It was a serious error to treat a special package for the AG as a benchmark

Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo appears to have intended to dismiss the public’s response to the 50% salary increase for Cabinet members in describing it [the response] as “comparable to beating a dead horse”, adding that “this rage has run its course”. (SN Oct 22 ‘Pay hike necessary to offset ministers’ loss of earnings’). The latest evidence to the contrary is a letter by Mr Nowrang Persaud in yesterday’s Sunday Stabroek (25-10-15) ‘Attorney General’s salary should have been red-circled’.

In his letter, Mr. Persaud refers to a report touching on the differential between the salary of the Attorney General and the rest of the Cabinet on the need some decades ago to ‘import’ a Guyanese legal luminary with unique competences. In his last week’s Stabroek News column on the subject of the increases, Mr. Ralph Ramkarran had identified the package offered by Prime Minister Burnham to Sir Shridath Ramphal. Mr. Ramphal was at the time working in a top law firm in Jamaica, and in his new position in Guyana would be designated responsibility for two disparate portfolios – Attorney General and Minister of State for External Affairs – with the additional task of drafting the emerging country’s Independence Constitution.

It seems from his writings that Mr. Ramphal did his best to discourage Mr. Burnham from employing him: he would only accept the position as a technocrat without party affiliation; was doing well financially in Jamaica with his family; if for any technical reason he had to sit in the Legislature, he wanted no vote and would not be subject to any party whip. But as he said, Forbes Burnham was not easily put off and agreed to all his conditions, presumably salary included. Continue reading It was a serious error to treat a special package for the AG as a benchmark

That 50% salary increase

After less than five months in office, members of the Granger Cabinet have decided to award themselves salary increases of 50%. The increases take effect from July 1, so that the increase of 50% was after less than six weeks the Ministers had been on the job. When the press approached him some months earlier, Governance Minister Mr. Raphael Trotman had said there would be no astronomical increases. But is it not astronomical when compared with what Cabinet approved in the Finance Minister’s Budget for government employees and pensioners?

In that Budget, the minimum salary in the public service was increased from $42,703 per month to $50,000 per month, or 17.1%. But there was a catch: unlike every other year in the past thirty years, the increase was for half the year only. The effective increase then, for the people at the bottom of the scale, for 2015 over 2014, is 8.5%. For public servants receiving a salary of $100,000, the increase was 10%, or 5% over a full year, and for those receiving $200,000 and $500,000 the effective annual increase was 3.75% and 3.0% respectively. There was an additional increase of $5,000 per month for persons above the minimum wage. Note that for public servants the higher salaries attracted lower percentages and lower salaries attracted higher percentages. Cabinet clearly did not think that principle applied to them. The APNU+AFC’s 100 days commitment was “Significant salary increases for government workers, including nurses, teachers in primary, secondary and tertiary education; security personnel; and civil servants on the traditional payroll.”

And how about pensioners? Ram & McRae’s Budget Focus 2015 had noted that 2015 pension increases were subject to no retroactivity. And while the Finance Minister announced a $3,875 increase in the monthly pension from September 1, 2015, the Budget withdrew the monthly subsidy of $2,500 and $990 for GPL and GWI previously enjoyed by pensioners. Net increase: $385 per month but payable from September 1, an increase in 2015 of less than 1%! The APNU +AFC’s 100 days commitment was “Significant increase in Old Age Pensions”. Continue reading That 50% salary increase

The Consolidated Fund is not a medical insurance pool for ministers and their families

The first hint that the government was financing cosmetic treatment for those close to the party arose out of Attorney General Anil Nandlall’s astonishing conversation with the Kaieteur News reporter a couple of months ago. What we did not know until we learnt of Pauline Sukhai’s designer mouth job was that the scheme might even extend to visits to the manicurist.

The health of every citizen is, of course, important and there should be no trivializing. Ironically, the health minister’s reimbursement of a medication bill for $1,000 does exactly that, which is regrettable since every employer has a duty to provide a minimum standard of health coverage for its employees. I believe too that a government has a duty to provide medical service to its people.

What I certainly do not subscribe to is the suggestion that the Consolidated Fund is some contrived pool of insurance for ministers, their families, their friends, members of the judiciary and ranking members of the Audit Office. Sadly, that is exactly how it now appears following the leak of information on the secret scheme operated by the Cabinet.

The publication of the information is a triumph of the people versus the state. That bit of enterprise is worth more that the entire budget of the Office of the Commissioner of Information. Predictably, the PPP/C assumed the role of victim when the information was revealed by our more enterprising media. Happily, what the PPP/C did of course was to confirm the veracity of the information and plead then patient confidentiality to justify their rape of the public purse.

I believe the reporting of the information by the press reflected responsible and commendable journalism. I saw nothing to support the claim of breach of patient confidentiality but rather I saw a significant step in support of whistleblowing legislation. Later this week too, the press provided us with information on a scheme by the Cabinet to transfer money properly payable into the Consolidated Fund to a project under the control of the Housing Ministry. The press played a big hand in causing the government to rethink its position and at week’s end it seemed to be totally confused. Two strikes for the press.

It was perhaps coincidental but it was July last year that I had cause to write a letter to the press in which I questioned the role of Cabinet in adjudicating over the health issues of citizens. My letter was prompted by the death of a family member, 57-year old Basdeo Gobin, who died while his application for assistance languished among Cabinet’s papers. The letter was carried in the Stabroek News of July 21, 2014 under the caption ‘Why does Cabinet have to deliberate on cases of persons needing urgent medical help?’

The same Cabinet that failed to respond to a request for a contribution to the cost of a heart operation which might have saved the life of a poor man, could pay for all sorts of vanity expenditure for ministers and senior party members. This is socialism that even George Orwell could not predict: where all people are equal, some are more equal than others, and a handful are more equal than all combined.

On the list of beneficiaries are the Prime Minister and his wife, ministers, former ministers, presidential advisers, senior government auditor and the wife of a minister, a sitting judge of the Court of Appeal and the country’s attorney general. Despite all the questions asked, no one has put in the public domain the rules and the procedures for the government medical assistance scheme and indeed the relationship between that scheme and the medical scheme offered by the National Insurance Scheme.

I am aware of the convention that judges do not engage in public exchanges and I do respect that. But I believe that when a sitting judge seeks out discretionary benefits from the executive, whether in the form of medical assistance or other facilities, they run the serious and real risk of compromising not just themselves but the entire judiciary.

My question to Justice B S Roy is whether he considered the implications of accepting discretionary benefits from the Cabinet of Guyana. I would ask the same question of Mrs Gitanjali Singh, the Deputy Auditor General in the Audit Office, who the public believe is already compromised by remaining with the Audit Office while her husband is the Minister of Finance.

Additional questions I would have for Mrs Singh are whether a) she is aware of any documentation to regulate the operation of the scheme; b) the specific source of the funds; c) the specific bank account from which the payment is made; d) confirmation that it is not one of the many slush funds operated out of the Office of the President; and e) whether she can give the public a single instance of the annual report of the Audit Office commenting on this scheme.

I would also ask the following questions of both Justice Roy and Mrs Singh:

– Would they have accepted the benefits if they knew that the information would become public?
– Was the right of access to the scheme part of their compensation package?
– Should such payments not be covered by personal insurance?
– Did they decide not to have medical insurance?
– Do they consider it fair to expect taxpayers to meet their medical bills because they choose not to have medical insurance?
– What was the procedure they employed in accessing the benefits?
– Was the amount paid the full amount spent by them?
– Was it a requirement that they meet part of the costs of their medical expenses?
– Do they believe that the scheme should be revamped?
– Do they believe that every person should have the same rights and privileges under the scheme?

Finally, a question to Mr Nandlall. He had said in the press that he had paid back the $4 million he received from the scheme. Would he confirm that he has in fact done so and explain why he would return money to which he was entitled?