BY 5.30 pm on Monday, four hours into the sitting of the House, debate had not yet begun on the Government‘s controversial bill which, some sectors of the society are claiming, will weaken the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The proposed amendment to the act has provoked a public outcry including a full-page paid press advert by a collection of NGOs.

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At one stage, the Government put six of its MPs to speak in succession.

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The bill would move the time limit for a public body to reply to a request for information from 30 days to 90-180 days. Further, the bill was also criticised by some for combining many disparate bits of legislation, each of which needed its own time for debate. It not only amended the FOIA, but raised the pensions of top officials, created a tax amnesty, allowed national insurance exemptions, created Central Bank duties to the Finance Ministry and affected the status of non-profit organisations.

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Activist Gary Aboud was in an otherwise empty public gallery while Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi piloted the first bill to ban the funding of nuclear, chemical and biological (NCB) weapons, the Miscellaneous Provisions (Financial Institutions, Securities and Insurance) Bill 2019.

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Before the tea-break, at no time did the AG tell the House if he would reconsider the FOIA bill. The tea break saw some intense but brief talks amongst the AG, Communications Minister Stuart Young and Finance Minister Colm Imbert.

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At the tea-break reporters asked the AG if and when the FOIA bill would be debated that day. He smiled sweetly, but was tight-lipped saying, “Wait and see.”

Opposition MP for Couva North Ramona Ramdial could shed no light to Newsday

However on resumption, a steady stream of Government speakers on the first bill soon suggested the Government’s intention was to climb down from the FOIA bill

After the AG had piloted the bill, for several hours the Opposition’s sole contribution came in the jocular and melodramatic performance of Naparima MP Rodney Charles. He was followed by Government MPs Young, Edmund Dillon, Terrence Deyalsingh, Dr Lovell Francis, Ancil Antoine and Imbert respectively

Deyalsingh noted the Opposition‘s impending Monday Night Forum in San Fernando and said MPs must be in the House to do the people’s business. D’Abadie/O’Meara MP Antoine related that drug-traffickers use submarines to smuggle drugs, and when pulled up by the Speaker to get to the point, he switched tack to say traffickers also use aeroplanes

Imbert spoke at great length, rebuffing the Opposition’s complaint that he was breaching the standing orders in reading his speaking notes. “I have a lot of notes here. I intend to read all of them.” He then recounted his days in the Patrick Manning administration

Interrupting the flow of Government MPs was Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal. “They can run but can’t hide. They cannot bring freedom of information and pensions at 12 o’clock tonight,” he stormed. “This is a sham.”

San Fernando East MP Randall Mitchell said Moonilal cannot deny any MP the right to speak. “I’m sorry the member left. The member is a constituent of mine and I speak on his behalf,” he teased. Ramdial spoke, followed by Fitzgerald Hinds, Minister in the AG’s office

UNC PRO Anita Haynes told Newsday, “This is evidence of a Government running scared. They want to pass dictatorial and undemocratic measures in the dead of night, but we will fight the battle in Parliament and on the platform. The battle for our rights has started.”