October 21, 2005

Too high a price to pay for public service?

It is perhaps a sign of our maturity as a nation that on the eve of our 26th Anniversary of Independence, we are dispensing with legislation that sought to muzzle our public servants while at the same time inviting discussion on the introduction of anti-corruption legislation.

Unfortunately, the repeal of the Public Officers’ Conditions of Employment Act and the invitation for discussion on the draft Prevention of Corruption Bill and the draft Integrity in Public Life Bill come in the middle of election season. Both these draft bills were published two weeks ago in the local press, and there has been hardly a comment from the populace.{{more}}

On the other hand, maybe it is the very fact that we are in election season why we are seeing the type of action on these issues for which we have long been calling. Now that the Public Officers’ Conditions of Employment Act has been repealed, we would expect Public Servants to jump right in and lead the debate on the draft bills. They now have no excuse to remain silent; they are the ones who will be directly affected. But perhaps it is a bit much to expect them to be vocal on matters of public interest after over 30 years of conditioning to do otherwise.

All this aside, these bills are too important to be passed into law without wide-ranging debate and discussion. The bills in their present form will affect not only parliamentarians, but senior civil servants, police officers at the rank of Superintendent or above, members of Government Boards and senior staff of Government Corporations.

Persons holding these positions, their spouses and dependent children will be required to file declarations of their income, assets and liabilities every year after their appointment to one of the positions covered by the proposed act. Failure to file a declaration, or making a false declaration is an offence and the perpetrator is liable on summary conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to imprisonment for a term of 5 years or to both fine and imprisonment!

Similar penalties hold for a person found to have committed an act of corruption. The draft bill gives as examples of corruption soliciting or accepting bribes, offering a bribe, allowing one’s private interest to conflict with one’s public duties, improperly using for one’s benefit or that of a third party any classified or confidential information that has been obtained in one’s duties as a public officer, leaking information, improperly using Government property.

Many of us may have to redefine what we consider to be an act of corruption. It is reasonable to assume that we are all in agreement that soliciting, accepting and offering bribes constitute corruption. But what of the other examples as given in the draft anti-corruption bill? Our anecdotal history is replete with stories of persons in public office who leak or improperly use confidential information, misuse Government property or whose private interests conflict with their public duties.

The requirement for the officers defined under the act to file declarations is bound to be met with resistance, not necessarily because the persons concerned are involved in, or intend to get involved in corruption, but out of an almost instinctive desire to keep one’s personal finances private.

Imagine being appointed to a Government board to serve because one has expertise in a particular area. Then the realization hits home that you, your spouse and your dependent children will be required to file declarations annually. Will the quality and quantity of those agreeing to serve on Government Boards be diminished?

What about the confidentiality of the declarations? Who will have access to the files? How long will the information be retained? Will other Government agencies have access to the information? These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered before we make these bills law.

Let it be clear, we support and welcome the introduction of these acts. The question now is, will our people find the requirement of annual declarations too high a price to pay for public service? At least, they would know the rules of the game going in. But what of those already serving? What of their spouses? Will they object to the rules being changed in the middle of the game? There is much to be discussed.

Happy 26th Anniversary of Independence to our blessed Nation.