Any attempt by the Government to stifle the public's freedom to information will be met with court action, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar warned on Monday night.
Although debate on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedoms of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and non-profit organisations) Bill 2019 had been scheduled for Parliament, Persad-Bissessar took time off to attend the United National Congress' Monday Night Forum at Naparima College in San Fernando.
There she accused the Government of dictatorial behaviour, questioning what misdeeds it was trying to hide during an election year.
"What do they have to hide? What are they trying to hide?" Persad-Bissessar asked, saying that citizens have the right to know under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Calling the bill a mismatch callaloo, Persad-Bissessar also accused the Government of being sly, saying that after rushing the Bill to the Parliament, it had classified the suite of legislation as a money bill. This would mean that if the Bill reaches the Senate, the senators would be barred from making amendments.
However, she said the Constitution was clear and that a money bill pertains to pocket legislation which in the opinion of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, contains only provisions dealing with matters such the imposition or regulation of taxes, the imposition in the payment of debt and the raising of government fees. She called on the government to state how freedom of information qualified as a money bill.
The Government’s proposed amendments to the FOIA will give public bodies 90 days to respond to a request for information. The previous time allowed for a response was 30 days. She said there was nowhere else in the world where the government has mandated a 90 day wait for a response to an FOIA request. The Bill also proposed that the Attorney General would be the Minister responsible for responding to FOIA requests.
Also included in the Bill was a proposal to increase the salaries and pensions of parliamentarians and judges.
"What is the hurry?" she asked.
She said the while Finance Minister Colm Imbert is seeking to rush the legislation so that a tax amnesty can begin on June 15, she rubbished his intent, saying that the start date fell on a Saturday and nothing would commence until the following Monday.
"This is in fact, that tax amnesty is a smokescreen for taking away from the freedom of information and to take your mind away from the hefty salaries and pension increases that they're going to give themselves."
She noted that there were many civil society bodies which called on the Government to hold its hand on the changes to the FOIA and consult the public first.
She was particularly critical of Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, in whose San Fernando West constituency the political meeting was held, and vowed to make it a UNC seat in 2020.
"You see this 2×4 lawyer, I beat you once in the court, I will beat you again," Persad-Bissessar said.