A SPLIT Senate late Monday night passed a Miscellaneous Provisions Bill to raise the pensions of top public office-holders, but without making controversial amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which the Government withdrew in committee stage.
The bill also gives the Finance Minister an overview of Central Bank staffing and structure, enacts a tax amnesty, excludes individuals from the National Insurance Scheme (namely Venezuelan migrants) and adjusts the period for a non-profit organisation to register with the Government.
The sitting ended at 12.05 am Tuesday.
The bill was passed by 20 votes for, six against and three abstentions. The Independent Senators were spilt between supporting the Government and abstaining, but with none joining the Opposition to oppose.
The Independents voting for the bill were Paul Richards, Sophia Chote, SC, Anthony Vieira, Hazel Thompson-Ahye and Zola Phillips, while Dr Varma Deyalsingh, Amrita Deonarine and Charrise Seepersad abstained.
A moment of quiet drama came in the committee stage when Finance Minister Colm Imbert said he wished to delete the bill’s amendment to the FOIA.
At that, Opposition Senator Saddam Hosein launched into a speech to praise every NGO that had opposed the amendment, but was cut off by Senate President Christine Kangaloo reminding him that this was not the time for speeches.
A number of NGOs had signed a paid press advertisement to oppose the FOIA amendment which had proposed to extend from 30 days to 90 days the time a public agency has to reply to queries. The Media Association and Law Association voiced concern.
A proposal to give 90 days to the Attorney General to adjudicate on appeals against public authorities’ refusal to answer FOIA requests had also been strongly criticised by civil society and the Opposition, deeming the AG to be a political figure.
In committee, Imbert sought to justify the bill’s proposal to add a housing allowance and a personal allowance to the salary figure in calculating the pension of a past president, prime minister and judge. He reckoned the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) had accidentally overlooked these two benefits with regard to the PM, a post-holder who might one day need a housing allowance in lieu of state housing, as had once happened to former PM Patrick Manning. “He (PM) doesn’t get it now. It may be an option for the future,” Imbert justified.
Hosein protested, “It is irresponsible for us to include (in calculation of pension) a benefit that does not exist in law. For the PM there is no value. It’s obscene.”
Imbert retorted that in the Lower House, several MPs had asked him to take care of former prime ministers, both of whom are UNC, and Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal had accused him of victimising Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Contrasting the Opposition in the Senate and the House, he said, “I don’t know which faction of the UNC I’m talking to.”
Hosein accused Imbert of misleading the Senate, saying Persad-Bissessar had asked the House to delete a clause on a housing allowance for a past PM. Khadijah Ameen scotched Imbert’s reference by saying Manning was a sitting prime minister, but the bill refers to pensionable PMs. Imbert reiterated that Moonilal had accused him of victimising past PMs.
Imbert promises to return to the question of granting pensions to non-portfolio-holding senators, including Opposition and Independent senators, as now enjoyed by MPs and government ministers. While Hosein opposed indexing the pensions of top post-holders to keep up with inflation, this provision remained in the bill, even as Imbert promised to look at indexing other pensions in the public sector “when we can afford it.”