Saint Lucia
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In a country notorious for its unabashed acknowledgement of its aversion to reading, it can hardly be a surprise that few Saint Lucians are able to speak intelligently about our Constitution, let alone the rules governing our parliament, contained in “Standing Orders of the Honourable House of Assembly.”

Thanks to “MP’s Guide to Procedure,” published by the UK Parliament we profess to mirror, I learned: “Standing orders are rules agreed to by the Chamber and committees.” Why Standing? The UK guide explains: The orders are “standing,” in the sense that they do not lapse at the end of each session of parliament. Moreover: “Standing orders are not a complete guide to procedure in the House of Commons, because much of the business is determined by custom, precedent, resolutions of the House and Speakers’ rulings.” Standing orders can be set aside if the House agrees on a motion to do this. Such motions can be debated and voted on. The House can also agree to new standing orders.

It is conjectural just how many Saint Lucians had heard of the Committee of Privileges before the MP for Castries Central, Richard Frederick, announced to the local media his intention to take Allen Chastanet before the panel, allegedly for attempting to mislead parliament at an earlier sitting. The charge stems from comments by the Micoud South MP in relation to the Speaker’s excuse for Frederick’s absence from the House meeting at which the Firearms Amendment Act was debated: He was on government business in the United States.   

His tongue doubtless buried deep in his cheek, Leader of the Opposition Allen Chastanet had offered his best wishes to the absent MP—his long-standing arch enemy, with whom Chastanet has for some five years been embroiled in unresolved court battles. He also congratulated Frederick on having persuaded U.S. Immigration to lift his persona non grata status, imposed on him shortly before the 2011 general elections when Frederick was still a minister in the Stephenson King administration.

Chastanet said he hoped Frederick would take full advantage of his three- or four-day visa, which he said was similar to those granted despised foreign government leaders such as Gadaffi and Castro when in their time they needed to attend meetings at the behest of the United Nations, which operates as an embassy with extraterritorial rights. There were no objections to anything Chastanet said in relation to the highly controversial subject of Frederick’s relationship with the U.S. authorities. Not from attendant government MPs, not from Mr. Speaker.

At the start of the August 9 session, when the House debated the appointment of a Special Prosecutor that some consider the equivalent of a hit man for the government, the Speaker announced he had received from the Castries Central MP a motion declaring his intention to take the Micoud South MP before the House Privileges Committee. The motion was not properly laid out, the Speaker said.  Consequently, he had issued certain instructions to the petitioner, and upon receipt of the remedied motion would convene a meeting of the Privileges Committee for consideration of the MP’s concerns.

The Speaker did not say why he had not set the Micoud South MP right, if indeed his comments on Frederick’s surprising visit to the U.S. had been out of order. There was also no word as to how the Micoud South MP could’ve misled a House in which all but two members were informed Cabinet colleagues of Richard Frederick!

In all events, one may well ask: What constitutes “deliberately misleading parliament?” What is the burden of evidence required to establish somebody’s state of knowledge at the time remarks were made? The Ministerial Code—the rules which cover all ministers—is explicit that knowingly misleading parliament is a resignation matter, with its words repeating verbatim the terms of a Commons motion from 1997 asserting this rule. However, it remains up to the prime minister to enforce the code. The Privileges Committee is cross-party, normally chaired by the Leader of the Opposition.  

From all I’ve been able to uncover, the promised imminent convening of a Privileges Committee, should it actually materialize, would be a first for Saint Lucia’s parliament. For while a “Committee of Privileges” is among thirteen others listed in Standing Orders, the only other reference to it is on page 35 of the booklet, wherein is stated: “There shall be referred to the Committee of Privileges any matter which appears to affect the powers or privileges of the House and it shall be the duty of the Committee to consider any matter and to report thereon to the House. The booklet does not address the process by which MPs are brought before the Committee of Privileges.

In the parliament of New Zealand, a question of privilege is raised by an MP by making a complaint to the Speaker at the earliest opportunity. The Speaker makes an assessment of whether a question of privilege is involved. If so, the Speaker rules on the matter in the House and it is referred to the Privileges Committee. The Privileges Committee investigates the matter and makes a recommendation to the House, which then decides whether to adopt the recommendation. As earlier stated, no one raised an objection when Chastanet commented on the Speaker’s announcement that Frederick had gone to the U.S. on government business. Neither has the Speaker ruled on Frederick’s later claim that Chastanet had attempted to mislead the House. So, is this another case of la charrue devant les boeufs

That there is no record of an MP who was brought before the Committee of Privileges in Saint Lucia should not be taken to mean there was never the need. It is fairly recent history that one House speaker felt so threatened in the course of an overheated debate that he fled the chamber. In retaliation for criticism of his management abilities, one particularly thin-skinned honorable member made an altogether shocking allegation against his critic’s wife. Another MP unforgettably threatened to shoot a fellow member on the opposite side “and make shit come out of your mouth.”

MPs and their bellicose surrogates in the public gallery have on occasion invaded the House Chamber. In one instance the Mace was removed from its place and thrown around the House while the sergeant-at-arms conveniently looked the other way. Corruption allegations of the worst kind have been tossed willy-nilly across the table during House debates. MPs have cited the most salacious of anonymous Facebook jottings, as if they were quoting Scripture. I have no doubt readers will have their own more recent recollections of satanic verses delivered by out-of-control MPs, some far worse than my own revisited samples.

Why, then, is there no record of the existence of a Committee of Privileges? While it may be true that the House finance committee has not convened in years, at least there is proof of its existence. I’ve scanned countless publications of Hansard, perchance I might be enlightened, all to no avail. I discovered nothing about any Committee of Privileges, nothing about the process of formation, qualifications for membership, rules or sanctions. (I recall an opposition MP, prior to the 2021 elections, threatening to take the tourism minister before the committee but to date that has not materialized!)

Again, I turned for elucidation to the creators of our apparently hybrid parliament. On the matter of parliamentary privilege, this is what I discovered: Contrary to what is generally believed here, parliamentary privilege was never created at the expense of private citizens.

Parliamentary privilege is only intended to provide protection in relation to the core functions of parliament. A 2012 green paper presented to parliament and published by Sir George Young, leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal, and by deputy leader of the House of Commons David Heath, referenced the 2008 arrest of MP Damian Green, and the associated questions raised about parliamentary privilege and police investigations.

“We believe the time is now right,” observed the authors of the green paper, “to take a comprehensive look at its scope and operation to ensure that the parliamentary privilege continues to operate to protect the effective functioning of our democracy.” The paper questioned whether changes are needed to ensure that the privilege does not provide “an inappropriate immunity” for parliamentarians from criminal prosecution.  

Also: “Whether changes are needed to strengthen the appropriate protections for free expression in proceedings and in the reporting of those proceedings in the media.”

One area of uncertainty caused by the doctrine of exclusive cognizance was the extent to which statute and law applies to parliament. The purpose of exclusive cognizance is “to protect parliament in its role as a deliberative assembly. However, it is sometimes argued that this privilege confers a much wider protection—exempting parliament from having to comply with legislation governing day-to-day activities such as employment, health and safety.”

The most recent court judgment in this area, the paper noted, “suggests the line likely to be taken by the courts in the future is reasonably clear: statute law does apply, unless the law would interfere with parliament’s core functions. Both Houses are ultimately responsible for the regulation of their members, including disciplining their members for breaches of the House rules about members’ conduct.”

Additionally: “If a person speaking in parliament believes a fact is pertinent to the matter under discussion, they should not be deterred from raising it by any prospect of any criminal or civil penalty for revealing the fact. Nor should such a threat prevent the honest expression of opinion.” On the other hand, “exclusive cognizance does not mean MPs are exempt from ordinary law, nor that the Houses of Parliament are a haven from the law.

“Where the conduct of an MP does not relate to proceedings in parliament, even if it takes place in parliament’s physical premises, it is within the jurisdiction for the courts and therefore the law will apply to them as to anyone else.”

So much for the widely entertained notion that there’s nothing to be done about our parliamentarians who spend most of their allotted debating time referencing personal gripes, in the process even naming private citizens.