Wed | Nov 29, 2023

Senate passes NCRA bill with secrecy clause

Published:Saturday | April 22, 2023 | 1:08 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Senator Aubyn Hill, minister of industry, investment and commerce.
Senator Aubyn Hill, minister of industry, investment and commerce.

Five years after Cabinet gave approval for the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority (NCRA) to carry out the regulatory functions previously discharged by the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ), the Senate passed legislation on Friday to give effect to the change.

Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce Senator Aubyn Hill, who piloted the NCRA bill in the Senate on Friday, said the authority was established to remove what was a conflict of interest as the BSJ performed conformity assessments and set standards and was also required to regulate the standards.

Hill highlighted, among other things, Clause 13 of the bill, which deals with the obligation to secrecy.

According to the minister, the bill requires employees of the NCRA who obtain information relating to the functions of the authority to “regard and deal with such as secret and confidential”.

“It is very important – you are dealing with food, you are dealing with medicines, you are dealing with people’s lives – and people who work in the NCRA should absolutely know that the information that they are privileged to handle must remain privileged and not be disclosed,” Hill stressed.

“Like when I used to write for any newspaper, I would love to get information, but if I call you, you can’t give me the information because it is confidential,” the minister added.

However, opposition Senator Lambert Brown interrogated the “secrecy” clause of the bill.

Noting that Clause 13 places a gag order on workers under the 1911 Official Secrets Act, Brown argued that the archaic law had been discussed extensively by Jamaicans who have questioned whether the country should continue to be bound by this law.

“We have moved a long way with the Access to Information (ATI) Act. It is a very robust and useful piece of law ... ,” Brown said of the ATI Act.

He questioned whether there was any role for access to information in the NCRA legislation. Brown wanted to know if the Government intended to clothe itself in secrecy and deny members of the public information in an era of transparency.

The opposition senator pressed for answers on whether the ATI law was applicable to this regulatory agency.

“For example, if someone imports substandard rice and someone in the media or member of the public chooses to ask through access to information, would that be in violation of Clause 13?” he asked.

Responding to Brown’s concerns, Hill said that “the matter of secrecy is subject to the Access to Information Act; it doesn’t overrule the Access to Information Act”.

When lawmakers reviewed the bill at the committee stage, Brown asked that it be stated explicitly in the legislation that the ATI applies to the NCRA law.

However, when the question was asked by Senate President Tom Tavares-Finson, the collective “nays” from the Government side prevailed.

The bill was passed with no amendments.