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Hold it! Controversial legislation to increase retirement benefits for Parliamentarians and retired judges will not be approved until the issue is fully ventilated, including deeper scrutiny by a special parliamentary committee if necessary, says Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The PM intervened in the issue yesterday, following complaints from some quarters about the legislation which was approved by Government and the Opposition People’s National Movement in the Parliament on June 13.
Then, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley had spoken on the Opposition’s behalf supporting the bills. Subsequently, the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) (Amendment) and the Judges’ Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bills were expected to be debated in the Upper House yesterday, seeking to approve significant increases for judges and MPs.
No vote was required on the bills since they are “money bills” which cannot be vetoed by the Senate. Over 60 MPs and 15 judges were expected to benefit from the proposed pension plans. However, there has been opposition to the bills from former Independent Senator Martin Daly and former public service head Reginald Dumas, who tried to urge Independents and other quarters not to support the measure.
Concerns were also triggered by the perception that parliamentarians might earn as pension more money than they ever earned while in Parliament. The Salaries Review Commission also reportedly raised concerns that it had not been consulted about the legislation and met with President Anthony Carmona on Monday. SRC head Edward Collier was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Noting assorted concerns raised on the legislation yesterday, Persad-Bissessar, in a statement, said: “It is rare that the Government and the Opposition ever agree on anything. “The Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill, 2013 and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative) Amendment Bill 2014 were passed in the House with the full support of the Opposition. “The Retired Judges Association has also come out in full support of the said Bill, which impacts their representative group.
“Notwithstanding this level of agreement, there have been strong objections in some quarters to the Bills. “Consistent with my policy of always allowing views to be ventilated and decisions arrived at after such due consideration, the Government’s current position would be not to proceed with approving the Bills until all perspectives and opinions are ventilated.” She added: “The Senate debate on the said Bills which commences today (yesterday) will allow for some of these perspectives and opinions to be ventilated.
“Further, the Government expresses its willingness to refer the matter to a Senate Select Committee for review should such a procedure be agreed to by all parties in the Senate debate. “Yet further, the Government expresses its willingness to accept and adhere to the recommendations made by the Senate Select Committee. At the end of the day, the national interest is what must be served."
The Senate was to complete the Planning Bill and Nurses and Midwives amendments before starting the Retirement Benefit Bills last night, People’s Partnership (PP) Senate leader Ganga Singh said during the Senate’s lunch break yesterday.
AG gets legal opinions
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan also told reporters he had sourced legal opinions from Senior Counsel Sir Fenton Ramsahoye on the allegation of bypassing the SRC and British Queen’s Counsel Timothy Straker, of Gray’s Inn on pensions for the judiciary, which Government was presenting in debate on the bills last night.
In the opinions, Ramsahoye said in part: “The improvement of benefits payable to Judges on retirement is essentially a matter for the legislature which has the power to tax and spend and which is aware of the changing conditions in the society. “The legislature has a wide discretion in dealing with this matter, bearing in mind its responsibility to the people.
“The amending legislation which is proposed is essentially a matter for the peace order and good government of T&T by ensuring that the Judges, who while in service have supported the rule of law, should until death live in comfort and dignity. “I’m of the opinion that there is no constitutional impropriety in the proposed legislation which Parliament can pass without the intervention of the Salaries Review Commission.”
Straker’s opinion stated in part: “The argument that the current proposal is unconstitutional, undermines the independence of the judiciary or undermines the Commission is not sustainable.” Ramlogan, in his comments on the bills last night, told the T&T Guardian that the SRC did not complain or object on prior issues with other governments.
He cited: “In 1980-1, the then Prime Minister (Eric Williams) refused to implement the increase in salaries of judges as recommended by the SRC. The PM then laid in Parliament legislation (by regulation) to give the judges a new allowance, the judicial contact allowance. He did not consult nor require approval from the SRC. The SRC never complained.
“In 1988-89, the then PM (ANR Robinson) indicated that the state could not increase the judges’ salaries. He however decided to make the salaries “tax free” and did so by laying the necessary regulation or legislation in Parliament. He did not consult the SRC nor seek its approval. The SRC didn’t object.” Ramlogan added: “It seems obvious the SRC cannot fetter the legislature in its law -making function.
“The purpose of the Judges Pensions Amendment Bill is to amend the existing act to change the method of calculating a judge’s pension by including certain allowances. “If that becomes law, then the SRC will have the jurisdiction to determine the salary and those allowances under its powers in the Constitution. “To say the SRC can stop the legislature amending a law to change the method of calculating pensions is to fetter the legislature’s powers of making law.
“The sitting judges didn’t approach Government to change the Pension Act. The retired judges were the ones who did. The SRC acknowledges it cannot say whether it has jurisdiction over retired judges. “They do not, as they are no longer ‘judicial officers,’ or public officers, or persons holding offices under the SRC’s jurisdiction.
PNMites upset too
The People’s National Movement’s move to approve the increases has not sat well within some PNM quarters. PNM activist (PNM Abroad blog) Pearce Robinson yesterday said Dr Keith Rowley and Colm Imbert’s moves — and that of Government also — lacked judgment in seeking “massive” pension increases via the legislation.
Robinson made the comment yesterday in reply to questions on the moves by the PNM MPs — and Government — as he stood outside Parliament trying to persuade senators not to approve the increases. He said he spoke to each senator as they arrived and at least one Independent (name called) assured him they would not sanction the bills. Robinson said he felt neither the PNM nor the Government should have supported the bills. He said if anything, increases should also be granted to public servants across the board.
Asked if he would take steps within the party, such as write to the PNM, on the issue, Robinson said he would do whatever was necessary. PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi, who spoke to Robinson, didn’t want to be quoted on his responses to Robinson. Asked to comment on the increase issue, Al-Rawi declined, saying PNM’s Camille Robinson-Regis would be speaking about the matter in debate on the bills.
PNM sources told the T&T Guardian two weeks ago that the party’s caucus discussions on the issue — before the bills were debated in the Lower House — saw a unanimous PNM stance to support the bills. Yesterday, Imbert did not answer initial calls on whether the Opposition had any second thoughts after public outcry on their awarding themselves “massive” pension increases and bypassing the SRC. Later in the afternoon, Imbert asked the T&T Guardian to “kindly stop” calling and hung up.
The Opposition office referred questions for Rowley on the issue to Arlene Goering-George, who was not there. Balisier House officials later explained that Rowley had been in Jamaica and was due back last night. They referred queries to Imbert.