Public Services’ Association president Leroy Baptiste is urging the country to “wake up” and take note of how Permanent Secretary Kurt Meyer was transferred from the Ministry of Education, less than two weeks after he was criticised on a public platform by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
On October 26, Dr Rowley spoke about an unnamed PS being a hindrance to achieving the Government’s Budget Day promise to pay public servants backpay before Christmas 2023. At that October 26 news briefing, Rowley, using TTUTA’s backpay as an example, said the PS wrote to the Minister of Finance and said those payments cannot be facilitated until May 2024.
Rowley said that would not be tolerated by the Cabinet and the Government would do what must be done. The Prime Minister said he had also complained to the head of the public service, who is also the PS in the Office of the Prime Minister.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert subsequently revealed the PM was referring to the PS in the Education Ministry. He also assured public servants would receive their backpay by Christmas as promised, adding sufficient resources to assist ministries processing the backpay would be provided if need be.
On Wednesday (November 8), Meyer proceeded on vacation leave and a new assignment will reportedly be awaiting him when he returns from leave, media reports yesterday revealed.
This series of events is of great concern to Baptiste.
“Let me be clear, I want workers to get their backpay. That is not the issue. The issue is the whole issue of political interference. The reality is that public officials ought to be entitled to exercise their duties without fear of repercussions from the political directorate. That is one of the constitutional safeguards you have by being a public officer, being insulated from the politicians, that is the whole idea of being a public servant, you serve the public not the administration,” Baptiste told Guardian Media yesterday.
Baptiste called the move a “blurring of the lines and an assertion of the political directorate”.
“A public officer, simply for expressing a factual scenario, is now being victimised by the political directorate. That is now wrong, and this country has to wake up. And somebody needs to stand up and say enough is enough, we cannot create an autocracy or dictatorship at its very best. And the public officer is being punished by simply stating a factual situation,” Baptiste argued.
Section 121 6(a) of the Constitution speaks to the transfer of a permanent secretary. It states: “the power to make appointments on transfer to the following offices shall vest in the Prime Minister-a) any office of the Permanent Secretary from one such office to another such office carrying the same salary.”
Calls to Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly went unanswered yesterday.
However, political analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath said in the absence of more information, it would be difficult to label the move as blatant political interference or victimisation. But he conceded the public should be concerned.
“From the looks of it, that is the way it looks, but not until we have any information that is the case can we say something on it. Where does it leave us? We need to be cautious that if the Government is going to interfere in the public service and in the operations of the public service, whether or not they are going to do so fairly and without bias. I cannot say for sure. I can tell you one thing, if I tell you today that there was malice, I am almost certain the PM is going to say I am being malicious because I don’t have all the facts. Should we be concerned? My answer to that is yes,” Ragoonath said.
Meanwhile, retired public service head Reginald Dumas said it appeared there was not sufficient consultation between the Government and the public service on whether it would be possible to pay all backpay by Christmas.
Dumas, however, said politicians criticising public servants was not new and has been happening since 1975 under then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams. Still, Dumas said there are some questions he would like Meyer to answer, including the timing of his letter to the Finance Minister, where he stated backpay for teachers could only be paid in May 2024.
“This agreement with the teachers was done in May (2023), we are now in November, that’s six months. What did the PS do once that agreement was reached? Did he say let’s see whether I have the staff to put together all the documents and all the papers to work out what each teacher is entitled to? I don’t know, we need to find out from Mr Meyer,” Dumas said.
Dumas also found it strange that Meyer gave a commitment for May 2024.
“How does he know what money will be available in May next year? Suppose the price of oil drops and money becomes even tighter? If you feel like you could not do this by Christmas, then what action did you take? So I will need to know these things before I leap to conclusions,” Dumas said.
Meanwhile, Opposition MP Anita Haynes called on the Prime Minister to come clean on whether he gave the instructions to transfer PS Meyer.
“This development, occurring in close proximity to Prime Minister Rowley’s public lamentation about public servants’ perceived autonomy, amplifies the need for transparency and accountability in handling such crucial matters,” she said.
Haynes lamented that “rather than be provided with the additional resources and support required, PS Meyers was transferred via the intervention of the Prime Minister, who also painted an incomplete and villainous picture in the court of public opinion.
“It is quite unfortunate that a career public servant’s reputation is being diminished because he could not turn water into wine for the Government.”