Anna-Lisa Paul and Bobie-Lee Dixon
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Daly, Dumas in call for interim salary hikes say: Let SRC do its job
Former head of the public service Reginald Dumas and former Independent Senator Martin Daly are calling on the Government to limit proposed salary and pension increases to judges and MPs to an interim period, pending determination of the matter by the Salaries Review Commission, which is the constitutional body responsible for salary and other increases. Their call was made in a letter to all senators yesterday, on the eve of today’s scheduled debate on the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) (Amendment) and the Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) bills in the Upper House. The bills, which seek to approve significant increases for judges and MPs, were passed with the support of the Opposition in the House of Representatives on June 13. The move by the two was unlikely to have any effect on the outcome of today’s debate. The bills will not be put to the vote as they are money bills which cannot be vetoed by the Senate. Former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj also opposed the move yesterday. There have been public objections to the measure in the media.
Moonilal: 60-plus MPs, 15 judges to benefit
Leader of Government Business in the House Dr Roodal Moonilal said over 60 MPs and 15 judges stood to benefit at present from the proposed pension plans. Asked to justify the hefty increases, Moonilal said: "It is intended to bring judges’ and MPs’ pensions into some measure of decency and to prevent further hardships to judges and retired legislators.” Moonilal will present the legislation during today’s sitting which begins at 11.30 am. Contacted for comment yesterday, he said: “These distinguished gentlemen deserve their opinion and interpretation,” adding that the “government has started the process of enhancing pension arrangements for several categories of public employees. “We intend to meet and treat with all public-sector workers who in their post-employ life require a decent standard of living. We are not excluding one group for another. All will be dealt with in a comprehensive manner.” Moonilal also said that an MP’s pension was “a contributory one, at six per cent a month, while other public officers don’t make direct contributions.”
Mixed feelings on hikes
One Independent Senator, David Small, said yesterday that while he understood Dumas’s and Daly’s concern, parliamentarians have no one to bargain for them. Small said the existing system involving the SRC was not working well and he wanted to know what should be done in the meantime. But former chairman of the Public and Police Service Commissions Christopher Thomas said the passage of the bills appeared to “constitute a circumvention of the provisions of the Constitution.”In a letter to the editor, which is published on Page A29 today, he said: “The circumvention of our Constitution for whatever causes is the surest path to social disquiet and a challenge to the prescribed order.”
Letter to senators
The Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) (Amendment) Bill and the Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill recently passed by the House of Representatives have, unsurprisingly and rightly, set off a firestorm of public protest. Among others, issues of fairness and equity, of constitutionality — for example the separation of powers, the functions and performance of the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) and the disproportionate nature of the measures — have been raised. If these two pieces of legislation are carried forward, they may in the future have to be settled in the courts of law as well as in those of public opinion.
We do not oppose the principle of enhanced benefits for judges and parliamentarians. We emphasise however that there are other retired persons such as magistrates and public servants who, for many years, and in several cases for decades, have served this country conscientiously and well, and who deserve pensions higher than the ones they receive at present. For instance, there is at least one retired permanent secretary who is now a centenarian and whose pension is less than that of the deceased judge mentioned in the debate on these bills. Is his age to be held against him? There are also retirees, former parliamentarians among them, whose need for costly medical care is constant.
We feel that the approach hastily taken by the House is likely to lead to more problems for T&T as a whole than it solves for a chosen few. We should all wonder about the precedent being set. What possible impact on our institutions, our economy and our democracy might there be as a result of this decision by persons whom we elected to serve us and who are now seen as serving themselves at our expense, and, moreover, to be doing so to the exclusion of persons similarly circumstanced? Equitable salary and pension reform for the judiciary and for certain public office holders cannot sensibly be done in the piecemeal, discriminatory and hasty way adopted by the House of Representatives.
Given the constitutional position of the Salaries Review Commission, we strongly urge that the legislature should limit its intervention to the extent of interim provisions designed to take care of the urgent needs of the directly affected persons — former judges, magistrates, parliamentarians, public officers, etc and their surviving spouses or co-habitants — on clearly defined bases, such as length of service, the effect of cost of living over a defined period and compassionate need arising out of illness. We are copying this letter to all members of the Senate.
Business sector wants clarification
Members of the business sector are calling on all arms of the legislature to consider carefully their decision while debating the Judges Salaries and Pensions Amendment Bill and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) Bill today. The call was made yesterday by the American Chamber of Commerce, T&T Coalition of Service Industries, Chamber of Industry and Commerce (TTCIC) and the Manufacturers’ Association. In a press release issued as the Joint Chambers Group, questions were raised as to whether there had been enough consultation on the matter before the decision was made. "In light of our slow economic growth and given the fact that the Minister of Finance had signalled his intention in 2013 to reduce our fiscal deficit, with the components making up this deficit, including recurrent expenditure, such as salaries, wages and pensions, is it wise to assent to all of these increases at this time?” the group asked. “We understand that retroactive payments will also apply and this is of great concern to this group. We question whether these costs have been comprehensively calculated to determine the true cost to the Treasury, and, if so, we call for full public disclosure of these costs," it added.
The role of the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) also remained unclear in the process, the group said. It noted: “Any increases in pensions for those targeted in this bill must be tied in with our current cost of living and what the country can realistically afford to pay without being a burden on the nation’s treasury. “We believe that at the helm of the government legislative agenda should be the continuing efforts to see the Public Procurement Bill become law and pushing forward the campaign financing agenda, both of which, if left untreated, can be detrimental to our nation’s efforts at improving our ranking on many international indices. “We believe that the government should also be focusing on crime reduction measures, as the murder toll continues to rise on a daily basis, with indiscriminate shootings occurring at any time of the day, and a low detection rate continuing to plague us.”
The Joint Chamber Group noted that due to its members’ concerns and those raised by others in society, the Government should allow the bills to lapse to allow for further clarification, ventilation and consideration of the issues involved and impact of their passage. “Since the Parliament is due to go on recess shortly and these bills enjoy cross-partisan political support, we consider this to be the most prudent course of action, as it will not affect their eventual passage in the next session of Parliament if that is still the desire of the Legislature,” the joint group said.