The first House of Assembly sitting of 2021 is scheduled to kick off this week with a packed agenda that includes a slew of bills in the digital sphere up for debate, a busy question-and-answer session, and the introduction of several news bills designed in part to help the territory stay abreast of international criminal-justice standards.

E-government bills have been on the backburner after being introduced in the House in December 2019.

At the time, the bills — some of which appeared to be taken nearly verbatim from similarly titled Grenada legislation — drew concern from free-speech advocates about potential censorship and a chilling effect on independent journalism in the territory.

Premier Andrew Fahie said during his November budget address that the House had intended to move forward with the legislation last year but was otherwise occupied with the pandemic.

Those bills and two others related to digital services again came for first readings in November but didn’t reach the de bate floor until now.

Bills coming for a second reading in the HOA meeting starting March 4 include the Data Protection Act, 2019; the Electronic Transfer of Funds Act, 2019; the Electronic Filing Act, 2019; the Electronic Transactions Act, 2019; and the Audio Visual Link (Amendment) Act, 2020.

The Data Protection Act would “establish a legal framework that would ensure the protection of personal data collected and processed by public and private bodies.”

The process for being able to use electronic records in transactions with public authorities would fall under the Electronic Filing Act.

“It would provide flexibility for public authorities to design electronic forms suited for online transactions, and hence improve the customer’s overall e-government experience,” according to the bill text.

On the business side, the Electronic Transactions Act outlines new rules for making sure online commerce is secure. It goes hand-in-hand is the Electronic Transfer of Funds Act, which regulates transferring money online.

The Audio Visual Link Act deals in judicial matters. It would allow the use of digital communications in court “where a public emergency or a health emergency arises.” The chief justice would also have the power to make certain regulations for using electronic communication under the law.

18 new bills

Additionally, the HOA is scheduled to see the first reading of 18 new bills.

This session also brings the return of the question-and-answer portion of the agenda, where members of the opposition are slated to ask about government’s rollout of economic relief for businesses, frontline worker stipends, rebooting the tourism sector, the territory’s overall finances, numerous pending road repairs and more.

Also on the agenda is potentially approving $877,900 for supplementary 2019 budget appropriations and $8,048,589 for 2020 appropriations.

Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley is also scheduled to move a motion to introduce a new nonrefundable fee of $150 for expedited work permits and a motion to appoint Jeanette Scatliffe-Boynes as the Social Security Board acting director.

Inquiry amendment

The House also plans to take action to be able to better comply with the United Kingdom’s ongoing corruption investigation, according to a press release issued Tuesday.

This means amending the Register of Interests Act to “remove any barriers that could prevent members from sharing information held by the registrar of interests,” the release stated, adding, “This course of action will assist the COI to ascertain such information without any legal impediments.”

Following the law’s passage, Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom will be able to openly inspect the register and make page copies after submitting a written request, the release notes.

“It is important to note that amending the Register of Interests Act is something your government sees as essential because we believe in the spirit of cooperation and transparency at all levels,” according to the release.

The register is not open to the public.