Establishment of a national veterans commission3796 21 Nov, 2013
ESTABLISHMENT OF A NATIONAL VETERANS COMMISSION
Mr. Hinds: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker and Hon. Members. I rise to speak on this motion before us, which is to establish a National Veterans Commission to examine the conditions and circumstances facing veterans of the Defence Forces and the Disciplined Services and so on.
Mr. Speaker and Hon. Members, our Government has been and continues to be no less concerned than the Leader of the Opposition about conditions and circumstances facing serving members and veterans of our Defence Forces and Disciplined Services.
In fact, from the time we came into Government up to this time, this People’s Progress Party/Civic (PPP/C) administration has consistently undertaken to support the welfare of the veterans of the Disciplined Forces of Guyana. They have been defined by previous Speakers to include the Guyana Police Force, the Guyana Defence Force, the Guyana Prison Service, the Guyana Fire Service and I heard also the Guyana National Service. Our support has been and has included administrative, financial parliamentary and constitutional measures.
The basis of the welfare of veterans begins with their conditions of service and their emoluments whilst serving, which sets their superannuation benefits. Our general policy has been to work for the overall growth and development of our country and people, which would bring improved conditions and circumstances, improved opportunities and improved earnings to everyone.
At the same time, we do take note of special and particular conditions of any group and all groups and of members of the Disciplined Services, and we address them. The first major intervention of this Government in 1994 saw the consolidation of the service conditions of the four Disciplined Forces referred to as the Joint Services. There have been salary increases many times. Salaries today are many times what they were in 1992. There has been standardisation in allowances, and new or increased allowances were granted to the members of the Joint Services. These interventions, these increases in salaries, automatically translate into benefits for pensions and superannuation.
With the steady growth in our economy, the serving members of the Disciplined Services have been receiving regular annual increases in their wages and salaries which translate into improved superannuation benefits as veterans.
As an example of particular assistance to the Disciplined Services, before the end of the 1990s, the PPP/C administration supported the Joint Services in their effort to develop a rest home in Kaikan Street, Festival City.
We have also supported the development of the Joint Services housing area. The realisation of that project, whilst it facilitated serving members at the time, those serving members would in time become veterans and would continue to enjoy the benefit of having homes for themselves.
Our approach of general improvement accords with the very first WHEREAS clause. We have had reference to that WHEREAS clause by the speakers on the other side. Maybe we should look at it again. It states, quoting from Article 24 of our Constitution:
“Every citizen [veteran or non-veteran] has the right to free medical attention and also to social care in case of old age and disability.”
This is what our Government has been successfully working towards.
Let me speak to the issue of health because, as we all grow old, we are challenged with health issues. This Government has been doing a lot and has done a lot to improve health services in Guyana, in establishing and improving health facilities at all levels all across the country in the greater allocations that we have been able to put for medications and medical equipment, in increasing opportunities for the training of medical personnel at all levels, including community health workers, nurses, medex and doctors, the programme which is seeing more than 500 new additional medical practitioners coming out of training in Cuba, and the ongoing and increasing output of our own University of Guyana (UG).
Note must be taken also of the introduction of the opportunities for specialised courses in the coming together of UG, the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation and various oversees partners. One would take note also of the offerings now of dialysis services, the Caribbean Heart Institute. In this regard, I cannot avoid calling on the Opposition for a change of heart on the position they took on the Tertiary Care Hospital, which would have added to the lower cost… [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, when the Leader of the Opposition spoke, he was accorded a measure of respect. The Prime Minister of Guyana is speaking. I would expect that we hear him. When the Leader of the Opposition presented his motion we did not have this rancour in the House. Could we let the Prime Minister speak please?
Mr. Hinds: Sir, I cannot avoid this opportunity of calling on the Opposition for a change of heart on the position they took on the Tertiary Care Hospital which would have added to the lower cost and greater variety of offerings of medical services to the average Guyanese citizens, including veterans. [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, should I take a five-minute recess? I really do not understand how a motion of this nature is fuelling such an outbreak of dissention. As I said, when the Leader of the Opposition spoke, he was listened to. He may have made points that were not altogether favourable at all times with the Government, but he was not given this level of disrespect. If it continues, I am going to take a five-minute recess and maybe we can all compose ourselves and return.
Go ahead please, Prime Minister.
Mr. Hinds: Thank you very much. Mr. Speaker and Hon. Members, looking at clause 2, the PPP/C acknowledges the many instances of the courage and valour shown by thousands of our fellow citizens in the Defence Forces and Disciplined Services as they rendered essential national defence and public security services to the nation as a whole.
Our hearts are still sad, fresh with the memory of two valiant, courageous policemen who lost their lives as they readily sought to overcome an armed, berserk citizen just last week. We thank them in particular as we thank all members of our Joint Services and as we thank also all citizens who would have rendered service in their various capacities as teachers, nurses, loggers, miners, carpenters, plumbers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, traders and business people, all of us engaged in a common venture of providing a more prosperous and secure livelihood for us all.
With reference to WHEREAS clause 3, we do recognise the challenges for many members of the Defence Force, arising out of the requirements for retirement, as was referred to by the Leader of the Opposition, in particular those in the classification of ‘other ranks’ who, quite likely from the physical rigour required and expected of them in their jobs, must retire after only 22 years of service. These citizens would find themselves retiring somewhere between the ages of 40 years and 45 years.
The Government has been aware that at that age there are still many responsibilities to face for one’s self and family, and that there may still be relatively young children. The Government has been addressing this question in a number of ways. Firstly, as I have said earlier, our growing economy has been supporting increases in income which carries through to increases in gratuity and pension on retirement. In addition, we have had programmes being implemented, particularly within the Guyana Defence Force, to address issues, as raised by the Leader of the Opposition, of young people aged 18 years to 20 years particularly, who may not have done well academically in school, joining the ranks of our Disciplined Services. In particular in the GDF, persons who are recruited are sent on remedial academic programmes so as to allow them to better serve in the GDF and to also be better citizens when they leave. During their initial training, the army’s academic education programme is done at the foundation level. The programme has five levels which allow them, upon reaching level five, to write the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) Examination.
So, within the army, Mr. Leader of the Opposition, programmes are being put in place to address these issues. While in service to the Force, assessments are done to determine which level of the army’s academic programme they can join so as to continue their academic improvements. Those who have the ability are further developed through programmes of external institutions such as the Government Technical Institute, the Guyana Industrial Training Centre, the Guyana School of Agriculture, the Kuru Kuru Co-operative College and the Cyril Potter College of Education. We are looking at a good future for our members of the Defence Force for such time as they would leave the Defence Force.
You may recall that from colonial times pension and gratuity were subject to the pleasure of superiors and might have been denied for reasons good and bad. This has been a particularly sensitive issue for members of the Disciplined Services. It is something that we have remedied since we have come into Government. The Constitutional Reform of 2001 to 2003, our country’s great constitutional reform, saw pension being recognised as private property and so protected. Serving and retired members of the Disciplined Services now enjoy security to their pension rights and so now do all other public servants.
I was speaking just now about programmes within our GDF that speak to the improvements or opportunities for improvements that are provided to all members, in particular those who fall in the category of ‘other ranks’. The Government has been working to improve the sustainable livelihood and a fruitful post-retirement life for all veterans, according to the levels attained. For all members of the Disciplined Services, at all levels, Government is working to open up and set in place standard rules and procedures to provide opportunities for transfer into the public service where places are available which veterans and near veterans may desire and for which they may be qualified. These arrangements would extend what may now be seen as ad hoc individual movements into public service, in some cases Permanent Secretaries, Deputy Permanent Secretaries and so on, and into the magistracy and judiciary.
Allow me to recall also that particularly at the level of the NCO, there are the opportunities to acquire various trades and skills, of which I spoke, which provide a base for employment and self-employment upon retirement. That is beyond the many jobs in security services in the private sector, whether it is in mining or in forestry. There are opportunities to enter the security services of the private sector.
With respect to the fourth WHEREAS clause, the Government has recognised that many ex-soldiers and servicemen have faced challenges which have had deleterious effects on their employment, health, welfare and independence. What is to be done? What are the remedies? This Government would speak again of improvements in the general economy of our country as something that we must all work for. We will also point to the significant support provided to the organisers of the construction of the National Veterans Rest Home commissioned in November, 2011. I think it was referred to by the Hon. Leader of the Opposition. That Home bares testimony to this Government’s commitment to the welfare of the average veterans of the Joint Services entities.
The Government, too, has been looking at the arrangements for veterans. We recognise in our country that our various disciplines are relatively small in numbers. Initially up to 2001 or 2002, we had a veteran from World War I and we still have some from World War II. Looking at this, we have been hoping that the various bodies would role themselves into some combined body which could improve the productivity and the effectiveness in meeting the needs of their really older veterans.
The Government thinks that it is pertinent, as we consider this motion, to take note of the national security Committee, which this Government has established in Parliament. The Terms of Reference (ToR) of this body exemplifies the recognition that this administration confers on a stable well administered security system in Guyana. Of note, particular attention is paid to the avoidance of interferences into the operations of the Disciplined Forces. We should recall also the historic Disciplined Forces Commission and the implementation of many of its recommendations, some of which are still ongoing, all of which have been contributing immensely to the better functioning of the Disciplined Forces and to the lives of its veterans.
The Government believes that there already are many opportunities, formal and informal, for the Leader of the Opposition, himself being a distinguished veteran, to address his concerns without the establishment of another commission. We, in the Government, see little to be gained. We see a certain danger of the inevitable focus of attention, time and resources to this commission would detract from the necessary focus on growing our economy and earning profits and money lawfully. We all want to do good, but we must first do well and have the wherewithal to do good. That has been and continues to be the focus of this Government - to do well so that there are money and resources to do good things.
We, in the Government, feel a certain satisfaction in the great improvements that we have been able to bring about over the last 20 years in the conditions, the materials, the housing, the food, the transportation, and the increases in allocations to the benefits of our Disciplined Forces.
We do not want to, we do not need to, and should not look back to where we were in 1992 when we inherited the Services that we inherited. Allocations today are ten times greater what they were when we came into Government. The resources at hand are many times as much. Once we feel satisfied about how much better off the serving and retired members of the Disciplined Services are today compared with what we found when the People’s National Congress (PNC) left Office, we are aware that it was not that the PNC did not like the Disciplined Forces. That is far from it. The problem was that there was no money to do differently. We want to maintain that focus on doing well so that we have the resources to do good things. This is the great danger we see, particularly when coupled with the Opposition’s recent, or through this period, wanton rejection of programmes for developing our country and people and sustaining our economy. When we couple this motion…
Mr. Speaker: I do not believe I will be able to protect you now, Prime Minister (PM).
Mr. Hinds: Pardon me.
Mr. Speaker: I said that the debate is on veterans. I am saying that if you go down the road of…
Mr. Hinds: I am staying with veterans, Sir.
Mr. Speaker: I may not be able to restrain the Members from responding.
Mr. Hinds: I am making the point that with an economy that is on the path which the Opposition seemingly wants to take it, there will be nothing for anybody, whether we are veterans or not. There will be nothing for anybody. That is the point I want to make, Sir. When we could wantonly treat the way we did with the Amaila development, the improvements of our electric utility, the new airport terminal, the Marriott Hotel and the Tertiary Care Hospital, we are again reinforcing the feeling out there that you could legislate a prosperous life. We could stay in Parliament here and legislate. I feel strongly that it was that misconception which at Independence led us into the 1970s and 1980s. That is my concern, Sir. That is this Government’s concern, Sir. It is that the focus of this motion coupled with the other behaviour of the Opposition disconnects the way we live from the work that we do and the economy that we build.
So Mr. Speaker, Hon. Members, the Government could not give its support to this motion because it believes, and as I have been arguing, we have been doing what really matters. We have been improving people’s lives, the lives of the veterans in particular and the lives of serving members of our disciplined services. We rest our case on that submission.
I thank you, Sir. [Applause]
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