Dr Bhoe Tewarie, Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development, is very optimistic that proposed legislation tightening up the Government's procurement policy will go a long way in stamping out corruption in the public and private sector.He disagrees with some of the points raised last Sunday by president of the Joint Consultative Council Afra Raymond.Senator Tewarie speaks of hefty fines to be imposed on those found guilty of stealing from the public purse and he assures the legislation is good law.
Q: Senator Tewarie I gather you are not too pleased with the comments made in last Sunday's Guardian by your erstwhile friend Afra Raymond, president of the Joint Consultative Council (JCC)?
A: (In the Dr Wahid Ali Room of Parliament on Wednesday afternoon) No, it's not that. It is just that I want the engagement to be a fair one. And as a matter of fact what I am looking for is a way to get a good bill passed and in pursuit of that we went through all the challenges and problems we had in the past, outside of the Parliament, and this included engaging the civil society.
The Government is seeking to pass a good bill but he does not think so...?
The JCC had five issues which first of all, they wanted us to withdraw the bill and we told them, "Listen, this doesn't make sense." We did a lot of work on the bill and we engaged them up to the point where they met the legislative review committee and the issues were addressed in the bill. (Leafing through the draft bill)
We took all of them into consideration but the issue they are now raising is the government-to-government arrangements even though they have always had an issue with that. From their point of view they see this arrangement as a source of potential corruption.
Senator, you were in the NAR cabinet and you are aware that when the first such arrangement took place under a PNM administration the question of possible corruption has been around since then?
Yes. They are claiming, not without justification, that these arrangements are prone to corruption and that under this system you basically leave out the local private-sector contracting community.Now we are concerned about both issues which is why we are bringing the procurement bill but given the way international arrangements go, and even the fact that you want to give sovereign governments the right to engage other governments and you want to have international arrangements, it is very difficult to bring it.
I am prepared to explore any reasonable possibility because I do not want to create a bill that is flawed before we get it going.
Even so you are also aware Mr Minister, that these arrangements were said to be corrupted in the past and what can the Government do to stamp out such behaviour in the future?
Well there have been accusations about that, yes, and certainly the government-to-government arrangements need to be there but transparent as anything else. For instance, if government enters into such a system, I think the government of Trinidad and Tobago should basically present to Parliament what it means in terms of this engagement.
How is the local content to be protected?
We have redefined local content and have strengthened it in the clauses of the bill and secondly, we introduced the concept of local industry development and remember you always have to make room for fair international competition.
There have always beendisagreements between governments and the private sector over governments' procurement policies over the years?
The JCC is not confident that we would get the kind of legislation we need at this time?
No. (Leafing through the proposed measure again) I think if you look at this bill you would see that this bill is very clear, very focused. When you look at the purpose it is clearly stated and the one thing they have objected to, as I have said, is the government-to-government system.
The time they say given by you for public consultation–three weeks–is too short?
No. (A slight frown) It is not too short. This thing has been going since 2010, (under the PP government), and as they themselves have stated, since about 2006 under the last administration.
How is this legislation different from what the PNM had drafted?
It is a little different and it is better. It is strong, clearer, on the issues that the civil society/private-sector groups wanted addressed, for instance, a definition of procuring agency, the effective independence of mechanisms of regulation and grievance resolution, value for money linked to performance and embedded participation on the maintenance of the integrity of the procurement system.
Senator Tewarie, (Receiving a text on his cell phone) what sort of guarantee can you give to ensure that corruption does not take place in these contracts?
I mean there is no way I can...but, if they can help me to make this bill one that is acceptable to the Parliament, it is one that I can have the vote of the Parliament and which can satisfy some of their concerns, I would do it in good faith. I really do not know what the Opposition would do but they were part of the consensus on the policy that helped to influence the clauses in the bill.
I should also say that the Opposition was not in favour of the inclusion of the government-to-government arrangement. But if there is a change of heart, a change of thinking, if there is a feeling that somehow we can make this better than it is I am prepared to consider all positive ideas.
Mr Minister, you think that groups like the JCC may have a political agenda or that they are really concerned about the national interest?
I don't want to impute political motives to them. I, however, suspect they are trying to serve their interest, that is the interest of the contracting group in Trinidad and Tobago and there is nothing wrong with that. It is legitimate to do that. What I have a problem with is how you do it. Once they bring the facts, once they argue their case, once they are willing to listen to reason, and there is a back and forth, I don't have a problem.
Do you have a problem with how they are doing it now?
At this time it is okay but there have been times when they have been less than reasonable. There have also been times when they were excessive, but within the last couple of weeks I have not seen any kind of boisterous or outlandish behaviour.
Senator Tewarie, (Taking another glance at his texts) how is the average citizen affected by this legislation...what's in it for him?
The average citizen is affected in the sense that if you have clear, transparent government it means less corruption, if no corruption at all. And that makes a big difference to the cost of living, it makes a difference in cost to the taxpayer, it makes a difference in the sense of the population at large that you live in a decent country in which you don't have accusations of corruption every day, and so on.It gives people the comfort that if something goes wrong in the procurement process that justice can be done.
So we are talking now about safeguards in the legislation?
Have the penalties been upped?
Yes, (Again referring to the bill) the penalties are quite significant. They involve $7 million, $5 millon, and $2 million fines, depending on the nature of the crime and therefore anybody involved in corruption, whether in the public or the private sector...
(Dr Tewarie, checking his watch, hastily interrupts the interview for a five-minute break, while hustling into the House to ensure the Government had the required number of votes to have the sitting extended beyond 6.20 pm, returning five minutes later) Yes the fines are very hefty and jail terms.
Are these penalties sufficient to deter those so minded to rob the public purse?
I would think that if people feel they want to make a jail for corruption they would think twice about whether they want to be involved in that...in acts of corruption.And Clevon, I have to rush off now but I would like to conclude by saying that this is landmark legislation. It has been long in coming.The Government of the People's Partnership has really, since 2010, tried to take to the Parliament sufficiently strong legislation and I think we have gotten it right.