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Government, Opposition step up anti-crime exchanges in Parliament

BY BALFORD HENRY
Senior staff reporter
balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, June 19, 2017

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WITH the current crime situation a matter of grave concern to the public, the issues are being given prime consideration in the House of Representatives.

Last week Prime Minister Andrew Holness led the charge by opening debate on his own Bill — The National Identification and Registration Act, 2017 — which is to facilitate the establishment of a national identification system (NIDS) supporting “secure, reliable and robust” verification and authentication of all citizens and people who are ordinarily resident in Jamaica by 2107.

The measures include a national identification number to be issued to each person, as well as: a national civil and identification database with the personal identity data for all citizens and people ordinarily resident in Jamaica; and a card that will bear a unique number, as well as the holder's name, address and signature.

The database will be built from scratch, as people are issued the new cards, and therefore will not rely solely on other sources which may have historical or other errors. But, before the entry is confirmed, it will be checked against databases such as passports, driver's licence and immigration records.

It will also link each individual's record to a biometric that is unique to that person. The database will, therefore, be a single highly reliable record of a person's identity and will be built using best practices in countering identity fraud.

The prime minister pointed out that while the Bill is not a focused national crime-fighting measure, it is expected to be an important crime-fighting tool, in terms of its ability to confirm the true identity of citizens. In addition, the Jamaican police force has been consistently calling for a proper national identification system, to assist them in identifying suspects.

Holness pointed out, in opening the debate, that the new Act will only verify citizens' identity in response to requests for information, and would not share additional information with the person making the request.

He said that the staff of the new National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), which will replace the Registrar General's Department (RGD), will receive specialised training to ensure that they carry out their duties in keeping with established security protocols and procedures.

“We propose stiff penalties for a breach of these protocols and procedures. It should be noted that every member of the board of NIRA and the staff shall, prior to and during their appointment, be subject to periodic security clearance and background checks, as prescribed in the regulations which will be developed,” he stated.

Prior to the prime minster opening the debate on the NIDS Bill, Minister of National Security Robert Montague made a statement to the House on Tuesday, in which he explained additional crime-fighting measures being implemented or improved.

He said that, as part of the improvements, the police will release a list of wanted persons and persons of interest.

“And, we are asking members of the public who have information to use any of the channels to anonymously pass on information. They may download the Stay Alert app from the Google or Apple Store, call Crime Stop, or write the information, place it in an envelope, mark an 'X' on it and drop it in the mailbox at any post office,” Montague said.

He said that the security forces would be strategically increasing their presence in the public space; there will be roadblocks, curfews, and cordon and search operations.

“I urge members of the public who may be inconvenienced by this increase in security operations to exercise patience and understanding, and to cooperate with the security forces,” he added.

In terms of parliamentary action, Montague noted that the Government was far advanced in terms of introducing amendments to the Firearms Act.

He noted that the Special Measures Act is already being reviewed by a Joint Select Committee (JSC) of Parliament. That committee, chaired by Justice Minister Delroy Chuck, has already had its preliminary meeting and has started seeking submissions on the provisions of the Bill.

“I am urging the quick passage of that Act, to enable the police to clear, hold and build specific communities that are of interest,” Montague stated.

Consequent to this Act, he said, there will be amendments to the anti-gang legislation which will allow the police to apply to the courts and designate criminal organisations, seek Control Orders for members of these organisations and make it an offence to be a gang member. The Bail Act will also be amended by the Ministry of Justice.

Opposition spokesman on National Security Peter Bunting, in responding to Montague's statement, raised a number of issues including the effect of the high attrition rate on the strength of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).

He noted that the just released Economic and Social Survey 2016, published by the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), revealed that there was an attrition rate of 500 in the JCF last year, while only a little over 600 people were recruited over the same period.

“So, we are really almost just treading the water, and if we are to fill this gap between the strength of the force and the establishment, we really need to have a much more aggressive recruitment effort,” he said, while admitting that he was aware the financial implications for the budget.

The minister responded that by admitting that the JCF was 30 per cent below the establishment. However, he said that his ministry had started a very aggressive recruitment drive.

“But, what we found was that, while we moved to increase the recruitment, we had nowhere to put them,” Montague explained.

“We had to pause and repair the dormitories, including those at Harman Barracks, which were closed,” he added.

He said that the plan now is to add 50 dorms to Harman Barracks to bring the total there to 200, and with two intakes per year, be able to recruit 400 people per year.

He noted that in terms of Twickenham Park, where there are 300 dorms, the intention is to increase the figure to 650 so that with two intakes there also, they would be able to double that number of recruits, as well.

Montague said that regarding the attrition rate, the ministry has found that the main issue for the police is the conditions under which they work, and not necessarily their salaries.

He said that there had been major improvements to 17 stations last year, and 30 more were slated for similar improvements this year. But, there is also a programme of minor repairs to the stations islandwide.

Bunting also raised the issue of the police publishing only the names of persons of interest/suspects without pictures, and sometimes using only the aliases of these persons, in the media.

“It doesn't really help the average person to have only a name. They need the picture,” he pointed out.

He said that he was aware that there were legal concerns about using pictures, and the relationship to identification parades. However, he pointed out that pictures were being used by the police in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

He said that he had faced the problem with the use of pictures during his tenure as minister, and he realised that even now, in the majority of cases, pictures of these persons of interest/suspects were not being made available to the media.

He said that if it needed legislation to allow the process, the Opposition would be willing to support an amendment.

Montague admitted that there were legal implications, and that defence lawyers often opposed the use of pictures in relation to a person of interest having to eventually face an identification parade.

Bunting also expressed his concern about the four-month delay between the prime minister's announcement that the Special Measures Act was forthcoming, and its tabling and reference to a joint select committee.

“We need to deal with it with more urgency. If the public is looking on and see we have to wait four months for the first meeting of a Joint Select Committee, they are not going to feel that we have a sense of urgency in this,” he said.

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