Rule change paves way for virtual Legislative Assembly session

Government members Joey Hew and Barbara Conolly wear masks during Wednesday's meeting of the Legislative Assembly.

Legislators voted Wednesday to change the rules of the Cayman Islands parliament to allow them to meet via ‘electronic means’ in times of crisis.

The decision was taken in order to allow the full Legislative Assembly to debate a series of emergency bills to help deal with the coronavirus crisis by video-link. That meeting is planned for Thursday.

The changes to the standing orders were approved by a reduced line-up of politicians, many of them wearing masks, during a historic sitting of the legislature.

Several representatives on either side agreed to sit out the session in order to allow those present to comply with social distancing rules.

After a lengthy committee-stage discussion, the legislators agreed to insert a new rule stating that “where it is impracticable by reason of public emergency or any other emergency as agreed by the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition for the Legislative Assembly to meet physically, the Legislative Assembly may do so by electronic means”.

The change will now go to Governor Martyn Roper for approval before a planned session to approve a string of emergency bills connected to the coronavirus crisis can take place.

Premier Alden McLaughlin said it was a “historic” and unprecedented moment for the islands and for the assembly.

“We are today engaging in a process which has never been done in these islands before,” he said at the outset of the session.

“We have a bare minimum of members to constitute a quorum for the purpose of this meeting.”

The session, chaired by veteran legislator Anthony Eden, went into committee stage Wednesday morning as politicians on all sides worked to finalise the wording of the amendment.

McLaughlin said the agreed change would allow legislators to stay within physical distancing guidelines. He said the substantive session would proceed Thursday with some members present in the chamber and others dialing in via Zoom video-link. 

They will debate several pieces of legislation, including emergency measures to allow people access to pension funds and proposed changes to the Traffic Law.

Until Wednesday’s amendment, the standing orders of the House required members to be physically present in the chamber for a debate to take place and for legislation to be passed. Because of the outbreak of COIVD-19 in the Cayman Islands and the regulations to suppress its spread, the premier said it had become impossible for that to happen without violating social distancing requirements.

McLaughlin said it was imperative that the House was able to deal with urgent legislation connected to the pandemic and the unfolding economic crisis.

Opposition leader Arden McLean gave his support to the changes.

He said electronic meetings was something legislators would have to get used to as part of the “new world order” and were necessary to enable legislation to be passed in the midst of the pandemic.

He said the parliament was steeped in “old tradition” but had to be updated to adapt to the times and the circumstances.

“Personally, I have not been overly excited about changing old conventions that has been established and used for hundreds of years within parliament,” he said, “but time has moved on and there is a new world. 

“When parliament started, we didn’t have any electronic means – no TV, no radio, no nothing.”

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