Editorial for August 2: Watchdogs need teeth

For the past four years, we’ve been hearing the same refrain: The Cayman Islands Commission for Standards in Public Life needs enabling legislation to do its job in policing the public sector.

Governor Duncan Taylor said Thursday that a draft bill to that effect has been ready for consideration for quite some time, but simply wasn’t made “a legislative priority”.

It’s time for this situation to change.

As Britain’s former attorney general Baroness Patricia Scotland said Tuesday night at a University College of the Cayman Islands lecture: “A commission can only be as good as we make it. If we don’t give them funding, if we don’t give them power, then they will be forgiven for not making a difference.”

Those words will have been music to the ears of two of her audience members in particular.

Police Commissioner David Baines, the head of Cayman’s anti-corruption commission, and Karin Thompson, who leads the Commission for Standards in Public Life, have long warned that their bodies lack the resources to be effective.

In a recent interview with the Compass, Ms Thompson said her commission, established in 2009, was a “toothless bulldog”. Without sufficient funding or powers of enforcement, the commission lacks the ability to back up its words with action. Its reports are left to gather dust and its directives are simply not treated seriously.

The anti-corruption commission, at least, has the power to deal with blatant lawbreaking. But, as Mr. Baines has pointed out, there is insufficient legal authority to target shady operators who thrive in the gray area between unethical and illegal. In other words, corruption must reach the threshold of criminality before his commission can take action.

It is not just about legislation. Real resources, including employees, are required to investigate properly allegations of conflicts of interest and corrupt behaviour. Sufficient funding and sufficient independence are also essential ingredients for any body charged with overseeing the conduct of public figures.

Without those elements, the commissions established in 2009 risk being seen as paying lip-service to the problem.
Senior crown counsel Suzanne Bothwell had it exactly right Tuesday when she told Ms Scotland the commissions had suffered a “failure to launch”.
Baroness Scotland, who met with the Progressives government Cabinet this week, spoke positively of her belief that Premier Alden McLaughlin’s administration was ready to tackle the issue head-on. Let’s hope she is right.

It is long past time for the talking to end and for the government to provide these commissions with the resources they need to get their important jobs done.

1 COMMENT

  1. Your Friday Editorial (Watchdogs need teeth) is an excellent one! We must hope it is a harbinger of the new owners’ determination to offer forthright and constructive criticism of the status quo, whenever criticism is warranted.

    One point that perhaps deserved inclusion is this… The failure of the three new Commissions is NOT attributable to a lack of funds, or a lack of legislation, but to a lack of WILL. Apparently, the Commissions’ members as a group lack passion for their respective causes, and probably also compassion for the victims where there are victims.

    The reason why I quit the local Human Rights Committee in 2006 was the insistence of the majority on the Committee not to rock the boat. The officially sanctioned exploitation of migrant helpers and labourers was ruled off-limits for public comment by the government-controlled members among us, as was the official policy of cruelty towards Cuban boat-people. I’m sorry to see signs of a similar don’t rock the boat principle being adopted by the three Commissions.

    Much can be achieved by simple advocacy, and that costs no money at all. Where the general public can be persuaded by argument, legislation is often unnecessary. All the present Commissions could take that path if they wanted. Unfortunately, they don’t want. All the whinging about toothlessness is pure humbug.

    I am not offering my services here in any way; I am well aware that my enthusiasms are unacceptable to many in our community – not least to the Chairmen of the three Commissions and their sponsors. But there are plenty of other citizens with enough fire in their bellies who would gladly replace the do-nothing seat-warmers. The Governor should make the warranted replacements without delay.

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