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Good Samaritan Act provides holiday cheer

Kim Wilson, the Shadow Minister for Health

In a rare political event, the Good Samaritan (Food Donation) Act 2015 proposed by Kim Wilson, the Shadow Minister for Health, passed in the House of Assembly with no Members of Parliament objecting to its passage.

The new act aims to provide protection against liability for organisations that donate food to the needy, and supporters of the legislation believe it will mean that restaurants, hotels and supermarkets that prepare food will feel able to donate leftovers to charity.

Premier Michael Dunkley and Marc Bean, the Leader of the Opposition, expressed thanks to their parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House for working together and co-operating on the bill.

Late last night, Mr Dunkley, in a press release stated: “Collaboration is not just some buzzword. Today’s session proves that, in spite of our differences, there is room to respect good ideas.

“The bill is not perfect but the principle is something on which both sides agreed. We did not vote against the bill because anything that potentially helps those in need should not be held up because of flaws in drafting or other issues. It’s Bermuda first always.”

The passage of the bill was unexpected and came after nearly three hours of debate with government members arguing against the need for additions to the standing legislation — the Volunteer Liability Act 2000.

The Premier said that the existing legislation “did the trick,” arguing there was very little leftover food available from restaurants and supermarkets.

He also reminded MPs of the risks of food production, citing the recent case of fatally contaminated Blue Bell Ice Cream.

Without warning, at the end of the debate, political manoeuvring provided the impetus for Ms Wilson to propose further amendments, which would have given protection to food distributors.

She later withdrew those amendments, and the original bill was approved by MPs without objection.

After the House adjourned, Ms Wilson said she was glad the Bermuda Government had decided to support the legislation, which will now go to the Senate. “We all see that getting the food to the people who need it is key, and the fact that many community organisations were saying [the legislation] was needed,” she said. “I have a much better story to tell my children tonight.”

At the conclusion of the debate, when government opposition to the bill made it seem that it would not pass, a clearly disappointed Ms Wilson told MPs that she had described the legislation to her children yesterday morning. “Now I’m going to have to go home and tell them they didn’t feel it necessary to pass legislation to feed seniors and the hungry,” she said.

She named several organisations: the Coalition for the Protection of Children, Family Centre, St John’s AME Church and her own church, Allen Temple AME Church. “We have all of these community groups and they all need more protection to feed the hungry,” she said. “They have identified a real need to bring more food into their coffers. I’m at a loss for words.”

Ms Wilson had set out her argument for the Act earlier in the session, saying while existing legislation did provide some protection, it did not go far enough.

She highlighted a report that found 80 per cent of organisations capable of donating food did not, because of fear of liability, but would reconsider their position if the legislation was reviewed to offer more protection. “We have a chance today”, she said to her colleagues in the House.

Jeanne Atherden, the health minister, accepted that more people are suffering and living below the poverty threshold in Bermuda. However, she believed the present legislation offered organisations sufficient protection and said that they needed to be encouraged to donate more.

“When I looked at the bill, my concern was, ‘Why was there a need for the bill? Is there a harm we are trying to solve?’”

Members of both sides accused the other of politicising the issue, with Zane DeSilva, the health minister of the previous government, claiming the only reason the Government was opposing the amendment was because it had been tabled by the Progressive Labour Party, while Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, health minister when the One Bermuda Alliance first formed the Government in December 2012, accused the Opposition of “justifying their existence” by trying to amend a “sufficient” Act.

David Burt, the Shadow Minister for Finance, called the bill “an excellent idea,” and quoted from the environmental and sustainability organisation Greenrock’s website. “The absence of a Good Samaritan law hampers the efforts of individuals and organisations seeking to assist the disadvantaged in Bermuda,” he said before encouraging the Government to get on board.

“Support this bill and let us do something good for the people of this country on the eve of a holiday.”

PLP MP Rolfe Commissiong added: “If we can eliminate red tape for the 1 per cent — for the America’s Cup — surely we can eliminate red tape for those in need.”

Mr Bean said: “It has been repeated that this is an opportunity for co-operation and collaboration. The best social programmes in existence for 7,000 years have always been charity. Before integration, the black community received social upliftment not from the Government, but from the charities.”