The controversial Defence (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament last evening, with the Government winning its fight to approve legislation to precept soldiers to assist police in the anti-crime fight by a margin of 29 (PP) to 11 (PNM). After three sessions of debate, the bill was passed in the House of Representatives at 6.53 pm in a significantly changed form from its original outline, including amendments made during yesterday’s proceedings.
As a result of all the changes and because the bill also touches on legislation concerning the Police Complaints Authority, the name of the bill was changed as well, from the Defence (Amendment) Bill to the Miscellaneous Provisions (Defence Force and Police Complaints Authority). When the vote was taken, all 29 PP Government members were present, giving the administration more than enough votes which were required to pass the bill.
The Government needed to have 24 votes to obtain the three-fifths special majority to pass the legislation. The 11 members of the Opposition PNM who were present loudly rejected the bill through all the stages, right down to the end. After all Government MPs, led by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, voted for the bill—including PP backbencher Herbert Volney—the final count was taken among PNM MPs.
PNM whip Marlene McDonald started off the Opposition’s rejection, saying: “No soldier police!” Opposition Leader Keith Rowley followed her lead, echoing, “No soldier police!” PNM’s Donna Cox added: “Definitely not!” PNM’s Nileung Hypolite declared: “No way to martial law!” PNM’s Colm Imbert emphasised: “No, no, no, no and no!”
Their colleague Alicia Hospedales said, “Absolutely no!” MP Paula Gopee-Scoon said, “Definitely not!” PNM’s Patricia McIntosh, Amery Browne and Joanne Thomas also said “No.” PP House leader Roodal Moonilal, speaking after Parliament adjourned, said further checks and balances constituted the major changes added to the bill.
He said: “We were very heartened to receive endorsement from the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Asja, southern business associations and other groups. While they all agreed with the measures, they were concerned about the impact of checks and balances and Government listened and undertook amendments towards this.” Moonilal explained the changes to the bill as the following:
• a 24-month sunset clause, meaning the bill will be reviewed after 24 months
• giving the Police Complaints Authority oversight for soldiers on any complaints being brought from the public
• limitation of police powers for soldiers which will allow soldiers to stop, search, seize or detain and arrest, while police will handle investigation, interrogation and prosecution
• single units comprising police and soldiers will operate.