This bill, which was passed along with several others, was debated at length during the first sitting of the Upper House for the year 2024.
by Marco Lopez
BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Feb. 8, 2024
Eight bills and the ratification of an amendment to a clause in a treaty encompassed the business of the Senate today. The upper house of parliament met for the first time in 2024 – to debate the bills passed by the House of Representatives last week Friday.
Before the commencement of the business, however, some housekeeping had to be done by the President of the Senate, Carolyn Trench Sandiford.
This is relating to a matter raised by UDP Senator, Michael Peyrefitte, in a letter addressed to the president questioning whether Lead Government Senator, Eamon Courtenay, was authorized to hold that post within the Senate following his resignation as the Minister of Immigration.
According to President Sandiford, Senator Peyrefitte’s argument revolved around the notion that the leader of government business must be a sitting minister of government. Relying on the advice of the Attorney General, this query was put to rest by the president, who noted that statute and precedent outline no need for the leader of government business in the senate to be a minister or member of Cabinet.
Belize ratifies amendment to Treaty of Tlatelolco
The Government of Belize has moved to ratify the amendment to paragraph two of article 25 of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco).
“The original Treaty paragraph had excluded political entities ‘part or all of which whose territory’ is in dispute with ‘an extra-continental country and one or more Latin American States’ prior to the opening of signature of the Treaty,” the treaty document found in the US State Department’s archive states.
This excluded Belize and Guyana, who both have territorial disputes with Guatemala and Venezuela, respectively, from membership in the treaty. The amendment sought to provide for the inclusion of those states when they attained independence. Today, the Senate, after almost 30 years, finally ratified this amendment, bringing Belize into compliance as a contracting party to the treaty.
This was passed in the Senate without objection.
Bills brought from the House
The Summary Jurisdiction Offenses Act Amendment and an amendment to the Criminal Code were both passed in the Senate during today’s sitting. The amendment to the Summary Jurisdiction Offense Act seeks to upgrade penalties for the use-of-threatening-words offense from a petty to a serious offense. The changes to the criminal code seek to expand the definition of aggravated assault, and increase the penalty for the threat of death and similar offenses.
Lead Opposition Senator, Michael Peyrefitte shared that, while he has no qualms with the implementation of strong penalties, the changes to the criminal code, to him, seemed to give carte blanche authority for officials named within the Act to hold persons accountable for words said even in private settings.
He suggested that the legislation, which speaks to the use of profane, obscene, and indecent language, seeks to legislate morality within society.
Senator Kevin Herrera, representative of the business community, said that he feels that the protected persons should be expanded. Noting many instances where school-age children are heckled and harassed on the street while going to and from school, he noted that elderly persons are also often at risk of verbal abuse.
Senator of the NGO community, Janelle Chanona said that NGO personnel may also benefit from this protection.
Senator Elena Smith, representing the Unions, questioned how these offenses, which speak to the spoken word, would be proven.
“We feel that, while we understand the purpose of the bill, and while it is that we want to ensure that we are not encouraging our citizens, threatening others, and doing all these sorts of things, we have to be very careful that putting this portion in here, is not going to affect people’s right in terms of the right to freedom of speech,” Senator Smith said.
Government Business Senator, Eamon Courtenay said that while the concerns raised are legitimate, this iteration of the bill reduces the scope of what was already on the law books.
He noted that as it stood, the law extended these protections to all persons, and not only the specific public servants named in this new piece of legislation.
Both these bills were passed.
Bill to increase mandatory school-age passed
The debate in the Senate on the Education and Training Amendment Bill featured the same arguments for and against this piece of legislation as was seen in the lower house. While senators supported this move to legislate the mandatory school age for all children in Belize to be fixed at 16 from 14-years-old, concerns about the resources and frameworks to keep children in school were raised.
Senator Elena Smith, a career teacher, said that the country has to be mindful of what is in place to capture the interest and values of children not drawn to academics, but other technical and vocational areas pivotal for society.
She questioned if the institutions in place would have the capacity to cater to what may be an influx of school-aged children seeking varying opportunities in education.
For her part, Senator Chanona noted that this move by the government to increase the mandatory school age must be applauded. The cost of going to school, however, must also be taken into consideration. While the government has put in place various programs to provide resources for students to attend classes, Senator Chanona notes at least one instance of familial trafficking to fund the education of the child.
Most times, girl children are at risk of this abuse.
For the government’s part, Senator Chris Coye said that this move is a small but critical part of the overall education strategy of the government. The Millennium Challenge Corporation funding will provide about $150 million towards the Skills for the Future Program, according to Coye.
National Women’s Commission officially established
The National Women’s Commission was officially legislated during today’s sitting of the Senate. Government senators saw this as a formality, noting that the commission has existed since just after independence. But Senator Peyrefitte hinted at more insidious motives of cronyism.
He suggested that the legislating of this commission was a way for the government to create high-paying posts for the proponents. He and various other senators spoke on extensive ministerial powers within the bill – allowing the minister to select the 13 commission members, an executive director, prescribe salaries, and more.
Senator Chanona supported the bill, but also took note that the appointments are given on the recommendation of the minister – a departing from this administration’s commitment to reduce ministerial oversight.
The NTUCB representative, Senator Smith, shared that the unions are concerned that this new commission is simply adding to the wage bill and budget.
Senator Courtenay, in his rebuttal to the concerns, reiterated the long existence of the commission since 1982 – adding that all the roles and functions of the commission already exist, and that the purpose of legislation is to formally provide a legal structure for the body.
Families and Children’s Act conundrum
A hotly debated bill in today’s sitting of the Senate was the amendment to the Families and Children Act triggered by a recent court ruling. The courts ruled in a case last year that men separated from a marriage or common-law union were not obliged to maintain non-biological children.
This amendment also notes that the grandfather of children whose parents are not able to take care of them is obliged to maintain his grandchildren. This provision rubbed various senators the wrong way, with Senator Peyrefitte calling on the government to correct what he classifies as an obvious lacuna in the court’s judgment.
“If you have a child as an adult, your responsibility is to that child; you cannot transfer that to another individual,” Senator Peyrefitte said.
“We, in our society, grandparents play a huge role in the rearing and caring for children; but now you are making it by law that they have to. How? We have an opportunity – I don’t care if that is the law now; I don’t care if that is what the high court said; we have an opportunity to fix it now. We are parliament,” Peyrefitte said.
For Senator Herrera’s part, he feels that this bill will not have the desired effect, and may very well let the biological parents who are not a part of the child’s life off the hook, in the event that a non-biological parent is forced to maintain a child while in a union.
Senator Chanona said plainly that it is a conversation about sex – and one that the nation is still uncomfortable having – resulting in countless children “left at the mercy of the world”, she said.
The senator looked at the economic cost to the taxpayer resulting from the irresponsible decision of persons who “shack up” or conceive children with no intention to take responsibility.
This bill was also passed.
Besides these, the Harbors and Merchant Shipping Amendment Bill 2023, the Private Security and Investigation Services Control Bill 2024, and the National Accreditation Council of Belize 2023 were also passed.
On adjournment, PUP appointed senator, Bevin Cal made a call to the Maya people of southern Belize, his kinsfolk, to educate themselves on the ongoing Maya Land Rights developments. He says that he respects the decisions of all members of the communities, and used the opportunity to invite citizens from his home community of Big Falls to make it out to the government consultation that will take place on Sunday, February 11.