Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 20123835 02 Aug, 2012
Mr. Greenidge: Thank you very much Mr. Speaker. I start off by seeking your protection because even before I have uttered a word that I am hearing dissenting comments from the other side. I do not know what they are disagreeing with. May I say, if I might Mr. Speaker, that when I heard the Attorney General make reference to Ms. Teixeira a minute ago, I was not sure whether he was pleading to extend his own tenure in office or whether he was seeking to shorten hers. I suppose we can leave that for now.
The question of pension and benefits is before us. This motion seeks to address two Acts and perhaps I can start off by drawing to the House’s attention the two Acts so that there is no confusion. There is, of course, the Pensions (President Parliamentary and Special Offices) Act which is linked to the pensions of parliamentarians and holders of special offices and those categories of employees catered for by the Government’s pension plans. I am not proposing to say very much on this because in this particular arena we are proposing that this matter be addressed by a select committee.
The other Act that this matter concerns is the Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Act 2009. I think it important to draw that distinction from the very beginning so that there is no confusion as regards our intention.
The Constitution of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, Article 181, has a reference to the issue before us, the question on the pensions and the benefits. Article 181 (1) states:
“The President shall receive such salary and allowances as may be prescribed under the provisions of article 222.”
Article 222 states:
“There shall be paid to the holders of offices to which this article applies such salaries and such allowances as may be prescribed by or under any law or, in the case of the Clerk and Deputy Clerk of the National Assembly, as may be determined under article 158 (4).”
And the other elements go on to cite that the payments can be made from the Consolidated Fund.
Article 181 (2) also says:
“A person who has held the office of the President [And this pertains to former Presidents now] shall receive such pension or, [and I emphasise this] upon the expiration of his term of office, such gratuity as may be prescribed by Parliament. Any such pension or gratuity shall be a charge on the Consolidated Fund.”
I emphasise that my reading and my understanding of the wording is of pension or other payments rather than pension and other payments. That is just something to note.
Mr. Speaker, may I now invite colleagues to look at the motion itself and to emphasise that the preamble makes reference to or acknowledges the desirability of adequate, appropriate and reasonable packages for former presidents. This arises because I think it is widely acknowledged that this is such an important office and that we do not want to arrive at a situation in which in pursuit of income to supplement whatever savings the holders of the office have that they devalue the office. The importance of dignity in requirement and a comfortable package is important. We do not want the former incumbents to be hand-to-mouth or be involved in activities that will bring the office into disrepute. I think it is widely acknowledged that the office of the president or former president is not one of an ordinary citizen and we would require and expect presidents or former presidents to conduct the rest of their lives without the need to enter into business, bartering, commerce or trade that may involve conflicts of interest as well. So that is captured in the preamble and I want to emphasise this because it is not the intention of this motion to deny the former Presidents packages that have these characteristics that are listed.
We have also, in the Resolved Clauses, attempted to take steps to have the legislation repealed. This legislation here specifically refers to the Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Act. I will touch on this later at the end. We are proposing here that a parliamentary committee be convened to examine the pension arrangements, in particular, and that the special parliamentary committee submit, as a matter of urgency, a revised superannuation package which takes into account all the persons and categories of persons who would be captured within that framework or regime.
Having said that, let me turn, specifically, to the question of the Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Act. I am not attempting here to reopen the debate on the package, but really to draw to the House’s attention the controversy, the concerns, the alarm which this package has itself raised. You will recall that during the course of the hustings prior to the Elections, it was the centre of considerable debate and controversy.
The President is currently entitled to a pension, as I mentioned earlier, and the elements or nature of that pension is set out in the Act. In essence, it entitles him to 7/8 of the pension of the current President. However, the criticism that has been levelled at this Former Presidents (Pension and other Facilities) Act has arisen because in addition to the pension which, given the way it is cast can actually be higher than the salary the President would have been receiving in his time.
In addition to that, it has attracted criticism because it had been considered to be excessive. The terms and abomination and so forth have been used. One of the major concerns has been the failure to really quantify the benefits that have been listed in the Act. I will turn to that in a minute. What I am trying to indicate to you, Mr. Speaker and to colleagues, is that having cast a set of benefits that are additional to the pension there has been no attempt to set these out in a manner that would make them quantifiable. In that regard therefore, I think one can consider that they have been badly drafted. Many of them have to be considered as unlimited and to the extent that they are unlimited, almost any estimate will do. You have had estimates running on average I suppose in the region of $3 Million a month as being the benefits in addition to pension the President will receive.
If I may just quickly remind you that the list of benefits here include the expenses or the imbursement of expenses for the utilities, services and personal household staff including an attendant and a gardener, services or clerical and technical staff, free medical attendance and medical treatment or imbursement of medical expenses, fulltime personal security and services of the Presidential Guard Service at the place residence, the provision of motor vehicles, full toll free road transportation in Guyana, annual vacation allowance and interesting a tax exemption status identical to that enjoyed by a serving president. These are the categories of benefits listed. The criticism they attracted is interesting as I have said, because they turn largely, but not exclusively on the fact that they are caps or limits to these except perhaps in the case of a [inaudible].
Let me just quickly refer to some of the criticisms that have arisen. First of all the range is wider than can be found elsewhere. I can say that in the case of Trinidad and Tobago for example, the Prime Minister’s pension is capped subject to being equivalent to what a sitting Cabinet Minister enjoys. It is capped and linked to something, which ours seems not to. In Jamaica, the list is a similar list to the one that we have, but it is capped. In the case of Jamaica the person has to be entitled to a pension. As such, he must have had worked for a specific period. [Mr. Lumumba: How long of a period, one year?] Any pension has a period associated with it. As far as I am concerned you need to go and check.
The question of the package also is linked very much to what you might call its morality. By its morality, in a situation where the vast majority of your populace enjoys income nowhere approaching… [Interruption] Do you mind? The vast majority of the populace earns income far below those that have been set out in the Act. In fact we had a situation of growing and alarming income disparities as well as a minimum wage of $35,000 a month and circumstances in which an old age pension set at $10,000 per month required extensive and agonising exchanges between the two sides and almost blackmail in order to get the Government to deal with it. In those circumstances many people have deemed the payment of these benefits in addition to a pension to be excessive and immoral almost if not immoral.
In looking at the pensions, when I say there are no limits, the free medical expenses for example are not limited to the former President and his spouse; in fact taxpayers would have to the medical cost for the former President and all the dependent members of his family for the rest of the President’s life. If they opt for treatment abroad, the Act places no restriction on how much will be paid for that treatment. There are no caps on any of the facilities, no conditions for their receipt, in other words, no condition for the receipt of the benefits and no consideration for cost. The only two services that seem to be limited in number are those of the gardener and of an attendant. Even in those cases you might be able to circumvent them by retaining a landscaping service.
If a former President chooses to work abroad they would still be entitled to tax-free pension and all the benefits and facilities permitted under the act. If they are resident here or if they are resident abroad they are still entitled to clerical and technical staff, whether they are in Guyana or resident abroad. Assuming that the President may wish to do private consultancy service, there is nothing to prevent them getting the clerical assistance to support the private consultancy service that they carry out.
The drafted legislation therefore will seem to impose on the State all the costs that would be associated. For example, if the President chooses to have two or more residences, which is my understanding, whatever facilities are there that may weigh heavily upon the utilities cost, for example a swimming pool or swimming pools, they would have to be met by the state. It seems that on the other side they are confused as to the difference between a former President and a current President. We are speaking about former Presidents. We are not aware that Burnham as a former President received anything.
This question of the lack of caps on the number of cars and the number of vehicles, the question of tax status of the former President, the fact that there is no limit when there is paid employment or when the President engages in business; all of these poses major difficulties. There is no requirement for them to have served any minimum time in office. Whilst the privileges and benefits are specified, there are no obligations specified or associated with these benefits, and that proves to be problematic. May I also say that the legislation makes no reference to limits in the event that the person takes up any form of paid employment or of a business? These are some of the difficulties that have given rise to the criticisms and the attacks on this particular piece of legislation.
What we have in mind here in moving this motion is that caps should be put on every single one of the items that are mentioned here. Legislation, I might add, and I do not claim to be a lawyer, but having worked for many years in the area of public finance and as a Chief Planning Officer who dealt with budgets of institutions, I think legislation is expected to confirm to certain standards. In conforming to certain standards, one of those standards has to be that the elements are quantifiable. It has to be bad legislation when it is drafted in a manner that you cannot identify the sum total of the Government’s obligations.
The other observation is that one should seek here to put order into the legislation and to bring certainty as well as a sense of balance, a balance that can emanate from the deliberations of this House. The important thing I think in deciding on the amounts to be enjoyed or the amounts to be paid should be this, we should link the benefits the capacity of the State to pay as well as to link it to the benefits that are paid by other operatives within the system whether it be Judges or Permanent Secretaries or other categories of similar or close status. We would want to ensure that the amendments take into account this ability to pay.
Less our colleagues raise questions about retroactivity and so forth, and the question of vested rights, which I know lawyers like to raise, the intention here and my argument here is that you cannot claim to have a vested right when the right itself has no ceiling. The rights in terms of cars for example can range from one to infinity; that is not a right. It is not a right because the State in passing its appropriation Act each year has a discrete amount that is provided for the Minister of Finance to manage. If that is discrete, then an element of it such as the pension cannot be infinite. That is the argument here and in the light of these considerations, what we propose to do in relation to this specific Act is to bring to the House, in fact it will be presented shortly to the Clerk, an amendment to the Act which specifically seeks to cap the individual benefits and also to deal with the question of the tax status, so that unlike the current situation which allows the former President to enjoy tax-free benefit for anything that he cares to import almost, we will seek to put a limit on that as well as in the event that he earns an income, that that income is taken into account when specifying the other benefits for which he is entitled. In the light of that, I wish to commend this motion to the House and to invite our colleagues on the other side to embrace it in the spirit of trying to ensure that we have legislation and regulations that are fair and defensible across the political spectrum. I thank you very much. [Applause]
Mr. Greenidge (replying): Thank you very much Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, since you, like us, were regaled with the exceptional contribution of Comrade Jagdeo – the motion is not about him – I hope that I might be allowed to make a couple of observations in relation to President Jagdeo. I am looking here at a list of the scams that took place during his tenure: the stone scam, the milk scam, the gold scam, the law books scam, the re-migrant duty free vehicle scam, the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST) scam, the wild life scam, the export of dolphin scam, the polar beer scam, the GuySuCo scam, cocaine in lumber, cocaine in molasses, cocaine in rice, cocaine in pumpkins, cocaine in fish! [Interruption] The wedding scam...
This is supposed to be a serious motion. I am trying to show that if he wants to be frivolous and to convert these exercises into exercises on adoration, we can also go in that direction. But the motion is a different motion.
First of all, you will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I started off by explaining that there are two elements to this motion. I mentioned the two pieces of legislation. I have heard in the presentations that someone decided that pension is what he was going to speak about so everything now turned on pension. Then we were regaled with... [Ms. Teixeira: He likes that word.] [Mrs. Backer: He likes the word. “Is he word, is he word.”] Mr. Speaker, I need protection from my own side.
Mr. Speaker: You are protected. Go ahead.
Mr. Greenidge: In essence, the motion, I think, is properly before the House. I am not aware of any Standing Order that says that no motion can precede a piece of legislation or a motion must not have the same subject like a piece of legislation that it is going to follow. There can be a motion and it may or may not be followed by legislation. Here the intention is that it will be followed by legislation in both cases.
As regards the aspect of the motion dealing with pensions, what we tried to explain to you is that as regards the pensions, gratuities of the regime of persons who benefit from governmental pensions are to be looked at by the select committee in the context of the arrangements for the President’s pension. That is one focus, one package. They will look to see whether common principles should apply to both sides. There was never any intention and there is no intention to seek to reduce those pensions.
As regards reductions and the question of benefits, let me say that there is an Act of 2009 which specifically defines the benefits we are speaking about. I hear persons trying to conflate the two different things by talking about pensions being benefits and other stories. The benefits that we are making reference to here are set out in the legislation and what we are saying in respect of those benefits is that they are uncapped and in the case that we are trying to deal with here, we are saying that in relation, for example, to cars there are unlimited benefits. The benefits can be claimed, as I said, from one to infinity because the intention was to badly draft them so that they could be handed out at the discretion of whoever is managing the system. That is bad drafting; it is bad legislation; it is bad policy. If the legislation is to be acceptable, it has to be quantifiable. That is what we are saying. All of these benefits are to be kept. The access to tax free importation is to be kept.
The suggestion that the Attorney General is making that only courts can review legislation is irrelevant. The House processes legislation. It can decide to review that legislation and amend the legislation. It does not have to call upon the courts to do it. The courts may look at the constitutionality of the legislation. We can check on whether the legislation is consistent with the defined or specified policies of the House. And that is what we are proposing to do. And a select committee is an appropriate mechanism for doing it, especially where the issues are contentious.
To tell us that the controversy over the President’s overall benefits only arose as a result of the Opposition is clearly mischievous. In fact, the legislation, when it was laid in 2009, led to extensive controversy outside. It predated the announcement of any election. It had to do with the feelings of people outside that in such difficult circumstances it was unconscionable. To add to exceptionally high pensions are these un-quantified and excessive benefits and other facilities. That remains the case now. Even if the Opposition Members were not bringing it to the attention of the public, one could find that it was discussed in the newspapers and in a variety of living rooms in the United States, Barbados and elsewhere. If our colleagues on the other side believe that this issue is solely one manufactured by the Opposition, then that would explain why they ran into difficulties during the course of the Elections. They are living a reality that has no nexus to what people outside are experiencing. People are worried, concerned and disgusted by the degree of laxity that legislation like this provides.
With that explanation, I urge colleagues to bear in mind what it is we are proposing to do here. In the first instance, we will bring a Bill to amend the Act of 2009. Secondly, the committee is to look at the pensions and gratuities and it will be asked to look at the issues and make recommendations to the House that will emerge in the form of [inaudible]. So I urge the House to embrace this motion in the spirit in which it is intended.
I thank you very much.
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