Parliament late Tuesday passed a revised amendment to the Passport Act, with the opposition voting against the bill although Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves made changes that they had suggested.
“We are voting against it,” Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace maintained after Gonsalves made an incursion into financing of the opposition New Democratic Party towards the end of the debate.
The amendment validates the e-passports issued and fees collected since February 2014, when the new travel document was launched, outside of the relevant legislative framework.
“Mr. Speaker, I have no hidden agenda on this, neither does the government,” Gonsalves maintained after a full day of debate on the controversial amendment.
“And I am prepared in the committee of the whole House to put in the 3rd of March  for the issuance of the passport for the validation, and for the fees, the 26th of February ,” said Gonsalves, who has ministerial responsibilities for passports.
“I will do that and I will put the opposition on their own to see if they were involved in pure drama or they are serious with the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he further told Parliament.
Gonsalves was earlier forced to admit that there were 10-year passports still in circulation, although the government stop issuing travel documents for that duration since 2005 and set 2007 as the cut off point for their use.
“The number of existing 10-year passports, I do not have the number to tell you,” he said in response to a question from Eustace.
But the prime minister pointed out that none of these passports were issued after 2007.
“I put out this challenge: If the opposition can … bring anybody after the first of June 2005 with a new 10-year passport issued, but prior to the 3rd of March 2014, Iill make a contribution to the Leader of the Opposition, to your party, $100,000, which would be half of what I am collecting from somebody on the opposition who has defamed me,” Gonsalves said.
“We don’t want any money from the prime minister for the New Democratic party. Full stop!” Eustace retorted.
“What we want is a confirmation of the 10-year passports that are out there,” Eustace said.
The opposition had earlier argued that the proposed amendment, before the revision, had sought to exonerate persons at the country’s consulate in New York who might have engaged in illegal activities surrounding the issuing of Vincentian passports.
Speaking on radio after the bill was passed on Tuesday, Eustace said opposition lawmakers “don’t trust that piece of legislation”.
Eustace said opposition lawmakers were against “the idea of forgiving people before you know if they did wrong and acquitting them.
“We were concerned that this was very open handed…” he said, noting that some persons still had 10-year passports that were issued before 2005.
“And the prime minister claims that they are not many and if they come here they will take them away and so on. The point is, they are out there. And I don’t know if people have them for diplomatic purposes, I don’t know on what basis they have them, and therefore they can put us in difficulties in any country.”
Eustace noted the recent case of an Iranian who entered Canada on a St. Kitts and Nevis diplomatic passport.
“So we felt the climate was not the right time to be doing this,” Eustace said, adding that indemnity should only applied to the e-passports, issued from February 2014.
He said some of the passports issued before 2005 are still valid and their holders can commit acts and embarrass St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“So, we were concerned about that. And if you are going to forgive people, taking actions on those passports, what image are we sending to the international community?”
Eustace said opposition lawmakers voted against the amendment because they “were not still satisfied” even after the Prime Minister’s revision.
“… we don’t know what happened between 2007 and 2014 with 10-year passports that are out there.
And he had to admit today that there are some 10-year passports still out there,” Eustace said.
“So when they did the bill in the first case, they ignored all of that. There are people who are out there with those passports and that is why we were objecting so much, because if you go back all the way to 2007 and say if any passport officer did anything wrong he is forgiven, we found that unacceptable and an avenue for corruption.
“And we still feel it is an avenue for corruption is it is not handled properly with respect to the 10-year passports, although they say they have notified the various governments that those passports can’t be valid anymore.
“I don’t believe that, I don’t know that, because I have heard so many things from this government in the past. So, today, he amended the bill to put in the two things that I suggested this morning. But I was still not satisfied, because I asked the question in my debate, ‘What happens to the 10-year passports that were issued since 2007?’”