Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 20123122 25 Jan, 2013
Minister of Finance [Dr. Singh]: Mr. Speaker, I would be happy to proceed now with your permission.
Mr. Speaker: Well, please proceed. I invite you to address the Assembly.
Dr. Singh: Will I be able to proceed uninterrupted beyond four o’clock, Sir?
Mr. Speaker: I can promise you beyond four o’ clock, but I cannot promise you uninterrupted.
Dr. Singh: Will I be able to complete my presentation before the break?
Mr. Speaker: Yes. Go ahead.
Dr. Singh: Thank you very much Sir. With that assurance, I would be happy to proceed.
I rise to make my contribution to the debate that is ensuing on the Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 2012 - Bill No. 29/2012, a Private Member’s Bill brought to this House by the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Barrington Greenidge. [Mrs. Backer: What is your middle name?] Unlike you, my dear, I pay attention.
As I rise to make this contribution, I almost feel as if I have spoken on this matter on several occasions, previously, in this House, having already contributed to the debate on the motion that led to the consideration of this Bill. That notwithstanding, on every occasion, as I look at the Bill, I am increasingly convinced of its absence of merit and thought. I cannot help but wonder as to the real reason and basis for the Bill. Before I go to that substantive matter, let me say that the Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge had, on the last occasion that we considered a Private Member’s Bill, to concede that the Bill, on that occasion before us, the Fiscal Management and Accountability (Amendment) Bill 2013, I believe it was earlier this year, contained fundamental flaws which I identified and which the Member, in fact, had to seek to remedy by way of moving an amendment, at least one amendment, on the floor of the House to correct, at least, one of the glaring flaws contained in the Bill.
I will not enter an excursion back into Mr. Greenidge’s own tenure, as my predecessor in office, but I will say that this Bill, once again, is so riddled with mistakes and obvious flaws that one cannot but wonder why Mr. Greenidge would append his name to such documents that contain such fundamental flaws. If we were to start from the top, the Bill, for example, speaks of the payment for utility Bills and there is much ado about adequacy of sum and whether the former President should use a pension, if five thousand dollars is a vulgarity, and all manner of things. But I studied this Bill and I was trying to figure out what are we arguing about, I do not know if to interpret to mean five thousand dollars a day, five thousand dollars a week, five thousand dollars a month or five thousand dollars a year. I imagine that anybody involved in implementing the Bill would…This is the thing that leapt out of me immediately.
I wonder whether Mr. Greenidge was perhaps being generous in offering five thousand dollars a day or minute even, but given the reputation that Mr. Greenidge is rapidly accumulating in this House, these details matter not a shred; they are minor details in his world, because he has no interest in something that is technically sound. He has interest merely in scoring cheap political points and that is the real reason for this Bill, Sir. Mr. Greenidge tells us that he is providing five thousand dollars, but he does not tell us whether he is providing this five thousand dollars every minute or every day. I rather suspect, Mr. Speaker, that you might think that this is an obvious error and this is the only error.
We go on further and there are at least two other examples, which were identified, that pointed to a clear absence of attention being paid to what was being brought to this House. [Mr. Nandlall: Recklessness.] Recklessness. Let us take, for example, the matter of the children. The Hon. Minister Irfaan Ali has very astutely highlighted that lacuna, that fundamental and fatal flaw in this Bill. Clause 3 (d) speaks of an entitled child and then clause 3 (d) (ii) says that, of course, the benefit should only apply to natural children. One can only wonder whether that was a deliberate exclusion – as I said Mr. Irfaan Ali, exhaustedly addressed this point - or whether it was a careless omission, but in either case, I believe that this honourable House would not be remiss to expect better of anyone bringing a piece of legislation, especially a piece of legislation that has been rested before this House for months, as Mr. Greenidge, himself, pointed out.
Indeed, I must give the Hon. Member Dr. Rupert Roopnarine credit for disassociating himself and distancing himself from this vulgarity contained in this Bill. I cannot help but to wonder whether he was speaking for the rest of the Members on that side of the House or whether he was speaking on his own behalf, but I suspect that we will soon discover when the matter is put to the vote.
Clause 4 rather states that a former President shall cease to be entitled, not temporarily, not to some of these benefits, to all of the benefits provided by this Bill were he to be engaged in any business, trade or paid employment or were he to be charged with a criminal offence. Happily, Dr. Roopnarine, again, very swiftly disassociated himself and distanced himself from this second vulgarity of seeking to pre-empt the outcome of our justice system, seeking to deny justice to a citizen, because ultimately, Sir, we have a duty to protect the citizens of our country, including those who are former Presidents and their constitutional rights. To say that benefits should be denied a person long before they are convicted or immediately upon being charged for any offence clearly points that the intention here could not be technical merit, could not be justice indeed social justice, but can only be intended for one of two purposes: to target specific individuals, that is to say, individuals covered by this Bill, or indeed to generate political excitement and political titillation to feed this manufactured controversy. Again, Dr. Rupert Roopnarine stated his position and, hopefully, his party’s position on this matter.
In like manner, Sir, where in the world do we say that a person who has earned a pension, should he seek alternative or additional post retirement employment, should he engage in business, that he should lose the benefits that he would have earned from his previous employment? Everyday former public servants, former teachers, former members of the disciplined services continue to receive their superannuation benefits but they earn and receive benefits from their current employment. There are many in this House, Mr. Speaker.
We have in fact, in this House, a distinguished former Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force who continues to...[Interruption from the Opposition Members.]... My apologies Sir, I was referring to the distinguished Leader of the Opposition who served as Brigadier General. I trust that I got the title correct. We have in this House, no less a person than a retired Brigadier General who continues to receive his superannuation benefits as a former senior officer of the Guyana Defence Force. Could we possibly be fateful to social justice to say that because he entered business or paid employment, whether it is as a parliamentarian or otherwise, that he must suddenly and automatically be denied the benefits that he would have earned from his previous employment or previous working life? I would be the first to stand up and say shame; that would be a disgrace. Indeed, I am reminded that the Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge, himself, is receiving a pension as a former Minister and a former Member of Parliament.
Mr. Greenidge: Mr. Speaker, the Minister very well knows that Members of this House, whilst they are paid as parliamentarians, should not be receiving any pension. I receive no pension.
Dr. Singh: But, Mr. Speaker, the Hon. Member may not be receiving a pension now but he received a pension after he demitted office and whilst he was earning from paid employment elsewhere. Whilst he was earning from paid employment as an international public servant he continued to receive a pension.
Mr. Speaker: Yes Mr. Greenidge.
Mr. Greenidge: Mr. Speaker, the statement made by the Minister is inaccurate and malicious. I do not want to be using other adjectives. Can I urge you to extend to me the protection I deserve? It has to be stricken from the record. It is untrue. [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, I need to hear Mr. Greenidge.
My understanding is that the Minister has said that Mr. Greenidge enjoys pension whilst serving here. Mr. Greenidge has said that he does not. If he said that he does not then I agree that the statement should be withdrawn because it has been clarified by Mr. Greenidge that he does not, unless, of course, the Minister wants to challenge it.
Mr. Greenidge: He can have more evidence to the contrary because I have spoken to the Clerk specifically to ensure that that does not happen because the law does not allow it. Thank you.
Dr. Singh: Mr. Speaker, I am saying that subsequent to his demission of office… [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, the matter has been clarified and I say let us continue.
Dr. Singh: With your permission, Sir, if the concern of the Hon. Member…
Mr. Speaker: Ms. Ally, are you rising on a Point of Order?
Ms. Ally: Yes. Mr. Speaker, I would like to enquire whether the statement made by Dr. Ashni Singh has been stricken from the records.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, we have to distinguish between offensive remarks and statements which qualify for being stricken. We have to, therefore, appreciate that there is a decision between those and statements made by Members which are clarified and refuted by other Members. Mr. Greenidge has refuted that. Now…
Ms. Ally: No, but Dr. Singh continues to say so …
Mr. Speaker: I am now trying to ascertain from the Member what it is he is saying, but I am not getting to him. [Interruption from the Opposition Members.] Hon. Members, allow me to preside over this Assembly. The matter has been clarified. I have accepted Mr. Greenidge’s explanation and I am asking you to allow me to preside over this Assembly and to have some respect for the Chair. Hon. Minister, please proceed.
Dr. Singh: Thank you very much Sir. With your permission, Sir, may I clarify that matter? I was addressing, at the time, the matter of payment of post employment benefits to persons who enter alternative employment, paid employment, businesses or trade. The current Bill seeks to take away superannuation benefits and post employment benefits if the recipient enters or engages in any business, trade or paid employment. My assertion, Mr. Speaker…
Mr. Greenidge: Mr. Speaker, on a Point of Order.
Mr. Speaker: Mr. Greenidge, I need to hear the Minister in total so that I can make a ruling. With respect, Mr. Greenidge, I have not been allowed to hear the Minister clarify what is it that he said and then I will make a ruling. Allow me to hear from the Minister and I am asking to be given that respect, please.
Dr. Singh: Thank you very much Sir. The Bill contains a clause that seeks to remove from a recipient of superannuation or post employment benefits, should that person be engaged in business, trade or paid employment subsequent to the demission of office. I made the point that this House has Members amongst our midst today who have demitted an office, who at some point in time received post employment benefits and, in fact, who have entered paid employment or other business or trade subsequent to demitting their office. We would not dare to suggest that their post employment benefits should be taken away…
Mr. Speaker: Could you fast forward to the reference to Mr. Greenidge?
Dr. Singh: Certainly Sir. I made the point, Sir. I gave one example; I gave the example of the distinguished Leader of the Opposition who is now obviously receiving benefits from his current occupation and has also received superannuation benefits. I gave the example of Mr. Greenidge, Sir. I will say that whether or not Mr. Greenidge is in receipt of a pension now, as a former Minister, is a matter of fact and if Mr. Greenidge is saying that he is not currently in receipt of a pension then I have to assume that Mr. Greenidge is a man of honour. Mr. Greenidge has said he is not currently in receipt of a pension and I am quite happy to accept that, Sir. The point remains Sir, and I will maintain my point, that after Mr. Greenidge would have demitted office…
Mr. Speaker: One second Dr. Singh, you accept the statement that Mr. Greenidge, as a Member of this House, an honourable gentleman does not...You accept that, and that therefore you...
Dr. Singh: Mr. Speaker, if Mr. Greenidge stands up…
Mr. Speaker: What I need you to say is that, in view of what you accept, you therefore withdraw your original statement.
Dr. Singh: No. I will elaborate on my original statement. The point, Sir, remains. I, first of all, accept when Mr. Greenidge stood up and said that he is not in receipt of a Government’s pension because he is in receipt of a salary as a Member of Parliament. I accept that, on Mr. Greenidge’s words without any reservation, whatsoever. My point remains, however, that after Mr. Greenidge would have demitted office as Minister, he received a Government’s pension and continued to receive a Government’s pension, notwithstanding that he was in alternative paid employment. That point remains and that is a fact. The principle here is that Mr. Greenidge, having himself entered paid employment elsewhere and having continued to receive a Government’s pension now turns and says that a former President should stop receiving his post employment benefits, including personal protection, should he enter alternative paid employment and that... [Mrs. Lawrence: Where is he saying that?] I am speaking about this Bill.
This Bill seeks to say that the benefits of a former President should cease were that person to enter paid employment and I am saying that we have in this House persons who have received post employment benefits and whose benefits did not cease although they entered alternative paid employment, including Mr. Greenidge, himself. This Bill, Sir, is riddled with fundamental flaws, so much so that one would have thought that Mr. Greenidge would have taken the time, in which he lamented that this House took to consider this Bill, to consult with his colleagues, some of whom clearly objected to certain clauses of the Bill; he would have taken his time to read the Bill carefully and ensure that it was devoid of these fundamental and fateful flaws before it was brought to this honourable House.
Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that this Bill is designed to feed a manufactured political controversy. It is no secret, Sir, that during the course of the election campaign Members of the political opposition deliberately distorted the facts as they relate to the former President’s pension; deliberately obfuscated the distinction between pension and other benefits and started to ascribe arbitrary numbers and values to this pension. In fact, we all see headlines screaming out “Former President to get $3 million of pension” [Mr. Ramjattan: It was not pensions – benefits.] That is not what the headline stated, Sir. [Mr. Ramjattan: You have to know what you said.] That is not what you said and Members of your party said. I see you smiling, Sir, because you would recall that Members of the Opposition in the political campaign deliberately obfuscated and distorted this matter, seeking to remove the distinction between pension and other benefits, ascribing arbitrary and inflated values solely for the purposes, Sir, of scoring cheap political points. That is the reality of this matter, Sir.
This Bill is intended to perpetuate this political controversy. This Bill is intended to feed this controversy, to keep this matter somehow alive, to create the mistaken motion that somehow a former President, or former Presidents, will be receiving benefits that are somehow excess or exaggerated. The reality is that the formula for setting the pension of a former President was not done one or two years before the election, the formula linking the pension of a former President to the salary of a substantive President was in fact written into the law by the President’s Pension Act, dating back all the way to 2004.
The benefits, which are provided here Sir, security, utility Bills, staff, household and secretarial staff, were benefits that were provided to former Presidents since time in memorial. In fact, what this Bill represented...This Bill was actually part of a suite of legislation. We brought to this House the Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill; we brought the Office of the Leader of the Opposition Bill; we brought the Office of the Spouse of the President Bill, all as part of suite of legislation intended to write into law benefits that were previously being provided by administrative fiat.
Previously, the benefits, which were provided to the office of the Opposition, were not a statutory entitlement. Those benefits were not written into any law; they were in fact provided by administrative fiat and discretion. They could be removed at the pleasure of an incumbent administration. We decided, in fact, that we will write into the law, we would codify into the law, the benefits of the Opposition; that we would write into the law the benefits and the entitlements of the Office of the Spouse of the President; that we would write into the law the benefits that will be provided to a former President. This legislation has to be read, in conjunction with... My colleague, the Hon. Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce and Housing and Water, alluded, and he was discharging those responsibilities with distinction, to other elements to this suite of legislation intended to address this lacuna that existed, this administrative fiat that was being used previously and that indeed predated the People’s Progressive Party/Civic in Government to provide benefits to certain office. We intend to remedy that by giving statutory basis for those benefits. In fact, special legislation was brought to address this peculiar circumstance of Former President Hoyte and his widow, Mrs. Hoyte. The record of this House will reflect that a special Bill was brought to address the benefits of Former President Hoyte, and in particular after his ascension to service above.
The reality of the matter, if we speak about a new dispensation... The Opposition likes to speak about the political culture; it likes to speak about what it believes its one-seat majority can do to political culture in this country. I submit to you, Sir, that were it to be sincere about contributing to the cultivation of a new political culture in our country, defiling the dignity of a former President, or attempting to defile the dignity of the former holder of the office of a President, is hardly the way to begin to cultivate this new culture in our country’s political life. We must learn to respect those who have served with distinction - whether it be a head teacher who has served for thirty or forty years teaching children; whether it be a former Commissioner of Police; whether it be a former Brigadier General; whether it be a former Minister and, in particular, Sir, a former President who served. Today, Sir, we may be able to look back and say that President Jagdeo ascended office as the Guyana’s youngest President and ended up serving as Guyana longest serving President to date, democratically elected, or otherwise, restore international dignity and credibility to our country, contributed in such significant way to the economic turnaround accomplished by our country today, contributed to the transformation of the legislative environment that you and I operate in today, contributed to the raising of standards of living to hundreds of thousands of Guyanese in every single region.
I will say this: I consider myself deeply honoured and privileged to have served in President Bharrat Jagdeo’s Cabinet, personally honoured. I was moved day after day to see him confronted the challenges faced by developing countries, such as ours, and never ceasing to endeavour to find solutions, whether they were domestic solutions, or indeed solutions that had to be advocated globally. Today, Guyana, as a country, is recognised as a global leader on matters pertaining to environment and climate change. I do not believe anybody in Guyana would deny that it was President Jagdeo who pioneered that work. In fact, Members of that side of the House acknowledged this publicly. I recall a former Chairman of the People’s National Congress, the late Winston Murray, getting himself into a spot of trouble because he publicly agreed with certain positions taken by President Jagdeo at the time. [Mrs. Backer: What trouble?] We all recall those incidents. There is no need for us to…
I will say this: I listen with some sadness to the Hon. Member Dr. Rupert Roopnarine when he spoke on this Bill, and in particular to certain points he made. I do not believe, Sir, that anyone can deny that tremendous progress has been made in Guyana in raising the standard of living enjoyed by all Guyanese. Literally, every indicator... If we look at the number of Guyanese families that now own their own homes, there are today entire villages and entire communities that did not existed before. Tens of thousands of Guyanese families that previously could not dream of owning their own homes, today, are proud homeowners. Thousands of Guyanese people today are in employment working in one business or another, or in one profession or another, realising their aspirations, reflecting the values of hard work and enterprise. The reality is that more and more Guyanese have access to primary and secondary educations, and university educations. Today, we have accomplished universal primary education and we are well on our way to achieve universal secondary education. Today, more persons are graduating with a university education than ever before. I am responding to the arguments made…
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, Minister, the introducer of the Bill never once made a reference to the former President and even though, to use a familiar term, he is “the elephant in the room” let us stop make this a referendum on his tenure and keep our comments on the Bill as best as possible.
Dr. Singh: Very well Sir. I was merely making the nexus with developments in our economy and I believe it was Dr. Roopnarine who spoke of poverty and the incidence of poverty. [Mrs. Backer: He never called names.] Well, I do not have a problem. The Speaker has ruled on the matter of calling the names, but I am responding to the matter of incidence of poverty, access to social services and quality of life, matters that were dealt with by Dr. Roopnarine. I am making the point, Sir, that it is an indisputable fact and if we were to be honest in this House, on both sides of this House, I do not believe that any objective commentator could deny that today quality of life enjoyed by Guyanese citizens is significantly better than it was ten, fifteen or twenty years ago.
Without a doubt, any objective commentator, looking on developments in Guyana, any citizen of Guyana, or any person living in Guyana, would readily acknowledge, Sir, the progress our country has made. That is not to say, Sir, that our work is complete, there is much that we would like to do, as a Government, to make even further gains to the standard of living enjoyed by our citizens. We do not consider our work to be completed but there can be no doubt that much work has been done and much progress has been accomplished.
Most of all, I was taken a bit by surprise when Dr. Roopnarine, who I regard as a distinguished Guyanese intellectual, set himself up as the ultimate arbiter of aesthetic judgement, a position that I would have thought that he would ordinary eschew. I heard him pronounced on architectural abominations being constructed by the citizens of Guyana - hard working farmers and miners building their concrete homes. The Hon. Member spoke of concrete and glass abominations, hard working Guyanese farmers and miners, hard working Guyanese entrepreneurs, endeavouring to build a home in their own taste - going to the bank, saving everyday, making hard consumption choices to build a home to their own taste - and in response to their own aesthetic preferences. I heard, with some degree of shock and surprise, that an accomplished intellectual, such as Dr. Roopnarine, would dismiss them as purveyors of ugliness, uncivilised brutes incapable of appreciating the finer things in life, such as beautiful colonial buildings. I must confess that I have still considerable admiration for him, but I listened with great disappointment, and notwithstanding that it might not be germane to the matter before us - the Bill before us.
It was so disparaging of those who are saving and building today, and there are thousands of them - go in to Diamond and see the concrete homes, go into La Parfaite Hatmonie and see the homes, go into Sophia and see the concrete homes, but all of those people do not know about the fancy, elite wooden colonial buildings with Demerara shutters. Those are the only things that meet with Dr. Roopnarine aesthetic taste and yet my colleagues, on that side of the House, would like to pretend that they represent the working people of Guyana; the working people of Guyana who cannot afford a fancy, expensive, Demerara shutter which is required to be renovated every year, but they can afford a few bags of cement to extend their homes. Dr. Roopnarine comes and describes them as purveyors of ugliness and describes their homes as a concrete abomination.
I have no doubt that Dr. Roopnarine is an artist of some accomplishment and some note and significant repute, and I would urge him to repair the damage that he would have done to the sense of fulfilment of the tens of thousands of Guyanese who would have been insulted by his comments his afternoon. I never thought, for the life of me, that Dr. Rupert Roopnarine, being the intellectual he is, would set himself up as an arbiter of aesthetic judgement. I never thought so, Sir, and with that digression. Even though it might not have been germane into this Bill, it does reflect the mindset of the Opposition and some of prejudices and preferences that might be underlined on what is happening here.
I will say that the substantive Act, which this Bill seeks to repeal, represents one of many pillars of a comprehensive set of legislation that codified what was previously being provided by administrative fiat. We should not lower the dignity of the office of the President by debating a matter, such as this, in the manner in which it is being used. The election campaign is over. It was used by the Opposition, even in a distorted manner, for the purposes of the election campaign, but the election campaign, Sir, is over. If we are interesting in cultivating a new political culture, the Opposition could scarcely be endeavouring to engender a new political culture by defiling the dignity of the office of the former President.
I thank you very much Sir. I trust that this House would reject this Bill roundly. [Applause]
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