The National Assembly last night passed a Bill repealing the controversial 2009 Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act and it is now left to be seen if it will be signed into law by President Donald Ramotar.
Passed by acclamation, the Billm which will also replace the law, faced heavy opposition from the government, whose members called it names such as vindictive and frivolous and meant only for political titillation.
Government MPs argued that the legislation was pointless since it will in no way affect the pension or other benefits and facilities of former President Bharrat Jagdeo, former President Sam Hinds and current President Ramotar.
The Act had been at the instance of former President Bharrat Jagdeo and he had been severely criticised over the last two years for engineering a bill with sumptuous benefits for him and other former presidents.
The mover of the bill, former Finance Minister and APNU MP Carl Greenidge made several amendments to it in the final minutes prior to its passage yesterday including the substitution of the word convicted for the word charged, meaning that if a former President is convicted of an offence, and not just charged with an offence, then the benefits are deemed null and void.
Greenidge also added the words ‘per month’ in Clause 3 of the Bill where it speaks to a former President receiving a sum not exceeding $5,000 for utilities.
Greenidge said that the purpose for bringing the bill to the house was to ensure that there was a common understanding of what needed to be corrected. He noted that the “Former President’s Benefits and Other Facilities Bill” seeks to remedy the deficiencies in the 2009 bill.
He stated that the pension that is availed to the President is done so using a very generous formula. He said that the quantum of the President’s pension and benefits is exceptionally generous and needs to be revised.
Greenidge made reference to the Chief Justice’s contention that the constitution provides for the government to be able to legislate on a matter that would enable them to make laws for Guyana. He said that it was for this matter that the Chief justice did not disagree with the 2009 proposed pension. He said that this reasoning was too general and allowed the accommodation of almost any decision.
Greenidge said that the 2009 legislation was badly drafted and that it committed the government to provide unlimited, unquantified and uncapped services to past Presidents. Greenidge said that all benefits identified in his 2012 Bill will be capped. “We have sought to cap every single one of them”
He pointed out that even in the US, past Presidents do not have lifelong security borne by the state.
He said also that benefits must be capped in a way that is consistent with the Government’s resources and capacity. He argued that it is unreasonable to expect a state with finite resources to provide infinite, lifelong benefits.
The Speaker of the House, Raphael Trotman, questioned the practicality of providing the past President with just two presidential guards as entailed in the bill. Greenidge maintained that the provisions he was proposing in his 2012 Bill were satisfactory, and that whatever more was required by the former President could be supplemented by his substantial pension.
Minister of Housing and Water Irfaan Ali said that the Bill will act as a deterrent to young people aspiring to become President of Guyana one day.
He said too that the Bill will violate the President’s constitutional and natural rights. He said that the $5,000 for utilities in Section 3 A of the amendment was insufficient and that it will only avail the former President two security bulbs and $1,000 worth of water.
Ali contended that the former Opposition Leader, Robert Corbin, receives his pension and still carries out political tasks for his party as well as other mediums and noted that the same privileges are extended to former Chancellors of the Judiciary.
He said that former President Jagdeo’s work on behalf of his country is priceless and so should be his benefits. He charged that the Bill is vindictive in nature.
Questioning Clause 4 of the Bill as it relates to the president losing his benefits if he is charged with an offence in Guyana or elsewhere, Ali said that according to the Constitution, someone is innocent until proven guilty, notwithstanding a charge against him or her.
He cited the benefits that the Opposition Leader receives as justification of the benefits the former President should receive.
Speaking on the Bill, APNU Vice-Chairman and Member of Parliament Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine said that the Bill does not seek to replicate the work of a special select committee that a motion of Greenidge had mandated be put in place to examine the President’s pension in relation to that of other constitutional office holders.
“The caps we are seeking to impose are not strange,” he said. “The benefits must not be used for partisan political activities,” he said.
Speaking on the issue of demotivation of young people because of the Bill, Roopnaraine said that it is his hope that people would be motivated by a commitment to service and not unlimited benefits when one leaves office. He said that the $5,000 for utilities must be viewed in the context that the former President already receives a hefty sum in pension.
“Our efforts are aimed at correcting an injustice and not aimed at any particular President,” he said.
Speaking on the Bill, Minister of Finance Dr. Ashni Singh said that he could not see any reason for it save to say that it is for political titillation and scoring points. He said that it was riddled with mistakes and was a part of a manufactured political controversy aimed at obfuscating the issue.
The Minister dismissed the section of the Bill which states that the former President would be disqualified from receiving the benefits should he or she take up paid employment or engage in business or trading. He pointed out that Greenidge was still receiving a pension and in response Greenidge vehemently denied this and said that this was not the case.
The Minister said that former President Jagdeo during his administration lifted Guyana to international respectability with his forest conservation thrust.
Former member of the PPP/C and current Alliance For Change Member of Parliament Moses Nagamootoo said that had the ruling party heeded his warning then it would not have been the minority in Parliament.
He said that he tried to dissuade the party against “assaulting the consciousness of the people” by giving the former President such a hefty package when the ordinary man and woman had to live off a pittance. He reminded the House that the issue “rattled [my] soul” when it came up for debate and passage in 2009. “Nobody is concerned about the public servant who has to go out there and live on their pension,” he said.
He said that the Bill was indefensible and it did not need an opposition to try to change it. He said the 2009 legislation was trampling on the frugal ideals of Dr. Cheddi Jagan.
Odinga Lumumba, MP for the PPP/C said that the opposition-piloted Bill is about the grouses of the “non-productive elements” in society.
Attorney General Anil Nandlall said that the Bill was not going to affect either Hinds or Jagdeo. He said that Article 142 of the Constitution classifies the benefits as property and therefore protected. He said that it is a denial of a former President’s right to grant them $5,000 to pay utilities.
Speaking on the Bill, AFC’s Khemraj Ramjattan said that the Constitution guarantees two things – a pension and a gratuity for a former President. He said that the Constitution is being breached by the 2009 Act.
On making his closing arguments, Greenidge said in response to those saying that the Bill strips a former President of his dignity that one cannot establish the dignity of a former President by paying him or her a fortune.
“In no way is the Bill designed to deny the pension of the former President,” said Greenidge. “How could the state support unlimited benefits when it does not get unlimited revenues,” he asked. He said that austerity must start at the top and if the Government say that they cannot afford to pay pensioners more, then it must be more frugal with the President’s pension and benefits.
The government used its majority in April, 2009 to pass the controversial bill. Then PNCR-1G MP and shadow finance minister, the late Winston Murray had told the Assembly that the main opposition endorsed the principle that the bill sought to enshrine but wanted specifics and he called on the government to send it to a special select committee in order to secure consensus. “If you want a statute-based approach, you should specify the benefits,” he argued.