The proposed changes to the Passport Act to be brought to Parliament on Tuesday will not protect persons who may have engaged in illegal activities surrounding the issuing if the travel document, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says.
“The objects and reasons of this bill [are] to amend certain provisions of the existing law to effect better administration of the issuance of passports and to validate certain passport fees,” Gonsalves said on radio this week.
The opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) has objected to the proposed changes, saying they “appear to remove the possibility of bringing legal action against corrupt and unscrupulous passport officers who may have misconducted themselves over the past five years”.
But Gonsalves said this is not the case.
He explained that while Cabinet on Feb. 26 approved fees for the e-passport and those fees came into effect on March 3, the legal provisions were not put in place.
“… as happens from time to time, the new fees were not published or gazetted, so you had to validate them,” said Gonsalves, who has ministerial responsibilities for passports and legal affairs.
“So when they say it means you could sell a passport for $100,000 and you couldn’t do anything about it because it is validated, the fees which are validated are the fees in the schedule,” Gonsalves said.
He noted that Vincentians applying for passports in St. Vincent will pay EC$150, while those applying in the United States will pay US$150.
He said if anyone charges more than those amounts, charges could be brought against them civilly or criminally.
“Because the validation and the immunities relate to the only to the $150, which is the legitimate charge. The validation doesn’t deal with any excess of any charge than is in the schedule,” he said.
He accused the NDP of using “a Goebbels-like technique — to speak falsehoods, repeat the falsehoods frequently enough and loudly enough and they believe that people would believe it”.
Validation of laws is something that has been happening in the country before the Unity Labour Party came to office in 2001, and is done all over the world, Gonsalves further said.
“Because there are times when, administratively, the gazetting or the publication for the statutory rule and order they are not done.”
He further noted that the NDP had said that the amendment would exonerate corruption at the SVG Consulate in New York, where deputy consul-general Edson Augustus was fired earlier this year for taking money from persons and promising to helps them to secure U.S. Permanent Residence Cards.
But Gonsalves said while the Passport Act says the minister can designate a consular officer as a passport officer, his government has never done so.
“… because we said we must have one place to issue passports, it’s here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the Passport officer is the Immigration officer.”
Gonsalves said consular officers only collect fees for the passport and the courier and send them to the Chief Immigration Officer in Kingstown for processing.
After a recent audit of the New York Consulate, the Director of Audit said that fees in excess of the approved amounts were collected there for passport, but Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance has contended that this is not so.
Gonsalves, noted, however, that the Director of Audit did not say that they fees collected were not sent to Kingstown.