The Committee of Supply yesterday completed vetting allocations for the 10 administrative regions, which will stand as part as the budgetary estimates but not before opposition members continued to scrutinise multi-million dollar increases in allocations for security services.
Much like the consideration of estimates sought for regions One through Five last Friday, the proposed allocations for region’s Six through Ten were easily received, despite a moderate flurry of questions on increased payments for security firms by members of the opposition parties – A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance for Change (AFC).
AFC MP Veerasammy Ramayya was the first to raise the issue and started by noting that amounts to bepaid for private security this year under Region Six’s Agriculture Pro-gramme is almost double last year’s allocation.
Last year, $27.1 million was allocated to pay for security services and this year the amount increased to $43.8 million. When asked to explain the increase, Minister within the Local Government Ministry Norman Whittaker told the committee that like many other agencies, the cost for private security increased as of last year due to the new Minimum Wage Order issued by the Ministry of Labour.
Ramayya also noted that allocations for security under the Region’s Education Delivery programme increased significantly. Last year, payments to security firms amounted to $128.7 million, and this year the amount jumped to $187.2 million.
Whittaker explained that the increased allocation, again, was necessitated by the new Minimum Wage Order. As such, instead of paying last year’s rate of $145 an hour, the payment is now $300. He added that the payment will facilitate the provision of said services to nursery, primary and secondary schools in the region on a 24-hour basis.
Ramayya also took aim at allocations for security services under the region’s Health Services programme, which is up to $74.5 million this year from last year’s allocation of $49.6 million. Once again, Whittaker attributed the increased payments to higher rates necessitated by the Minimum Wage Order issued last year.
Stabroek News caught up with Ramayya during a break yesterday and asked why he continued to ask questions about increased payments for security services when the forthcoming answer was obvious.
The MP said that he has received information indicating that the employees of the security firms contracted by the Region Six administration are not receiving the benefit of the increased minimum wage. Ramayya said he has learned that the employers at the security firms continue to pay wages below the minimum wage, even though the payment they receive from the region was increased to cover the cost if increased salaries. At least one of the security firms, he added, does not even pay NIS contributions for their employees as it is in the habit of taking on employees who have already reached the retirement age. Ramayya also said that security guards are also not paid overtime, even though many of them are required to work hours beyond the hours prescribed by Guyana’s labour laws.
Ramayya was unable to voice these concerns in his questions to Whittaker, and he is only allowed to ask questions on the estimates.
Provisions for security services under programmes for Region Seven also drew questions from the opposition members of the committee. This time it was APNU MP Winston Felix, who asked the minister the reason for the increase and requested that a list of the places to be guarded be presented for scrutiny. Whittaker explained that the payments will facilitate the provision of security services to various locations, and that the increase was again necessitated by last year’s new Minimum Wage Order.
Allocations for the provision of security under Region Seven’s Education Delivery programme was also up. Last year, government allocated $16.9 million and this year the amount is almost doubled, $30 million. This time, in addition to asking the reason for the increase, Felix asked that the minister reveal the name of the security firm contracted to provide security services. Again, Whittaker said the increased payment is a result of the new Minimum Wage Order, and he revealed the security contractor to be Strategic Action Security (SAS).
At the mention of the name, members of the opposition parties burst into a short stint of mild heckling.
Last year, the owner of the SAS firm, Richard Kanhai, was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property after a police raid.
Felix asked Whittaker why the SAS owner was awarded the contract, considering the nature of the crime for which he was taken before the courts. At this point, House Speaker Raphael Trotman, who chairs the Committee of Supply, reminded Felix that the contractor, despite what he has been accused of, is innocent until proven guilty according to Guyana’s law. He said that this is something that Felix should know in light of his law enforcement background.
But Felix persisted, arguing that had he been a contractor accused of the same crime he would have been blacklisted. Whittaker, however, said that the ministry had nothing to do with the tendering process. The process, he continued, is handled entirely by the Regional Tender Board.
APNU MP Amna Ally then stood and asked if any of SAS’s security guards were utilising laptops in the execution of their responsibilities. APNU and AFC members burst into laughter at this question, although the government side and even the Speaker seemed to not find Ally’s jab humorous. Needless to say, Ally’s question was not allowed.
Sometime after, Trotman announced that a news report generated by an online media avenue prompted Kanhai’s lawyer to contact him. Trotman said that the man’s lawyer informed him that stolen property charges were dropped.
APNU MP Joseph Harmon wasted no time in indicating that while those charges have been dropped, the Labour Ministry has initiated proceedings against the company for its refusal to honour the new Minimum Wage Order.
The opposition parties also noted increased allocations for security services in region’s Eight and Nine. Though the amounts in these regions are not as much as those previously stated, it was still noted that provisions for Region Nine’s Education Delivery programme this year increased to $8.4 million over last year’s allocation of $5.2 million. Allocations for security services under the region’s Regional Administration programme also increased significantly. The amount this year is $10.5 million, while last year’s allocation was $5.5 million. It should be noted that SAS holds the above mentioned contracts as well.
Meanwhile, during the consideration of the allocation for Region Ten, Whittaker fielded questions from APNU parliamentarians Vanessa Kissoon and Renis Morian, who both represent the region in the House.
It was noted that Regional Chairman Sharma Solomon’s vehicle has been under repairs for some time and Whittaker explained that in the interim the Regional Chairman is now using a hired vehicle. Kissoon asked him if it was not more economical to purchase a new vehicle as she attempted to ascertain how much has been spent on repairs so far. While he could not give how much has been spent so far, the minister said they will investigate why the vehicle needs repairs since it is a relatively new vehicle. But Morian noted that the vehicle could have been refurbished rather than a new vehicle.
In answer to another question from Kissoon, the minister revealed that that 10 solar panels will be given to communities in the Berbice River even though those from last year are now being installed—a process that started in February.