Billions of dollars are being spent in Tobago every year, but we are not seeing the development to go with it, the first chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Hochoy Charles has lamented.
“Billions of dollars they have in Tobago but you’re not seeing where this money is being spent to develop our people. You don’t know where the money is being spent so something is wrong,” Charles told the Business Guardian.
“They are making a lot of blunders,” Charles said.
But what are the reason for these blunders?
Well, according to Charles, who was the THA’s chief secretary from 1996 to 2001, it is has a lot to do with “ignorance”.
“A lot of people do not understand the Tobago House of Assembly Act. It is a lot of ignorance,” he said.
Charles said that ignorance even extends to the Auditor General’s office.
Successive auditor general reports have raised serious questions about the way in which pubic funds are being accounted for by the THA.
“The THA is not a government department it replicates the government in Trinidad, the House of Assembly is like the government in Trinidad and under the government in Trinidad, notice I said in Trinidad and not of Trinidad because we have one government of T&T as you know,” Charles said.
Charles said money approved for the THA in the national budget is sent to the THA Fund in quarterly tranches.
The THA Fund is created by Section 141 of the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago and includes all revenue raised for Tobago inclusive of the budgetary allocation.
“So sometimes when the staff in Trinidad are examining the accounts of the THA they examine it as though they are dealing with a ministry and they take up the estimates and looking at it to say ‘you know the government sent this money to Tobago how you spent this money?”. The Assembly does not spend money like that,” Charles said.
“The executive council makes the decision as to how the quarterly advances are going to be spent and then releases money just like the minister of finance will sign a release, release these monies to a division,” he said.
Charles said the THA is not bound by the financial regulation under the Audit and Exchequer Act.
“You know we are not bound by the financial regulations under the Audit and Exchequer Act, we are bound by the Audit and Exchequer Act but not by the financial regulations. We have our regulations that we prepared under Section 52 of the THA Act and Section 78 of the THA Act and we are bound by those rules,” he said.
Charles said he believes “education” would help address the ignorance with respect to the THA and its operations.
“The Assembly makes a lot of blunders because the people who are there for the last 20 years do not understand the THA,” Charles said.
Charles said even the longest serving THA chief secretary Orville London was not as au courant about the THA Act as he should have been.
“I don’t even know what they do, they are doing a lot of stuff that they do not understand,” Charles said.
Charles said when he was THA chief secretary the budget that he had available was around $300 million.
In the last national budget the budgetary allocation to the THA was $2.283 billion
Economist Dr Vanus James said he believes “apathy” from the majority of Tobagonians has helped fuel the lack of accountability and oversight by the THA.
“The government gets away with it because of apathy in the population and because of the weak political structures we have here in Tobago,” James said.
James said this apathy has grown because Tobagonians are dependent heavily on the THA.
Around 70 per cent of the population in Tobago are employed by the THA, James said.
“There is a lot of dependence mental and financial, and there is a lot apathy that goes with that because people don’t want to rock the boat, and that’s a danger to the nation,” he said.
“I mean 70 per cent of paid employees working for the government means Tobago is a welfare state,” James said.
James said there is only a “small share” of Tobagonians who are upset by the lack of accountability.
“This is a systemic, structural problem and to fix it you have to change the nature of the THA as an institution and the nature of the political process in Tobago. The THA is simply an executive body there is no legislative oversight in the THA, and so because it is purely an executive body the executive council does whatever it pleases and that with the connivance of the THA Act,” he said.
“The THA Act is all written for the chief secretary to do this, and the chief secretary to do that, and there is no oversight mechanism built in at all,” James said.
James said there is also an absences of mechanism for the public to use to routinely inform the THA how they see the situation.
Change is needed, James said.
“We need systematic change, structural change of the design of the THA and further to that they need to change the political system. Because of the way the executive council dominates Tobago now what you have is a THA that is too big and people are scared of it,” James said.
“To free them from that you have to make the THA way smaller in the employment of Tobago and you have to build a private sector that is the bastion from which we can derive our freedom,” he said.
James said 45 per cent of Tobago’s output is government service while in Trinidad that stands at around 15 per cent.
“The THA has its knee on your neck, your back, your foot and you are not going to get any robust complaints about their performance in that context,” James said.
James said while the conversation about diversification continues in this country, Tobago needs to be the pivot of that.
“But that pivoting will not happen with the THA designed as it is,” he said.