We explain what a COI is and why WP/MOH are having a catfight over it

What in the world is a COI and why is it coveted?

By Jonathan Lim | October 26, 2015

TLDR version: The Workers’ Party (WP) has issued a statement calling for the Independent Review Committee looking into the Hepatitis C outbreak at the Singapore General Hospital to be reconstituted as a Committee of Inquiry (COI), with a High Court Judge as a member of the committee.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) responded to media queries and said “the Government will convene a COI provided the WP is prepared to lead evidence before the COI, to substantiate whatever allegations it might have.”

WP’s Leon Perera, in a Facebook post, responded to that and said “our statement did not impute any improper motives to SGH or MOH officers.”

MOH, in its latest one-liner statement addressing Perera’s Facebook post, said, “We had made clear we are prepared to convene a COI provided WP is prepared to lead evidence.  Mr Pereira (sic) doesn’t say if WP will and he had also confirmed he is making no allegation.”

 

The-slightly-long-but-will-tell-you-what-exactly-a-COI-is version: In the WP’s statement, the crux of why WP wanted to call for a COI instead of the review committee was because WP believed that “the outbreak and the government’s response to it have exposed potential gaps in our public health protection protocols. ”

WP also noted that COIs were called for the Dec. 15 and 17, 2011 MRT breakdowns and the Dec. 8, 2013 Little India Riot and the deliberations of the COI made public “to strengthen public confidence in the security and public transport systems respectively.”

It then said that “Hepatitis C outbreak is at least as grave an incident as the MRT breakdowns and Little India riot” and asked for a COI to be convened to look into the outbreak.

Lastly, WP noted that members of the review committee are “currently serving clinicians in public healthcare institutions… these individuals are effectively being asked to critique the actions of senior civil servants who oversee and administer government policy that affects their work as clinicians… this would place members of the review committee in an awkward position.”

WP called for a COI to include members who are “retired clinicians and healthcare administrators in the committee and the appointment of a retired healthcare administrator or clinician as co-chair. We further suggest that one of the committee’s members be a person qualified to be a Judge of the High Court, as required by the Inquiries Act should the committee be reconstituted as a COI.”

MOH has responded to this by saying that “the Government will convene a COI provided the WP is prepared to lead evidence before the COI, to substantiate whatever allegations it might have.”

MOH had earlier announced on Oct. 6 that an Independent Review Committee will look into the processes of SGH and MOH during the hep C outbreak and would present its findings to the public in two months’ time.

 

What is a Committee of Inquiry? Is it more powerful than an Independent Review Committee?

According to the Inquiries Act, a COI is convened when a Minister needs to inquire into:

(a) any accident or occurrence resulting in or involving death, serious personal injury or serious property damage;
(b) any occurrence that may endanger public safety or public health;
(c) the conduct or management of a ministry, department or statutory body falling under the responsibility of that Minister; or
(d) the conduct of any officer employed by or seconded to any such ministry, department or statutory body.

The Minister also appoints the people on the committee, which can be just one person, and must always consist of one District Judge. On this count, WP may have made an error stating that a High Court Judge is required – this requirement only applies when the President calls for a Commission of Inquiry, not Committee of Inquiry.

Being part of the Inquiries Act, a COI is conferred several “powers” under the Act.

An Independent Review Committee, on the other hand, is similar to your annual dinner & dance (D&D) organising committee in a way – you can’t use the law to ‘force’ anyone to do anything.

Here are the inquiry powers of a COI from the Inquiries Act (we highlighted some points we think are noteworthy):

(2) For the purposes of conducting an inquiry under this Act, the inquiry body shall have powers to —
(a) procure and receive all such evidence, written or oral, as the inquiry body may think it necessary or desirable to procure;
(b) examine all such persons as witnesses as the inquiry body may think it necessary or desirable to examine, and determine the order in which those witnesses shall be examined;
(c) require the evidence (whether written or oral) of any witness to be made on oath or affirmation (such oath or affirmation to be that which could be required of the witness if he were giving evidence in a court) or by statutory declaration;
(d) summon any person in Singapore to attend any meeting of the inquiry body to do all or any of the following:
(i) give evidence;
(ii)produce any document, record or other thing in his custody or under his control;
(e) issue a warrant of arrest to compel the attendance of any person who, after having been summoned to attend, fails to do so, and does not excuse such failure to the satisfaction of the inquiry body, and order him to pay all costs which may have been occasioned in compelling his attendance or by reason of his refusal to obey the summons; and
(f) require a witness to execute a bond binding himself to attend when called upon before the inquiry body to give evidence.

As you can see from the above, a COI is pretty powerful in getting answers.

You certainly cannot issue a warrant for your colleague’s arrest if he/she does not want to turn up for a meeting to decide what this year’s D&D prizes are. Similarly, the Independent Review Committee by MOH are not conferred such powers.

People interviewed by a COI have to be under an oath or affirmation or make a statutory declaration that whatever they say is true to their knowledge.

During a COI, people caught lying under oath “shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years or to both.”

On the flip side, lying to your D&D organising committee chairman about how wonderful his/her taste in banquet decorations is will not attract a jail sentence or fine.

 

We guess why COIs for the Little India Riot and MRT breakdown were convened

Imagine if only “powerless” review committees were convened for both incidents.

The Little India riot COI heard from 93 witnesses before producing its report. Would a review committee have been able to summon 93 witnesses who would come forward voluntarily, especially if a number of them were foreign construction workers who are needed at the construction yard? Having the force of law would be helpful in this scenario.

For the case of the MRT breakdown, a private company is involved. A review committee may not have power to demand whatever information they deem necessary to their review, a COI does. We are not saying SMRT would not have complied and cooperated fully with aiding with investigations, we are just saying having the law behind the COI makes information gathering much more clear cut.

 

Is a COI on the Hepatitis C outbreak necessary?

That’s the crux of the entire argument.

To aid you in answering this question, we offer a few more questions for you to consider.

Is the Independent Review Committee, appointed by MOH, going to have a tough time getting information from MOH and SGH — a government-run hospital?

Is the committee going to have a hard time reaching out to patients involved? Do they need the powers of a COI to get them to talk?

Will SGH and MOH refuse to cooperate fully with the review committee?

Do you trust MOH, SGH, and this current Independent Review Committee?

If you answered “no” to the last question, will a COI appointed by the Minister of Health make any difference?

 

Related articles:

Straits Times editor apologises for insinuating public service’s delay in Hep C outbreak disclosure politically motivated

5 important questions we hope the MOH review on the Hep C outbreak can answer

 

Top image via Wikipedia

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