The debate raged on today in Belmopan among senators as the Sugar Industry Amendment Bill was rammed through the legislature. The Sugar Industry Amendment Bill was taken through all the stages on Friday’s Sitting of the House of Representatives and today the bill was passed in the Senate. The Bill makes provisions to the elections of officers of an association. It also empowers the Minister of Agriculture to receive and deal with disputes and complaints. Opposition Senators criticized the bill, saying the government is failing in keeping its promise that it would minimize ministerial discretion. Lead Opposition Senator Michael Peyrefitte condemned the bill saying it gives the minister ultimate powers to meddle in the business of the association. He called the PUPs hypocrites and liars.
Michael Peyrefitte, Senator: “The board has all the powers in the sugar industry situation that they can conduct whatever they need to do pass policies, do whatever they need to ensure that the sugar industry is viable. This law increases the strength of the board and we’re saying fundamentally to protect the industry and to make sure we have a viable sugar industry is difficult to argue with that. Even though it maybe a little bit high handed it’s kind of difficult but man unu tek a nice warm bucket of milk and pee pee eena it. Section 38 a ‘Where a person.’ – this is the law that they want to pass now Madam President – “Where a person is aggrieved by a decision of the board the person shall refer the complaint to the minister for a decision.” So Madam President they made me read the whole functions of the board just now on a hungry belly only for them to propose a piece of legislation that says all that I’ve described that the board can do, all of these things that the board is empowered to do, a board that is an autonomous body all of that that they do can be reversed by a decision of the minister. So you go to the board the board makes a decision and you don’t like it you just go to the minister and the minister can reverse that. Other than a decision of the board so it’s not a decision for the board – that person shall refer the complaint to the board for a decision where the board is unable to resolve the matter it shall forward the complaint to the minister a decision.” So you go to the board for a decision, the board says ‘yes’, you complain to the minister the minister says ‘no’ the answer is ‘no’. If there’s anything done in a complaint and the board would say ‘Boy we don’t want to deal with this. This something that’s not for a decision take that to the minister.’ and the minister will decide you have upended the powers of the board. It was you. It was you in your Plan Belize that said you would decrease ministerial discretion and power. It was you. And now you’re passing legislation to do just the opposite. You’re passing legislation to increase ministerial power. You’re passing legislation to have the minister in his personal discretion control the sugar industry. That’s what’s happening today Madam President when it should be with the board. You people are hypocrites and liars. You said you wouldn’t do this and you’re doing it.”
Expressing concerns over the bill were social partner senators Osmany Salas, Kevin Herrera and Bishop Alvin Benguche.
Alvin Benguche, Senator Representing the Churches: “It is being suggested by what is before us that the minister again should be given certain powers. I believe Madam President that in this sense, as I said before that, there are things in place for a board of this nature to be able to take the decisions. And perhaps, even if members of the board are dissatisfied with certain items and perhaps it might be dissatisfied with the president of the board or whosoever is chairing the board that there are mechanisms from what I’ve heard mechanisms in place and ways in which it can be addressed without the intervention of the government minister.”
Kevin Herrera, Belize Chamber of Commerce & Industry and Belize Business Bureau: “I don’t know if I’m missing something, but I’m just not getting the connection. How does this fix that problem? And the proposal is to fix the specific timeline for an election. I think, with the exception of this year. It’s supposed to be by October and this year will be by December, obviously, because we’re in December, but it doesn’t fix the problem. The problem is an impasse between the manufacturer and the association and I don’t see how this bill addresses that.”
Osmany Salas, Senator Representing Non-Governmental Organizations: “In January of this year I gladly supported government’ss good governance motion and number three of that good governance motion says this “To take measures to reduce discretionary ministerial powers in order to increase administrative efficiency and eliminate where possible political intervention.” I just think how would the banana industry react if there was an effort to put in something like this in their legislation, or the legislation that governs your organization colleague Senator Herrera and there are others like that. Now, it could very well be that intentions are well-intended. We also have to accept look, there are no saints in this thing. There are no Saints here. Even though my colleague on the other side as you have, as I was always reminded, you want to change things run for office. And I said no this Senate here is constitutionally mandated to have its role and we must take that seriously. So Madam President with that I must say that I support the positions of my colleagues that have spoken on this bill and we will not be able to support this bill. Thank you, madam president.”
Responding to the senators was Senator for Government Business, Eamon Courtenay. Courtenay explained that the senator failed to properly interpret the legislation as it does not give the minister powers to interfere in the business of associations.
Eamon Courtenay, Senator and Minister of Foreign Affairs: “The minister does not have any power to use section 38 on his own. Let’s start there. The minister cannot intervene if he wants to intervene. That cannot happen. That was never intended. And that is not what the session provides. So this is not an attempt to grab power by the minister. This section can be relied upon in two circumstances only. The first one it says, “where a person is aggrieved. So somebody has to be aggrieved, someone has to be upset or disappointed or disagree with the decision of the board and that member then that person shall refer to the minister. If the board has taken a decision and you don’t like it you can refer the matter to the minister. The minister can’t tell you “I don’t like that decision so I’m going to intervene.” that is not what the provision says. It goes on to say that that person shall refer a complain to the board for a decision but where the board is unable to resolve the matter it – meaning of the board – shall forward the complaint to the minister for a decision. So it is the board or the aggrieved person who is sending it to the minister, not the minister of grabbing anything. So if Senator Peyrefitte read carefully – I said if Senator Peyrefitte read carefully – and then there’s a second part of the equation ,read carefully and understood, that’s the difficulty, what the Clause purports to do he wouldn’t be grandstanding the way he was jumping up and huffing and puffing. So the first point I wish to make Madame President and colleague Senators behind me is that Clause 38a does not give Minister power to do anything unless, and until somebody is aggrieved or the board can’t act and they refer to the minister.”