Minister of Citizenship Winston Felix has failed on four occasions this year to appear before the parliamentary Sectoral Committee for Foreign Relations when requested to do so. We had reported that Mr Felix had written to the Clerk of the National Assembly on May 23, providing data on eight groups of foreign nationals who had recorded the highest arrival and departure figures for the past five years and the first quarter of this year. This was in response to an earlier meeting of the committee in February, when questions had been raised about the number of Haitians arriving in Guyana, who had not left.
The committee is chaired by the Chief Whip of the PPP/C, Ms Gail Teixeira, and on receipt of this information on June 13, her proposal was to call the Ministers of Citizenship and Foreign Affairs to answer questions relating to it. This included what measures the government was taking to address human trafficking, and the plans it had to make provision for humanitarian assistance if such groups needed it.
What particularly had caught the committee’s attention was not just the number of Haitians overstaying their time in Guyana who could not be accounted for subsequently, but also the number of Cubans. Our report on the June meeting had quoted Ms Teixeira as saying, “When you have a large number of people that cannot be found, then something is definitely wrong … we have to find out what is really going on … It’s not a question of who is trickling in. The issue is not who is coming and going; it’s the issue of the numbers remaining and where you can’t find them, you can’t see them … This is trafficking.”
We reported the committee Chairperson as saying that after the meeting of June 13, a letter was sent to Minister Felix proposing that a meeting be held on July 4, or on any other date he would find convenient. He acceded to July 4, but subsequently cancelled it. The next date on which there was accordance was July 11, but that was cancelled too. Thereafter, the favoured day was July 25, but as was becoming the pattern, the Minister cancelled his appearance then as well, citing, according to Ms Teixeira, government business as the reason. He also cancelled a scheduled appearance on Thursday of last week.
Everyone is familiar with the powerful committees of the House and the Senate in the United States Congress, which comprise members of both sides and have their origins in the earliest days of the state. The highest functionaries in the land are obliged to appear before some of them if summoned.
In the UK, while standing committees which have the responsibility of studying government legislation before a bill is passed are of older establishment, new independent select committees have been set up in more recent times. These examine the work of government departments, and can invite outsiders to appear before them, summoning them if necessary. To ignore a summons is to invite contempt of court, although that has not happened as yet. The threat of a summons is usually sufficient to secure an appearance, the Murdochs being a case in point.
Our four sectoral committees – Natural Resources, Economic Services, Foreign Relations, Social Services – are also of fairly new vintage, as opposed to the Public Accounts Committee, for example, a standing committee of long-established vintage. One of the ideas behind them is to create a space where MPs from both sides of the House can undertake scrutiny of certain government operations away from the grandstanding of the main floor of the National Assembly, and in a far less tendentious environment. It is in small fora such as these that some serious work can be done, and government held to account.
The fact that the chair is an opposition member, makes a sectoral committee all the more useful, since in that forum a government cannot so easily ride roughshod over any rational concerns which have been expressed, and it becomes possible to make suggestions in a more low-key way. In other words, it should allow for more listening to, than talking at.
It doesn’t really matter if what a committee wants to know is irrelevant or immaterial or tangential; it is the duty of anyone summoned before it to explain why that is so, and address the issues raised. One must assume that in this case Minister Felix is of the view that the questions will not be worth his time, or perhaps even that the opposition has some ulterior motive in raising them. It really doesn’t matter; he is still duty bound to answer them. His answers should elucidate what is going on.
Then again, it may be too that Mr Felix is resisting answering a summons issued by an opposition member – and a Chief Whip at that. If so, it is not just that he is showing disrespect to the chair, above all else he is showing disrespect to our parliamentary system. It is not for him to decide unilaterally that it should be changed; there are processes laid down for that. And it is not for him to decide that he can undermine it by simply ignoring its requirements; that is to compromise our democratic framework.
For her part Ms Teixeira said that the representatives on the foreign affairs committee seemed not to take seriously the critical nature of the national issues awaiting discussion. She compared it with the Natural Resources committee: “It is not just Felix but no government person is available either,” she told Stabroek News. “This Committee should be very important but it seems no one thinks so. The Committee on Natural Resources has their meetings and they get full cooperation with us even seeing Exxon going before them; their Minister is always going to them and yet here we are,” she said.
The electorate waits to see what Minister Felix does now.