JUSTICE Minister Mark Golding on Friday agreed to the inclusion of Andrew Holness on the National Disaster Risk Management Council (NDRMC) after Opposition senators voiced concern about the make-up of the council in the Upper House.

The Opposition criticised the omission of Holness — the leader of the Opposition — from the list of almost 40 persons who are to sit on the council, chaired by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, claiming that it was open to a partisan approach to disaster risk management.

The issue was the main stand taken by Opposition members as the Senate debated and approved the Disaster Risk Management Act on Friday, which they welcomed in general.

The new Act will authorise the appointment of a director general at the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), who will give effect to the decisions of the NDRMC, including requiring public officers to respond and assist, request vehicles, plant, and equipment owned by any public body and determine their use and deployment. The ODPEM is also to be transformed into a corporate body.

The Opposition members were concerned because the bill gives the council extensive powers, including to:

* legally evacuate people identified to be at risk, as a preventative measure;

* identify high-risk areas as "specially vulnerable areas" and the actions to be taken in respect of such areas; and

* authorise public officers, including the police, the military, the fire brigade, and health personnel to respond to disasters.

Opposition Senator Robert Montague, who raised the issue, said that, according to the second schedule of the bill, the council will also consist of the minister responsible for disaster preparedness (currently the minister of local government and community development) as deputy chairman; all other ministers of government; and approximately 35 other public servants, as well as "other persons as the chairman may appoint".

Towards the close of the debate, Leader of Opposition Business Tom Tavares-Finson noted that the Opposition took "very seriously" Montague's recommendation on the composition of the council which, he noted, has been given far-reaching powers to preserve the country's infrastructure.

"Section 26 gives the council extensive powers which, in fact, affect the constitutional rights of the citizens, as you are giving the council powers to relocate persons and to impose evacuation against citizens' will," Tavares-Finson pointed out.

"May I suggest, therefore, to the honourable minister, that he accepts the suggestion by Senator Montague, which we all support, to have the leader of the Opposition, or his representative, on the council, because one does not want the impression to be given that the chairman, who is the prime minister, is taking such decisions without consultation with the leader of the Opposition," he pointed out.

He said that if the leader of the Opposition, or his representative, is on the council, "it will remove the notion that there is any political motive in any evacuation order".

Responding to the Opposition senators, as he closed the debate, Senator Golding said the Government would have no difficulty with including the leader of the Opposition on the council.

"We will add the leader of the Opposition to the list," Golding responded. However, he said that it would have to be the leader, and not someone representing him.

Golding claimed that the general secretaries of both the governing People's National Party and the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party were already on the council. However, the second schedule of the new bill, which lists the people and institutions which will constitute the council, does not include the parties' general secretaries.

Among the other people listed are: the chief of defence staff of the Jamaica Defence Force; the commissioner of police; commissioner of corrections; commissioner of the Jamaica Fire Brigade; the financial secretary; the president of the National Water Commission; the director general of the Planning Institute of Jamaica; the CEOs of the National Environment and Planning Agency, the Jamaica Public Service Company; and the executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority.

Section 26 of the Bill, which Tavares-Finson addressed, states that: where the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) reports to the responsible minister the existence of any local condition tending to endanger public safety; or any part of Jamaica appears to be threatened with or affected by a natural or anthropogenic hazard, measures apart from, or in addition to those specifically provided for in this Act, should be taken promptly.

The minister then has a duty to report this to the prime minister, who may, by order published in a daily newspaper published and circulating in Jamaica, or by other broadcast media (a) declare the whole or any part of Jamaica to be a disaster area or a threatened area and the Order shall be published in the Gazette; (b) direct the enforcement of any measures recommended by ODPEM or any measures that the prime minister thinks expedient for (i) removing or otherwise guarding against such condition or hazard and the probable consequences thereof, or (ii) mitigating, as far as possible, any such condition or hazard; (c) require the whole or any part of a declared area to be evacuated.

In addition, any order made under this sub-section shall remain in force until the end of the period specified therein.

The bill was eventually unanimously passed by the Senate with eight amendments.

It was passed in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, October 7, piloted by Local Government and Community Development Minister Noel Arscott.

"It transcends the emphasis on preparedness and captures the comprehensive disaster risk reduction aspects of contemporary disaster management practices," Arscott said then.

He noted that the bill also provides for a framework where people can be evacuated as a preventative measure, and facilitates the establishment of a National Disaster Fund.

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