked;
- for the Committee to undergo its own deliberations, considering any submissions, and write and table its report to Parliament;
- for both Houses of Parliament to consider the report and its recommendations and debate the Bill and pass it.
It may be that once the new Bill is tabled, it will have been so carefully drafted and will have addressed the concerns raised in the judgment of the Constitutional Court which struck down the old Act, and will have taken into consideration many of the concerns raised by the public prior to the passage of the old Act, that there will be few new or remaining concerns to be dealt with. But until we see the new Bill we will not know.
We can read the new NIDS policy that was published in April. We can read or listen to the PM’s statement to Parliament in September. But until the Bill is tabled, we will not know what it actually says and, to use the cliché, the devil is always in the details.
So, for example, the new policy and the PM have said that enrolment in the NIDS will now be voluntary, but how is this addressed in the Bill? Could a situation arise in which government or private sector entities could make the presentation of a NIDS card or number mandatory to access service, so that enrolling in NIDS becomes mandatory in fact or practice, if not in law? Need for discussion before passage into law?
Let’s not have a repeat of the previous experience where a self-imposed deadline drives the process by which the legislation goes through the Parliament. And whereas I agree with the PM that the process shouldn’t be boundless, it needs to be realistic in its allowance for genuine consultation and discussion. This allowance for adequate time before passage of the legislation may indeed forestall problems after its passage, as well as simply being in accord with good governance practices.
(Just to note that the PM spoke about a space on the NIDS website that will allow for public comments about the new Bill. This raises the need for other forums for public information and input before the Bill is passed.)
PBCJ recording of Sitting of House, September 29, 2020
“…we intend to have the Bill through the Legislative Committee before the end of October. The Bill will come back to this House and out of an abundance of caution, I can state here that it will go to a Joint Select Committee, so that there is no opportunity for unnecessary delays and that if there are issues that arise in the traditional way, we deal with it in the Committee. And the public can have their say. At, you know, I don’t want to determine the Parliamentary process but one would expect that the process is not unlimited. There must be some bound to it. And therefore we would like before the end of the year, this year, that we should be seeking to pass the Bill into law. Madam Speaker, once the Bill is tabled in Parliament, as I said, we will have a Joint Select Committee to navigate it through the Parliament and we hope that the deliberations will proceed apace.”
PM Holness’ comment re new NIDS Bill timeline – Transcribed from PBCJ recording of Sitting of the House, September 29, 2020