Despite fierce resistance from the parliamentary opposition and a last-minute attempt by one of its MPs, Anil Nandlall to insert an amendment of his own, the Deeds and Commercial Registries (Amendment) Bill 2017 was passed in the National Assembly late Thursday afternoon.
The opposition’s main contention was that the amendments would make Attorney General Basil Williams SC too powerful but the government MPs strongly defended it saying that the adjustments were necessary.
The Bill was brought to the House by Williams and read for the first time on January 30.
According to the explanatory memorandum, the Bill substitutes for section 5(2) of the Principal Act a new section 5(2) to provide for a much needed change of membership of the Governing Board of the Deeds and Commercial Registries Authority and provides that where the Governing Board has not been appointed or is not functioning, the Minister “shall perform the functions of the Board”.
It states that the changes in names from the Ministry of Housing and Water to the Ministry of Communities, and from the Guyana Bar Association of Legal Professionals to the Berbice Bar Association are reflected in the membership of the Board. Three new members would also be added to the Board increasing its membership from eight to eleven. The three new members are another nominee of the Ministry of Finance, a nominee of the Ministry of Business and a nominee of the Guyana Revenue Authority.
“It is hoped that these three new members would bring a wider and more varied experience and expertise to the deliberations of the Board”, the explanatory memorandum said.
The Bill also allows for the quorum for a meeting to be increased from three to five members.
Williams in opening the debate said that under the last government the authority was not an independent body with an independent board but rather it was a “semi-autonomous entity”.
He outlined various aspects of the Act governing the Authority and quoted Article 106 (2) of the Constitution which states that “the Cabinet shall aid and advise the President in the general direction and control of the Government of Guyana and shall be collectively responsible therefore to Parliament”.
He said that the power to appoint, remove and exercise disciplinary control over the registrars was carried over to the corporate Deeds and Commercial Registries Authority by Section 13 (1) of the Authority’s Act.
The effect of this he said is that whilst the Authority employs all its staff, raises its own revenue from which it pays employees through combined efforts of the Minister and the governing board, a superior body from another arm of the State superimposes the top two employees without meaningful or any consultation with the Ministry responsible for the Authority.
He pointed out that the Act gives the subject minister the power to appoint an Assistant Registrar of Deeds and other Registry Staff, appoint the Board of the Authority under the Act and exercise general administrative powers and control over the Authority.
“This means that the entire administrative measures on the Registrar of Deeds appointed by the Judicial Service Commission and other Registry staff appointed by the Judicial Service Commission and other Registry staff appointed by the Attorney General vest squarely on the Attorney General”, he said.
PPP/C MP Adrian Anamayah who opened the debate for the opposition told the House that the amendments don’t remove the controls Williams has on the legislation but instead attempts to confer absolute power into his hands.
“Why would the AG want to burden himself with more responsibilities by wanting to run an authority with hundreds of persons?” he questioned, while adding that Williams is already overwhelmed with work, a clear indication of his need to have five legal advisors to help him.
“…so why would you want sir to burden yourself with running a board?” he said, as he glanced across at Williams. Anamayah told the House, the opposition cannot support amendments which will give the AG additional powers.
Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan said that the amendments would strengthen the exiting legislation and he pointed out that the amendments to one of the sections goes a far way in broadening the Authority to include four additional persons to make it “far more inclusive rather than narrowing and depoliticising”.
He said that when the act came into being, it was those in the prevision administration that saw it as a “grand bill to ensure the efficiency and the orderly operations of the Deeds and Commercial Registries with all the powers granted”. He said that back then he did point out that the minister had a lot of power but his argument today would be that “in view of extending (membership) now to another nominee of the ministry of finance who is in charge of valuation…. A nominee by the Ministry of Business and instead of having legal practioners we now have spilt it up…and we also have a nominee from the corporate entity, the Guyana Revenue Authority”, it is acceptable.
He said that those in the opposition have not said that the 2013 Act was a bad Act. “But they are now saying that Ramjattan’s comments about it being bad is now hypocritical. Well it was a good act for you and we are now expanding the governing body it is a good thing”, he said.
Ramjattan insisted that while the Bill remains a good one, government “has made it even better by expanding and making a more inclusive governing body”. This was met with table banging by members of the opposition, in a clear sign of support for Ramjattan’s argument.
Former Attorney General Nandlall, like his fellow MP Anamayah was very critical of the proposed amendments to the Bill. He informed the House that with the help of a consultant, he had personally drafted the original bill which was passed in 2013.
While noting that the opposition has no problem with the broadening of the Board, he said that both Williams and Ramjattan gave parliament an impression that the original bill was a bad one.
He said that Williams has failed to list the number of instances where the principal Act conveys the powers to a minister. “He had brought an amendment which does not alter any of that preponderance of power that he claims resides in the minister”, he said, adding that this by itself should be enough to reject the argument being made by government. Nandlall insisted that Williams had misled the House with regards to the quantum of power he claims is reposed in the minister.
Nandlall said it cannot be expected that the functioning of the Registries would come to a halt so that the governing board can be appointed and the accounting system put in order.
“A lot of powers that reside in the minister …were transitory powers. Once the bill came into force and the organization began to function and assume its corporate legal personality then those powers of the minister would have withered away”, he said.
“This Bill brought statutory regulation to an entity that was a hundred years old and when it was operating a hundred years ago may have done four transactions per month but when this principal act was brought into force was doing nearly a hundred thousand transactions a month…”, he said, adding that a one hundred year mechanism and architecture and structure was being used to run an organization one hundred years later when the entire universe would have changed. The Bill he charged sought to bring modernity to the entity.
He said that the opposition’s concerns are not arbitrary and capricious and are well vested in legal principles. He told the House that there must be checks and balance and insisted that the powers cannot be left to the minister.
“We cannot support a bill that allows a minister to have …powers when the Board expires especially having regard to this particular minister’s track record with this particular board”, he said.
Arguing that the government inherited a Bill with shortcomings, Williams said that the PPP “put all these things in place without thinking they could ever leave office and now that they are on that side they coming with some argument that they don’t understand”. Some of the government MPs giggled as Williams made his comments. There were occasional exchanges between MPs from both sides of the House.
“How can you ask me to change the act that had all these powers that you have bestowed onto yourself?” he said looking over at Nandlall.
In the middle of the voting, Nandlall indicated that he had an amendment to propose and he inquired whether he would be allowed to “put it”. Speaker Dr. Barton Scotland in response told Nandlall that the request came a little too late. “You know that you are late…I will not permit a suggestion of an amendment at this time”, he said.
The opposition MPs were not happy and this prompted the opposition Chief Whip Gail Teixeira to rise and question why the request was being disallowed.
Teixeira stated that such an occurrence is not unknown in the House. “We have an amendment and we wish to be allowed to do so”, she said. At this point, Williams rose and attempted to speak but was told to take his seat.
After several minutes of consideration, the Speaker announced that he was sticking to his original opposition. The amendment Bill was later passed.