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Raffique Shah


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Strip cowardly MPs of immunity

June 04, 2006
By Raffique Shah

Recently, two statements emanating from the Public Accounts (Enterprises) Committee (PAEC) exposed how parliamentarians, using the privilege of immunity from legal action extended to them, can abuse the same. Wittingly or unwittingly, they can cause harm to the character and integrity of ordinary citizens without fear of the latter having recourse through law. And once the damage is done, there is little the aggrieved persons can do to exonerate themselves from the perception that they have committed grave acts of indiscretion, or that they have been involved in corruption.

I am a member of the board of the Plipdeco, a corporation in which the Government owns 51 per cent of its shares, the other 49 per cent being held by financial institutions, the corporation's employees, and by members of the public. In fact, about three years ago Plipdeco was made a public company, so its shares are now traded on the Stock Exchange. For many reasons, not the least of which are the laws that govern the roles and responsibilities of directors of all publicly-traded companies, those who agree to serve on such boards expose themselves to litigation, and are held personally liable for indiscretions or decisions that may be deemed illegal.

Because the PAEC is chaired by a member of the opposition party, it has, in instances, become more akin to an inquisition than to a body that oversees the public's interest in companies or corporations in which they have a stake by virtue of being taxpayers. It should be noted that bodies like Plipdeco are governed by other, regular company laws. This means, for example, that reputable firms are appointed as external auditors, who have the authority to examine the company's accounts at any time.

Such auditors are also authorised to look at all financial transactions of the corporation, and to note irregularities if there are any. If the auditors determine that there are irregularities, they duly note the same, and in a worst-case scenario action can be taken against executive management or directors deemed responsible.

The board of Plipdeco was summoned before the PAEC, as other boards have been, and the parliamentarians sitting on that committee had the right to demand documents and to question directors and executive managers. Over the past few years, appearances before this committee have degenerated into a kind of public circus where directors and managers are verbally abused, made to look like crooks who have nothing better to do than cover up their misdeeds. In Plipdeco's case, given that the corporation is publicly traded, instances will arise where certain documents, if made public, can be misinterpreted for purely political reasons, and impact negatively on the corporation's share price, or even cause a run on the company.

The PAEC is not an investigative body, whatever else its powers may be by virtue of the Constitution. It does not have as members, or even as consultants, persons who are capable of properly investigating matters that may appear to be irregular. Indeed, its members may well be ordinary parliamentarians who have little of no knowledge of procedures used in accounting, purchasing, etc. In Plipdeco's case, when its team appeared before the PAEC, certain members used articles that appeared in newspapers (which are the subject of litigation) to make serious allegations against the corporation's directors.

Worse than that, its final report contained aspersions that were wholly misleading, and which only brought directors and executive managers into further disrepute. One member of the PAEC used her newspaper column to cast even more doubt over some aspects of the corporation's activities. Clearly, when the PAEC was set up under the Republican Constitution of 1976, the intent was not to act as the Inquisition of yesteryear, but as a body that would look after the public's interest where public funds are being injected and expended.

Regrettably, much the way Parliament has degenerated into a rumshop in which old talk takes pride of place over reasoned debate, the PAEC has been allowed to descend into a dark chamber of fear. Instead of directors and executive managers of public companies wanting to appear before it to show just how well they are performing, or expecting to be censored if they performed badly, they view its summons as the executioner's call.

If our highest institutions are seen to act in such unbecoming manner, is it any wonder the wider society is descending into chaos? Parliamentarians, using the cloak of immunity, can slander any member of society and get away scot-free. If they dare step out of their privileged crease and make the same statements, they would end up facing litigation. But much the way cowardly bandits and murderers derive power from the illegal guns with which they attack defenceless citizens our parliamentarians wield the power of immunity to intimidate those who volunteer to serve. The cry for constitution reform should be used to disarm these miscreants, to make them accountable for their unbridled mouths.