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Independent Senators on MPs’ salaries issue: Let SRC handle it

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Let the Salaries Review Commission handle it, suggested Independent Senators Anthony Vieira, Ian Roach and Rolph Balgobin. That was their response to the Government’s controversial legislation to increase retirement benefits for judges and parliamentarians, though all were critical of the SRC. Vieira and Balgobin said if the commission was not up to its job within a certain timeframe, action should be taken against it. 



The views differed from those in initial debate on the bill two weeks ago, when the Opposition and Independent Senator Helen Drayton, while supporting the principle, suggested changes in the formula. Vieira and Balgobin also suggested giving retired judges other forms of cash payment if the Government was determined to help them. Roach recommended sending the bills to a special select committee.


Vieira noted various strong arguments in favour of the benefits for judges and MPs, adding:


 “I have absolutely no problem with the principles of improving the pensions of judges and parliamentarians. Where I have a problem is with the process. I urge you to step back and look at the bigger picture. “If we persist with this course of action there is likely to be public resentment and anger and legislation will be criticised as a misuse of power. “(But) if we follow the process contemplated in the Constitution (on the SRC) it will serve to reinforce our bona fides and restore trust and confidence in the Parliament.”


He said­­: “It seems to be the prescribed process is being perverted and should be brought back on track. “I strongly suggest Parliament should send these bills back to the SRC for its vetting and recommendations. Give them a time frame within which to get back to us. “If the SRC declined jurisdiction or lends support to these proposals, it will take the wind out of the sails of all the naysayers. 


“However, if the SRC drops the ball this time, then we must consider amending the Constitution to either get rid of an under-achieving body or seek to refashion the SRC to better serve its purpose.” Noting the SRC is the constitutionally appointed body responsible for the review of salaries and all other terms and conditions of service for judges and MPs, Vieira said, logically, the SRC’s remit must include pensions. 



He said the Government could not disregard civil society’s concerns and he was not persuaded that the proposed measures were constitutionally in order. To deal with the issue in the way proposed was a departure from process, he argued, and “it’s not sufficient to do good by irregular means. Circumventing the SRC, a constitutionally appointed body, even with the noblest of motives, is improper.”


He said he understood why the Government felt compelled to take the action it had because of the SRC’s tardiness, “disconnectedness and an apparent general lack of concern” about how its decisions affected the livelihood of key office-holders in T&T. But Vieira said the Constitution’s framers obviously wished to remove from legislators the ability to determine and approve their own compensation as well as those of the Judiciary. 



He added: “So we are saddled with the SRC and we should not be seen as going against the spirit of the Constitution. “We must deal with the SRC’s shortcomings frontally... avoidance and circumvention isn’t the solution. “The proper response is to insist the SRC carries out its duties and functions in a timely and proper fashion.” He said complaining about the inefficiencies and tardiness of the SRC was an exercise in futility and efforts must be made to ensure the SRC was equipped with the necessary resources.



what roach said

Vieira’s colleague Ian Roach said the SRC had dropped the ball and fallen short in handling issues in the last decade. In that case, he said, Government and the Parliament had stepped in to address the situation and seemed to have bypassed the SRC, unfortunately. Roach said the matter ought to be sent back to the SRC with clear directions of what should be considered so the SRC would not appear to be undermined.


He said the SRC should be given a stipulated period o review the matter and send it back to Cabinet and the Parliament and that could also avoid a constitutional challenge if the bills became law. Most people supported the principle of the bill, he said, but what was vexing was the formula and it was sad the debate had caused so much negative outcry in certain quarters. Referral to a special select committee, he added, might be able to properly take on board all recommendations and result in a pleasing outcome for all.


He said the problem was judges being viewed as a special group and treated in a special way which was not true. There was also a problem in T&T in seeing public servants and parliamentarians as not deserving of the proper respect and perceived as inefficient, he said. Saying there was ignorance, he added people were not fully informed on what it took to function as parliamentarians. Roach said he was assisted in his contribution by Reginald Amour, SC.



Balgobin’s contribution

Give retired judges ex-gratia payments and avoid the problems and leave sitting judges’ remuneration to the SRC, Independent Senator Rolph Balgobin suggested yesterday. He said Government should be careful in dealing with the matter lest the perception pervaded that it was fixing “friends and colleagues today, some of whom you might have to appear before tomorrow.” 


Balgobin said Government had done a great thing on Monday by paying T&T footballers long overdue monies and dealing with the retirement benefit issue required the same righting of wrongs but had to be done properly and sitting judges’ benefits should be left to the SRC He said the SRC could not abdicate its responsibility on the issue and capsize the constitutional mandate but must be compelled to act and not just protect its turf.  Balgobin said the SRC could not be bypassed.


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