(UPDATED) Opposition MPs: We were silenced during committee meeting

Government and Opposition MPs at the ceremonial opening of the 12th Parliament at the Red House in August last year. - OFFICE OF THE PARLIAMENT
Government and Opposition MPs at the ceremonial opening of the 12th Parliament at the Red House in August last year. - OFFICE OF THE PARLIAMENT

THE very first virtual sitting of the Standing Finance Committee (SFC) of the House of Representatives ended in an uproar on Monday, with Opposition MPs bitterly complaining that a colleague's mike had been muted. But Government chief whip Camille Robinson-Regis countered that they were behaving as if they were operating in a fish market.

As the committee ended its examination of figures ahead of Wednesday’s mid-year budget review, Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein grumbled, "This is totally unfair! Just now the population will mute this Government. This is an erosion of our democracy."

It began when Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George rounded up the business of the Ministry of Agriculture, but Couva North MP Ravi Ratiram was seen trying to speak yet his voice was not audible.

Ratiram complained that his query had been ignored.

"Madam chair, my hand was up."

Annisette-George introduced the next item – the Ministry of Social Development.

Ratiram shot, "This is unacceptable, Madam chair. This is totally wrong."

St Augustine MP Khadijah Ameen chimed in to lend him support.

Ratiram continued, "Madam chair, this is unacceptable. My hand was up."

The Speaker said, "Can you kindly put on your mike?", but she then recognised another MP.

Chaguanas East MP Vandana Mohit and then Moruga/Tableland MP Michelle Benjamin posed questions to Minister of Social Development Donna Cox who said talks were ongoing with the Finance Ministry as to whether construction workers will get the salary relief grant. "No final decision has been made."

Even as Cox gave her replies, Ratiram again sought to be heard and complained of getting muted.

The Speaker advised MPs to send further questions in writing.

Hosein, with his audio fading in and out, asked for a guarantee that such questions would be answered, even as Annisette-George continued talking to put the question to the committee to approve the extra spending on social development.

The hearing erupted into a melee of angry voices of Opposition MPs alleging they had been muted.

Soon afterwards the proceedings went off air, but Newsday did not hear any formal adjournment amid the noise.

A UNC source told Newsday the party would write a letter to the Speaker over the abrupt end of the sitting and the possible infringement of the rights of opposition MPs.

"The Opposition has a duty to investigate and to ask pertinent questions at the SFC on behalf of our constituents and the taxpayers. The Opposition is not a rubber stamp on the Government."

The source complained that it was only at 7.45 pm that MPs were told the committee would sit until 8.05 pm, even though major heads such as agriculture and social services were pending.

"The Opposition wasn't able to get to prosecute these heads. There was still some critical questioning to be done."

Newsday contacted the Speaker who offered no comment on UNC MPs' complaints of being muted.

She was asked if the sitting had faded out amid an uproar, or had been formally closed.

Annisette-George said, "It was a Standing Finance Committee meeting, and it ended in accordance with that, where I announced that the meeting is adjourned and that the sitting following the meeting would take place on a particular date at a particular time.

"I did all that I was required to do as the chairman of the committee."

Robinson-Regis on Tuesday expressed her full confidence in Annisette-George and accused UNC MPs of disgraceful conduct during the virtual meeting.

"They were very disrespectful. That was a committee meeting of the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago, so the standing orders continued to be in effect.

“They were totally disrespectful. They behaved in a matter that was dishonourable to the Speaker and to the House of Representatives.

"Our meeting began at 1.30 pm and the Speaker had been quite liberal with them, to the point where they were asking questions that were sometimes had to be ruled irrelevant or repetitive."

Robinson-Regis said at about 6.30 pm she and Energy Minister Stuart Young had each separately sent messages to the House Clerk for the Speaker's attention.

"We appealed for empathy for parliamentary staff because the curfew would be in effect from 9 pm, so staff needed to get home.

“We were in our offices with staff. The Speaker also had staff at the Parliament, so they needed to get home at a reasonable hour. However, the Members of the Opposition – a number of them, were at their homes, so it didn't matter to them and they didn't have enough empathy for the staff."

Robinson-Regis said many Opposition questions could have been put in writing.

"We gave the undertaking we would respond, in writing, before the debate on Monday."

Newsday asked how the allocation of MPs' speaking time by switching mikes on or off was regulated.

"Remember the Speaker is in control of the committee meeting. She chairs the meeting.

"The Speaker on more than one occasion said MPs are given five minutes to ask their questions. That is part of the standing orders.

"I would not know if people were being muted, but that is part of the standing orders. Members cannot be so disrespectful to the Speaker and show no care for the standing orders of the Parliament."

Newsday asked whether Parliament should have got curfew passes for staff to be able to travel home at a later time.

Robinson-Regis said, "My information is that at this point they don't have curfew passes. The Parliament arranges for staff to be taken home. They have a taxi service that deals with that. They (taxis) would take them home, then they (the drivers) have to get home."

Asked if the meeting could have begun at 10 am, Robinson-Regis said, "Perhaps, but it could not have been." She did not explain why not.

She said the starting hour did not justify the Opposition's conduct.

"When the Opposition MPs started to get raucous was at the end of the session, so where they say they were not given an opportunity to ask questions, it is not true. In fact we in the Government thought the Speaker was giving them quite a lot of latitude.

“She did insist she'd end at 8.05 pm, and then they became really out of place and out of hand."

Newsday asked Parliament communication manager Colleen Holder whether the Speaker or Parliament staff controls the button to select/mute a speaker, and whether she knew of glitches or complaints. She replied, "I don't have any comment on any of those questions. I have not been directed to speak about those things. I haven't received any information. Unfortunately at this point we have no comment."

This story was originally published with the title "UNC MPs complain of mics being muted" and has been adjusted to include additional details. See original post below.

OPPOSITION MPs complained bitterly of having their microphones being muted when they tried to speak at the first ever virtual sitting of the Standing Finance Committee of the House of Representatives on Monday.

A frustrated Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein declared, "This is totally unfair! Just now the population will mute this Government. This is an erosion of our democracy!"

The committee was examining figures presented ahead of the Mid Year Review due on Wednesday.

Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George rounded up the business of the Ministry of Agriculture, but Couva North MP Ravi Ratiram was seen trying to speak, yet no sound was audible.

He then complained that his query had been ignored. "Madam chair, my hand was up," he complained.

Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George introduced the next item, the Ministry of Social Development.

Ratiram shot, "This is unacceptable, madam chair. This is totally wrong."

St Augustine MP Khadijah Ameen chimed in to lend him support.

Ratiram continued, "Madam chair, this is unacceptable. My hand was up."

The Speaker said, "Can you kindly put on your mike?" but she then recognised another MP.

Chaguanas East MP Vandana Mohit and then Moruga/Tableland MP Michelle Benjamin posed questions to Minister of Social Development Donna Cox, leading the latter to say talks were ongoing with the Finance Ministry as to whether construction workers would be given the salary relief grant. "No final decision has been made."

Even as Cox gave her replies, Ratiram again sought to be heard, complaining of being muted.

The Speaker advised MPs to send further questions in writing.

Hosein, with his mike fading in and out, sought clarification to ask if such questions would each be guaranteed an answer, even as Annisette-George continued talking to put the question to the committee to approve the extra spending on social development.

The hearing erupted into a melee of angry voices of opposition MPs alleging they had been muted.

"This is unacceptable. The public needs to see what is happening here," Hosein shot.

Ratiram chided, "This is a total sham." Ameen grumbled.

Soon afterwards, the proceedings went off air, without any formal adjournment.

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"(UPDATED) Opposition MPs: We were silenced during committee meeting"

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