Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 20121418 02 Aug, 2012
Dr. Roopnarine: Thank you Mr. Speaker. First of all I want to commend the Attorney General and his colleagues of the legal fraternity for their display of civility and harmony in recently concluded debate on the important and historic piece of legislation on the Official Gazette and on the Deeds Registry.
I am afraid I cannot commend the Hon. Attorney General with the same feeling in relations to his just concluded disquisition on Parliamentary propriety, appropriateness of the measure that we are taking, the fact that we are in danger of not approaching our business with sufficient circumspection and sufficient care.
I do not believe myself that we are trespassing on the business of the judiciary in relations to review of legislation. I believe that in asking that this matter be sent to a select committee, we are simply saying that there are aspects of this legislation that in our opinion requires some refinement and some more precision. The argument that we should not be proceeding by way of motion and that instead we should bring a bill that can be refer to a select committee in due course, is an argument that I think has a certain validity, but I am not sure that in making the argument the Hon. Attorney General has excluded the procedure that we are seeking to apply this evening.
I am also a little bit disturbed that the Hon. Attorney General assumes that we would not be able to arrive at a consensus in the select committee that is being proposed. I quite agree that Articles 142, 149(B) and 222 would require a two-thirds majority to get anything achieved. But I am not ruling out the possibility that working together on the select committee, we would not be able to arrive at the consensus that we seek. We quite agree that those particular Articles of the Constitution cannot be interfered with by anything less than a two-thirds majority, but I believe that we can, in the interest of what we are attempting to do, win that consensus in the course of the discussions on the select committee.
I have to say that I have had the privilege of listening to the learned Attorney General in the Chief Justice’s court and I know that he is long on disquisition and arrived sufficiently armed with his plethora of precedents to make his argument. I did not realise until this evening myself, what a constitutional conservative the Hon. Attorney General is.
On the issue before us, I want to say that I think it is safe to say, as the Hon. Mr. Greenidge has already pointed out, that no other single matter arouse more wide spread agitation in the election campaign of 2011. An agitation not limited to supporters of the Opposition parties, it was an agitation that we found in all communities where the poor and the powerless were over represented, including communities traditionally supportive of the PPP.
Why did this issue touch such a nerve among the people? This is the question that we need to address. I believe first of all, that the completely derisory pre-budget pensions paid to people who are at the end of a working life receives a pittance of $8100, that it was derisory because not infrequently, this amount of money could not even have supported the transportation cost to uplift the pension in many instances. That was the first issue, that people were being presented with a situation in which the former President would be in effect, be granted an extremely fulsome pension in the presence of their own rather paltry payments.
The second point is that the hassles that are attendant on the ability to access pension payments. For instance, recently there were pensioners on the Corentyne who were complaining bitterly over the inconvenience that is caused when the postmaster is not a justice of the peace, causing them to run around looking for a JP to sign the proof of life document to verify that the individual is indeed alive.
This has been proven to be an exhausting business, hard on the spirit and on the pocket, and citizens across the country are pleading to have the postmaster either be lawfully qualified to sign the proof of life document or indeed have a Justice of Peace (JP) present at the post office.
Indeed, I believe that, and I was very heartened to hear, what is being contemplated is a serious review of the entire system, that the pension system is in dire need of reform. I am happy to hear that there is some commitment by the Hon. Minister to engage in this reform process, but we have to deal with this pension environment which, I believe, had a great deal to do with the agitation that people felt across the country in the presence of the fulsome of the pension that is to be paid to the former President.
One of those pensioners, in fact, called me this morning from the Corentyne, to draw my attention to an article that appeared in today’s Stabroek News in relation to some reforms that were being enacted in Suriname. I will quote. It is on page 5 of today’s Stabroek News:
“Senior citizens who receive their old-age pension from the Central Old-Age Pension Fund (AOV) no longer have to go through the annual registration and requirement to submit a Proof of Life document now that the Fund and Central Bureau for Population Registry (CBB) have matched their data banks.
AOV director John Samson says that the cooperation between the two services must result in a better performance of both systems. On the 29 February CBB director John Sahari and his counterpart at AOV decided to match their data banks after a painful incident when a senior citizen died at an AOV counter moments before he was to submit his Proof of Life document. The incident proved how laborious the process is for senior citizens to prove that they are still alive.”
It goes on to state:
“Immediately after the matching,…”
It was between these two institutions.
“…the registration of senior citizens at the banks was terminated. This was bliss for the very old and those that are sick or can barely walk.
I am saying that while we have this level of distress within the pension environment, I think that it is no accident or it is easily understood why the issue of the former President’s pension caused as much agitation as it did in the communities around the country.
I think what we know is that the Hon. Minister of Finance, himself, was eventually of a mind to raise the pension, as we know, from $8,100 to $10,000 in the budget. I believe that he has convinced himself of the inadequacy of the pension payments and told us this in no uncertain terms, in various discussion, that he, himself, would have liked to have raised it even more, but the argument that he made was that we have to be very careful that what we do in this regard is commensurate with the country’s ability to pay. This was his argument and it was an argument that he made which is customary conviction. I have no doubt that he believed this. All we are saying, in relation to this particular package, is that this too must be taken in the context of the country’s ability to pay.
It is obvious that the spreading dissatisfaction over the former President’s pension was biting deep into the PPP’s support and this was evidenced by the very lengthy defences mounted in the press by the highest officials of the Government that launched a media counteroffensive. No less a person than my friend, the Hon. Prime Minister, wrote on 5th November in Stabroek News and he said in that occasion (As a person how has had the pleasure of knowing the Hon. Prime Minister for many year I would not be one to accuse him of, in effect, a self-serving presentation, but others who do not know him as well as I do might well argue that this is a case of special pleading.) that in effect, what the political parties were doing in the course of the campaign was raising up this issue merely to agitate people. [Mr. Hinds: Read the words.] I quote your words.
“The efforts by the opposition parties and their media fanatics to dramatise the value of the allowances and benefits given to past Presidents ignore the fact that not one of the benefits and allowances given to President Jagdeo is new. It is regrettable that Members of the Opposition and the media, being unable to identify real election issues, have stooped to new lows in trying to beguile and deceive and agitate the Guyanese voters…”
The Hon. Prime Minister was not alone. There were other heavyweights who weighed in, namely Dr. Nanda Gopaul, who wrote on this matter; the Hon. Mr. Robert Persaud, who at the time was the campaign manager for the PPP/Civic, and Mr. Prem Misir, all weighted in to provide clarifications and to launch an assault on the competing parties and on the media.
Writing in the Guyana Chronicle, on Monday, November 7, 2011, Mr. Misir pointed us to the legislation of the United States of America (USA) and he provided a table to prove his point. I am, myself, very grateful to Mr. Misir for pointing us in the direction of the US legislation because what he neglected to tell us is that the US legislation is careful to impose a number of restrictions and limits on the benefits that are to be enjoyed by former Presidents. I am choosing to quote from the American process because it is not a poor country and what it states here is very interesting. I am quoting from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress, Order Code 98-249 GOV and it was updated on 18th March, 2008. On page 3 of this report, on the question of staff and office allowances, this is what it states:
“Six months after a President leaves office provisions of the Former Presidents Act, as amended, authorize the GSA administrator to fund an office staff. During the first 30-month period when a former President is entitled to assistance under the FPA the total annual basic compensation for his office cannot exceed $150,000. Thereafter the aggregate rates of staff compensation for a former President cannot exceed $96,000 annually. The maximum annual rate of compensation for any one staff member cannot exceed the pay provided at Level 2 of the Executive Schedule, currently $172,000. A former President supplements staff compensation or hires additional employees from private funds.”
In other words, there is a clear intention to impose limits and restriction on all of these expenses. What is found in this is that, in effect, it is imposing, not only time limits, but it is also imposing administrative measures to ensure that there is no abuse of the system.
The report states:
“GSA, in consultation with officials representing the former Presidents, prepares yearly operating budgets. Funds are appropriated by Congress and are included as part of GSA’s Annual Appropriation Act. In addition to assisting the former President’s offices with budget preparation, GSA also provides administrative support for the offices of former Presidents, assisting on request for equipment supplies and other expenditures.”
It goes further.
“The FY 1955 Treasury, Postal Service and General Government Appropriations Act proscribes the use of funds for allowances and office staff for former Presidents for partisan political activities.”
It is another restriction.
On the question of travel expenses:
“Legislation enacted in 1968 authorizes GSA fund to be made available to a former President and no more than two members of his staff for official travel and related expenses.”
[Mr. Nadir: What is the cap?] It is no more than two. That is a cap.
On medical expenses, this is what the Americans insist on:
“Former Presidents and their spouses, widows and minor children are entitled to treatment in military hospitals because of their status of secretarial designees authorized to receive such benefits by the Secretary of Defense. Health care costs and billed to the individual at an interagency reimbursement rate established by the office of management and budget. Former Presidents and their dependants may also enroll in private health plans at their own expense.”
In terms of Secret Service protection, it used to be that the Secret Service provided lifetime protection for former Presidents but that was amended to say:
“The FY 1995 Treasury Postal Service General Government Appropriation Act amended 18USC 3056 to limit protection to 10 years for former Presidents who begin serving after January 1st for their spouses.”
What we find in this is that even in a country, which is not as deprived in many ways as ours is, and other countries in the Caribbean that have been cited, insists on administrative and other restrictions to ensure that the benefits paid to former Presidents are, in effect, capped and clearly limited.
When we turn to our own instance, which is the Act that we are seeking to review and amend, namely the Former President’s (Benefits and other Facilities) Act 2009, what do we find? We find in clause 2:
“Every person who having held the office of the President and ceased to hold that office by virtue of the provisions of Article 92 of the Constitution, or otherwise, shall during the remainder of his lifetime be entitled to the following…”
It is “shall during the remainder of his lifetime…” Even the United States of America insists that certain of the benefits are restricted to ten years. It cannot continue with these benefits for the lifetime of a former President. In our instance, we are talking about, for a lifetime, having full-time personal security and services of the Presidential Guard Service at the place of residence, and Mr. Greenidge has already made the point about the provision of motor vehicles, without saying how many motor vehicles we are discussing.
All we are attempting to do, in effect, is to take these matters into the Special Select Committee where we can together try to work out what is a rational and affordable set of benefits that would make our former Presidents live lives of dignity. What we are saying is, which I personally believe, that any former President would be more relieved to find that what has been granted to him or her would have, in effect, the agreement of the whole House. I do not believe that we want the President to believe that half of the House somehow disapproves of what it is that he is receiving. I would prefer, myself, to have the former President enjoy his benefits and what he receives after the full agreement of the entire House. I am hoping that this is what can be achieved in the Special Select Committee and I hope that Members of the other side will see the need for consensus on this matter if only because, I believe, that consensus on this matter would be something that the former President would appreciate rather than feeling that he is enjoying something which is disapproved of by half of the National Assembly.
I thank you Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
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