KINGSTON –– Opposition parliamentarians walked out of the legislature yesterday, bringing a premature end to both the debate on the proposed new prison and the day’s agenda.
The opposition walked out after Minister of National Security Peter Bunting reacted angrily to a demand from Opposition Leader Andrew Holness that he table the memorandum of understanding (MOU) the government signed with the British government for the prison, or give the House an undertaking not to go through with the proposed £25 million deal, which would involve the transfer of at least 300 Jamaicans in British prisons back to Jamaica to complete their sentences.
The walkout followed a statement from Bunting on the controversial prison transfer proposal, in which the minister accused Holness of acting “sillily” in dealing with the issue by making “a snide and cynical counterpoint that building schools would be better”.
“. . . Which all adds up to a one-dimensional, monochromatic view of the world and Jamaica’s place in it,” Bunting claimed.
Bunting ended by promising the appointment of a special select committee of the House to hear submissions on the prison issue from technical experts and members of the public, including civil society groups.
But that did not calm opposition MPs, who insisted that they would not support the deal offered by the British government.
Things heated up when Holness rose and immediately raised the issue of an article on the British 10 Downing Street (home of the British prime minister) website which, he said, reported that the British government had already signed a deal to send home Jamaican prisoners in Britain to serve their time in a new Jamaican prison.
Holness asked the minister to publicly deny the statement and make a commitment that he would not sign any such agreement.
Bunting responded that he was aware of the statement, but insisted that it was not the case and the matter had been brought to the attention of the British High Commission in Kingston for correction.
Bunting reiterated that he had only signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding.
Holness also referred to another article on the British Treaties website (a database of all treaties signed by the British government), which stated that there was a bilateral agreement from June, 2007, for transferring the prisoners back to Jamaica.
Bunting said that he was not aware of the website, but he had heard that a previous (People’s National Party) administration had signed a “different type of prisoner transfer agreement”, but it was never effected.
He said that, in addition, none of the laws which would need to be amended to facilitate the transfer were changed.
Bunting said he had not signed any other document, other than the recent MOU, which would have laid the foundation for the transfer arrangements.
He said the British government had made an offer, which was contingent on the government of Jamaica signing a prisoner transfer agreement.
“We have said to them that, in order to sign a prisoner transfer agreement, we first have to have legislation which would allow it. So, we have said that we have entered upon a process which, if successful, would see legislation passed, would see the negotiation of a prisoner transfer agreement and possibly then the commencement of construction on the receipt of the funds from the UK,” Bunting explained.
But Holness accused Bunting of being deceptive, and commented that the opposition was not even sure if the special select committee would be set up to hear submissions.
He asked whether Bunting would make available to the House a copy of the MOU with Britain.
Bunting said he would discuss it with the minister of foreign affairs, but that he suspected that the MOU would be made available for the special select committee to examine.
Holness said that the opposition did not expect to await the setting up of the committee, which may never be set up, and that it should come to the House immediately.
In response to Bunting’s suggestion that the opposition seemed to have two positions: one, that there was no support for the agreement; and the other suggesting that it would be accepted with certain conditions, Holness said: “We on this side do not support any such agreement. It is an agreement that is not in the interest of Jamaicans.”
He said that while the British Press had made it clear that the prison transfers would save Britain money, the Jamaican government had not demonstrated what the savings and the benefit to the Jamaican taxpayer would be.
“We say to this government: do not proceed any further with this agreement. And we would want from you, Minister, today, I put it to you, that you would give a commitment today that you will not proceed any further with this agreement,” Holness said.
“I believe the leader of the opposition is being delusional,” Bunting responded, angrily.
“He obviously believes that for the brief period for which he was prime minister he can still continue to give those types of instructions to the cabinet. He is not in that position any more, and I am not taking any instructions from him; and that’s final,” Bunting said.
Holness immediately rose from his seat and walked out of the chamber, followed by the other opposition MPs.