Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 20122143 25 Jan, 2013
Minister of Housing and Water [Mr. Ali]: I have listened very carefully to the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge as he sought to justify this Bill which, in my estimation, seeks to strip any former President of his or her dignity and seeks to strip any former President of his or her constitutional rights and of his or her natural rights. Also, this Bill acts as a demotivation to young, qualified, substantial members of our society who seek to work towards becoming President of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
I recall recently the Prime Minister of Jamaica making a very important statement for regional politics. She was speaking about Jamaica. She said that if the Government does not treat its Cabinet members with a certain level of respect and a certain level of dignity, then she is afraid that Government can lose its ability to attract qualified and dignified personnel to serve nationally.
We have to be very careful that when we draft legislation it does not work as a disincentive and it does not trample upon the constitutional rights of any individual, more so former Presidents. If one takes, for example, this Bill which is before us, section 3 (a) states:
“payment in respect of expenses, not exceeding five thousand dollars incurred for the provision and use of water, electricity and telephone services at his or her habitual place of residence in Guyana.”
Let us for one moment believe that this Bill was brought to ensure that the dignity of the President is preserved; and let us for one moment believe that the intention of this Bill is true, to put caps and secure the dignity and pride of a President or former President, how did the Hon. Member arrive at five thousand dollars? How did he arrive at this cap of five thousand dollars? Let us take five thousand dollars and let us assign a value to five thousand dollars. Let us see what we will accomplish. We would give the former President an allowance of one thousand dollars every month for his water
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Minister, the only thing I can think about is that, maybe, there is an anticipation that your Government will bring down the cost of living so that those matters can be taken care of. Go ahead Sir.
Mr. Ali: Mr. Speaker, you do not have to anticipate that. This Government has brought down consistently the cost of living and this Government…You must not forget, Mr. Speaker, that this Government brought inflation down from one hundred and nine per cent to 4.5 per cent; this is the Government that brought interest rate for housing from 39.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent; this is the Government that brought industrial interest rate down from forty-two per cent to 11.5 per cent. These are the evidence to substantiate what you are thinking.
I do not want to be derailed, but I am examining this five thousand dollars. The former President is given one thousand dollars for water and he is given two thousand dollars for electricity. If the non Linden rate for electricity is taken, it works out to forty-eight dollars and forty-two cents per kilowatt hour. The President then will be entitled to thirteen hundred watts of electric power per month. Thirteen hundred watts of electric power per month works out to be two security lights. The former President is entitled to one thousand dollars worth of water per month. If the cost of water in which we use in one sitting is added, one would see how far it exceeds that. He is entitled to two security lights. He is entitled to the remaining two thousand dollars for telephone charges. He is then entitled to twenty-two minutes of phone calls.
Here it is that we are singing praises in this National Assembly that we want to treat our former Presidents with dignity and honour and we want the world to respect them, we want our people to respect them, we want to motivate people to become Presidents, we want to retain highly skilled people in public service, and what we are giving a former President, when he or she leaves office, are twenty-two minutes of phone calls, two lights and one thousand dollars worth of water. That is what we are giving a former President. This is what the Hon. Member described as dignity. I describe it as utter disrespect and disregard for any former President of this country. [Mr. Greenidge: You give the old-age pensioners the same thing.] Let us talk about old-age pensioners. If the scenario at Linden is used, a pensioner is entitled to one hundred kilowatt hours of free electricity. Let us talk about the pensioners. This is what is established already for the ordinary citizens of this country and what we want to do is make a former President, whether it is former President Jagdeo or whoever, a pauper and someone who has no dignity in the society.
Let us go on to Section 3 (c). It states…[Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Order! Order! Order! Minister, please proceed.
Mr. Ali: Section 3 (c) states:
“services of clerical and technical staff, not exceeding three persons, if requested, provided that such staff are retained for the purposes related to the status of Former President or to any State related task or assignment which may be assigned to the former President officially and for which no additional remuneration is payable; but such purposes shall not include or relate to any political assignment;”
I believe that a former President has equal rights as any Guyanese to have a political view. I want the Hon. Member to explain to me how he defines a political task and how is it different from a State’s task assigned by the President.
If politics is defined then what I think this Bill is seeking to do is to muzzle the former President, to take away any political view or any political position of the former President.
Mr. Speaker, let me give you a practical example of how this Bill is discriminatory in nature. Look at the former Leader of the Opposition.
Mr. Speaker: Which one?
Mr. Ali: It is the immediate former leader. He benefits from his pension and we all know that he is still active politically. We all see him making political statements and taking on political assignments from his party but we do not object to that because it is good when there is an experienced political person continuing to contribute to the political life of a country.
I have never seen any Member of the Opposition opposing the immediate former Leader of the Opposition receiving his pension and practising law in which he receives superannuation.
I have proved that this Bill is also discriminatory. The Bill is discriminatory. The Bill is discriminatory in its very nature. Let us take... [Mr. Ramjattan: We are not giving him staff to do his political work.] I believe that we all must have equal rights.
Let us take a former Chancellor. A former Chancellor retires. He receives his pension, all his benefits as former Chancellor but is still practising law in some cases or working in aspects of the judiciary that requires his skills in law. There is a former President who receives his constitutional pension and he works in an environment in which his political skills and political…
Mr. Greenidge: Mr. Speaker, on a Point of Order, may I just draw the attention of the colleague that the Bill deals with benefits? Nowhere does the Bill suggest that the pension of a President is to be modified when he is employed. You raised the question a minute ago, Mr. Speaker. It did not apply to pensions. You did not ask me about pensions because it is not in the Bill. Please, can the speaker refrain from misleading the House?
Mr. Speaker: I will allow the speaker to set his arguments in context and you are given the right to rebut. Your colleagues may also rebut, but I will not restrict the Member from making his statements.
Mr. Ali: Mr. Speaker, clause 3 (c) states very clearly:
“...State related task or assignment which may be assigned to the former President officially and for which no additional remuneration is payable…”
A former Chancellor is assigned the task of Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority. He is paid at the Police Complaints Authority. What about if a former President is assigned the task of Chairman of an economic commission or the Chairman of a political commission and he is paid for that task? This Bill is stating that he should not be paid for that task, that he should not derive any payment or additional funding for that task. I am saying that that is discriminatory and that would definitely impact on his benefit.
Let us take, for example, former President Jagdeo. I am giving a practical example. This is a man who has received international awards and he is serving on many international commissions and boards. How can we assign the value Guyana gets from his participation? How can we assign a value to his contribution internationally to Guyana and the people of Guyana? If what he is doing there is expanding Guyana’s reach, creating awareness and bringing attention to Guyana, why is it that we must try to derail this? We are derailing it by saying if he takes on these responsibilities he cannot get any benefits that come with the responsibility. That is what we are saying. If the former President is to be nominated as the Secretary General of the United Nations and he becomes the Secretary General of the United Nations, what should he do? [Interruption from the Opposition Members] [Lt. Col. (Ret’d) Harmon: He will not need the pension then.] He should then refuse the payment that comes with that position or, as the Members are heckling, he should give up his pension. [Mr. Greenidge: We never said that.] You are heckling that.
I wish to go to clause 3 (d):
“free medical attention and treatment or reimbursement of medical expenses incurred by the Former President or his/her spouse or entitled child provided that (i) if such attention and treatment are sought outside Guyana only if unavailable in Guyana at governmental institutions or at private sector facilities if unavailable in governmental institutions;
(ii) further the aforementioned benefit shall only...”
Listen to this.
“...be applicable to natural children of the Former President and spouse, below the age of eighteen years subject, however, to a financial limit of two hundred thousand Guyana dollars annually;”
Let us examine the nature of this Bill. The inherent silent intention of this Bill is not only to strip the former Presidents, but to disgrace them.
To restrict the benefit to only natural children of the former President and spouse is tantamount to an outright discrimination and a blatant disregard for the provisions and intention and purpose of the Adoption of Children Act, Chapter 46:04, which makes provision, under section 17, for the rights, duties, obligations and responsibilities of the natural parents or guardians of the child to be vested exclusively in adopters as if the child had been born in him or them in lawful wedlock. In the haste to bring a Bill that strips the President of every dignity, they are now going blatantly against Chapter 46:04, the Adoption of Children Act, where they are saying that natural children... If the President adopts someone as a child, that person cannot be covered here. That child cannot be covered here.
Mr. Speaker: Mr. Ali, former President Burnham had adopted Kamana. Kamana Burnham became a fully-fledged member of the Burnham family by adoption.
Mr. Ali: Mr. Speaker, if former President Burnham was here when a Bill such as this was being passed, then we would have been in serious problems because this Bill is seeking to strip that child of his or her rights.
I would like to see what the Rights of the Child Commission has to say about this. I would like to see what the Human Rights Commission has to say about this. Here is where we are coming to this National Assembly to pass a Bill that is taking away the rights of the child, that is seeking to reject and strip the rights of that child; a Bill that is creating a distinction between a child born in wedlock and a child that is adopted. This is a sad day in the history of our country. This is a day that I dread. This is a day I thought that would have never occurred in a modern day democracy! Today we are asked to support a Bill, in this National Assembly, which seeks to take away the rights of a child. Never on this side of the House will we ever take away the rights of a child. That can never occur and will never occur in this Government.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member, take it easy. I would not want anything to happen to you here this afternoon. Please relax. Minister Ali, take it easy. I would not want you to collapse here this afternoon.
Mr. Ali: Mr. Speaker, this issue hurt the Government deeply because it is this Government that sought to create modern legislation to protect the rights of every child and we cannot allow such rights to be taken away. [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, whether a Member of the House rises or not, I will say, by way of clarification, that adoption laws have always existed in this country and predated this and even the former administrations. I believe this Government did update those laws but we have had adoption laws.
Mr. Ali: Mr. Speaker, further, the provision is not in conformity with the status of Children Act 2010 which makes provision for every child to be regarded as equal, regardless of whether he or she was born in or out of wedlock.
Article 149E (1) of the Constitution of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana states:
“All persons, whether born in or out of wedlock, and whether born prior to the enactment of this article or not, are born equal, have equal status and are entitled to equal rights.”
The Bill even goes one step further and states additionally that should a child have a medical condition that exceeds two hundred thousand dollars annually it will not be covered. Mr. Speaker, are we, in this House, going to define whether a child is born with a particular sickness? Are we going to define and limit a child to two hundred thousand dollars, regardless of the medical condition? [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, could we allow the Minister to speak rather than engaging him continuously, such as this? Allow Minister to speak please. Proceed Minister.
Mr. Ali: Yes Mr. Speaker. We cannot approve a Bill here that tries to predict the extent of an illness; that tries to predict the extent of medical intervention and care. To do that will be a great injustice on that child. To do that will be a great injustice on that former President.
Clause 3 (e) reads:
“full time personal security not exceeding two persons including the services of the Presidential Guard Service at the place of residence of the Former President;”
The Hon. Member gave an example of the time limit placed on former Presidents. This is so vindictive. Former President Hoyte, former President Arthur Chung and their spouses enjoyed security at varied degree and level provided by the State and issued on the advice of the Commissioner of Police. We cannot determine, in this House, a security matter; we cannot determine the extent of threat, in terms of the former Presidents’ security; we cannot determine what level of intervention is required for his or her security. That is a matter exclusively in the hands of the competent personnel of the Guyana Police Force. Why is it that we want to tie the hands of the competent authority in saying that it must not exceed this? Is there a plodder foot? Is there an effort here to compromise the security of the former President?
We have seen the dreadful result of a lack of security on the life of a former Minister and his family. [Mrs. Backer: So what?] I am saying that this House is in no position to determine the level of security or level of intervention that is required, by the security forces, for a former President.
The Bill tried to put in a goody – toll free road transportation in Guyana. Every single Member of Parliament here enjoys this benefit. Senior public servants enjoy this benefit.
Clause 4 (1):
“A Former President shall cease to be entitled to the benefits and other facilities provided by the Former President (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act 2009 as amended by this Act if the Former President engages in business, trade or paid employment or is charged with a criminal offence…”
It is not convicted. What is it called - a presumption of innocence? Listen to how vindictive it goes.
Lest we forget, natural justice is a fundamental tenet of any modern democracy and forms a fundamental pillar of the Constitution of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana. In simple words, a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty. [Mr. Greenidge: What does that have to do with it?] “What does that have to do with it?” You do not even know what you wrote.
He is seeking here to say that the former President is no longer entitled to that benefit if he is charged, not convicted. Here it is that the Hon. Member is comfortable taking away the constitutional rights of a former President. What the Hon. Member has done is to show his hand. His hand is not clean on this matter. The Hon. Member has ulterior motive. The Hon. Member was vindictively drafting this Bill. The Hon. Member was seeking to remove the dignity and pride associated with the office of the President when he drafted this Bill.
In closing, so that we can have a holistic view of the benefits derived and benefits given to various office holders, I wish to look at the same Bill that provided to the Leader of the Opposition under the Leader of the Opposition (Benefits and other Facilities) Act…
Mr. Speaker: One second. There are three or four debates going on and I am not hearing you as clearly as I ought to and would like to. I am asking for silence so that we can hear Minister conclude. Thank you. Go ahead.
Mr. Ali: The Leader of the Opposition (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 2010 includes:
• Rent free, furnished office accommodation.
• Medical attention, including medical treatment or reimbursement of medical expenses incurred by him for himself and the dependent members of his family - no cap. The dignity of the office is respected here. And who drafted this Bill? It was the Government of Guyana - the PPP/C Government.
• Thirdly, Bill includes full-time security at his personal place of residence. It did not say one or two – full-time security at his personal place of residence. It goes beyond, that the Office of the Leader of the Opposition to be provided with security by the Guyana Police Force.
• Fourthly, the services of a research assistant, an executive assistant secretary, a clerical office assistant, a chauffeur, a personal security officer, a gardener and two domestic servants.
This is what the Bill outlined for the Leader of the Opposition and I am happy that he is enjoying those benefits.
Salary, vacation allowance and parliamentary benefits equivalent to those of a Cabinet Minister are included. [Mrs. Backer: What is wrong with that? He should get more.] Nothing is wrong with that. What is wrong is the level of vindictiveness, the level of disregard and disrespect and the level of venom which came in the drafting of this Bill which seeks to strip the former Presidents of this country of their dignity.
I conclude by saying that we should never support this Bill that seeks to take away the rights of children; that seeks to strip the former Presidents of their dignity and that seeks to disregard the constitutional rights of a former President. No way can we support this Bill.
Thank you. [Applause]
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