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The Joint Consultative Council is pressing ahead with its proposal for more effective legislation to control and regulate procurement policy in the public sector. President of the seven-member group Afra Raymond is adamant that Government must take the JCC’s points into consideration when the proposed legislation is debated in the Parliament.
He is warning that government-to-government arrangements do not guarantee that huge state projects would not be contaminated with the brush of corruption, and although the People’s Partnership administration is introducing new legislation to deal with this thorny issue, much more needs to be done.
Q: Mr Raymond, is it fair to say the JCC is a pressure group, political or otherwise, within the construction sector?
(Seated in the office of a spa at Valsayn Plaza)
A: Well, it is an umbrella group that represents interests of the construction, real estate and property industries, with seven member groups.
This procurement issue has been a source of contention over the years?
Recently the Government introduced legislation to deal with this very emotive issue?
Are you satisfied that Government has made a sufficiently strong enough move in that direction?
Not at all.
What is the beef you (the JCC) has with state procurement?
The question is not with any individual group having a beef. The question is: no matter what government we put into power, there are consistent allegations of corruption, large-scale waste and theft of public money. I think the proposed legislation is a move in the right direction, but in its present form it is not at all satisfactory with what is required of the country…
What is it you want to see in the legislation that is not there now?
The main thing—I am glad you asked that question—is proper, effective procurement law, which would bring proper oversight and control over all transactions in public money—taxpayers’ dollars. The proposals tabled by Dr Tewarie in the Parliament on Wednesday, April 2, under Clause 7, specifically exempts government-to-government arrangements…
Why is this so offensive that it should be expunged?
Because, Clevon, quite simply, when we look at Mr Manning’s record, look at the record of this regime, the largest projects, the most expensive projects are taking place through government-to-government arrangements. So if you are proposing a procurement framework to improve accountability and transparency, but want to exempt the largest projects, well, that is one step forward and two steps backwards. Our answer is “No.”
Mr Raymond, what you are doing there is accusing your government—whichever is in power—and the foreign contracting government, of possible corruption?
Clevon, Wednesday’s revelation about Napa by the Minister of Culture—Dr Lincoln Douglas—his remarks are featured prominently in the Guardian from an answer in Parliament...about Napa falling apart. Those remarks from the sitting minister—who is an elected MP—speak to the truth of the allegations in these arrangements, and the lack of proper oversight which needs to be corrected if the country is to move forward.
This has nothing to do in particular with the present administration, and nothing in particular with the last administration. The point is: it must be dealt with in a forthright manner and the proposals submitted by Dr Tewarie do not do that.
Apart from the perceived corruption factor in the State’s procurement process, is there a JCC hidden political agenda?
No. The JCC’s agenda is national improvement.
Mr Raymond, what is the ultimate effect on the average citizen if unbridled corruption is not stymied?
What it boils down to is two sorts of simple lessons. The first thing is financial, just in terms of pure dollars and cents. At this moment, the State of T&T pays more for things than anybody else…when you think of any of the big projects in the past, or any of the many, many things that are going on.
The second implication is that in fact if we develop a scenario—which is what is happening—where most of the business in the country takes place through the State, what happens is that normal people who are not political, not part of the political scenario, if they want to get a contract, they may have to enter into some kind of improper dealings.
Mr Raymond, I might be naïve, but do you believe that people who enter public office go there to steal taxpayers’ money?
(Hands resting across his chest and a heavy sigh) That is difficult to answer, Clevon...I will attempt to answer in an honest way, not directly, but in my own way.
I am putting it this way: the situation in this country is that...the controls that we have at this moment—regarding money, contracts and so on—are so poor, so weak...if you, me or the most honest friend we have becomes Prime Minister in the morning, immediately you have to find a Cabinet of about 20 people, immediately you have to find about 1,500 people to put on boards and commissions...this is how the country runs.
And because of the large amount of money and the weak controls, within a month or two months, those same friends may well be committing acts that may embarrass you. I am not trying to exonerate the current political administration or the last one—I am a critical person when I need to be. The point I am making is: whoever you put, temptation is a helluva thing…I am just putting that back to you as an attempt to answer.
Quite correct Mr Raymond, but are you insinuating that our brand of politicians are intrinsically dishonest?
(Briefly contemplating the response) I am saying the temptations are huge; the punishment is small and infrequent; and you see it in the driving on the roads, you see it in the columns written by people like you and me. If you do not have proper consequences for bad behaviour, you get these problems. It is not the perfect solution, but you have to bring into place some laws which could have some positive effect on the situation—which is what we are fighting for.
Before Dr Tewarie took the proposed legislation to the Parliament, did you have consultations with the Government?
Yes, we met with the Government’s legislative review committee before the legislation was finalised and we have had consultations; but our points were not taken on board. It was tabled in the Parliament and Dr Tewarie has said that he is allowing a period of at least three weeks to take public comments, but we think that is too short. It is a complicated matter.
So you would be submitting additional comments? Are you optimistic that the JCC’s concerns would be addressed this time?
Not without a serious struggle.
I have been following this procurement thing for several years, especially through the efforts of the local branch of Transparency International when Mr Victor Hart was at its forefront. Why has it proven to be that difficult for successive governments to pass the necessary laws to satisfy the concerns of groups like yours?
As I said, temptation is a helluva of thing...it is universal.
But in T&T, are wrongdoers not made to face the consequences of acts of dishonesty, as in foreign jurisdictions?
This is what we are fighting for, Clevon, and I want to make myself totally clear: we are fighting for a system of laws that will bring about a dynamic effective public official who would regulate, who would intervene in situations where there is wrongdoing, irrespective of the political administration, and take the necessary action to protect the public. Rectify improper contracts.
Mr Raymond, the fact this administration has taken legislative action to deal with this thorny issue: isn’t that a sign of good faith?
We need to measure that statement, which has some persuasive measures, against the fact that specific exclusions were made with the government-to-government arrangements.
If history is any guide, can it be said that these large government-to-government projects are a cover for corrupt activities?
(Finger on lips and hushed tone) Yeah, I think so. We had an episode of it last year with a hospital proposed for Penal, and after some public controversy, the contract was terminated.
Again, isn’t that an indication that this Government is serious on the question of corruption?
Yes, they took account of the concerns; it was withdrawn. But what I find interesting is: that depth of concern hasn’t found its way into the bill.