(Trinidad Express) A woman’s needs are different to a man’s, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said last night as she sought to make a case for the payment of a per diem to her sister, Vidwatie Newton.
In a statement issued last night, Persad-Bissessar said: “It was not unexpected that the election of a woman as Prime Minister would necessitate some changes in the arrangements for accommodation and personal travel. The official residence, for example, must be configured to meet the familial needs of the office-holder.
“Many personal issues unique to a woman warrant the involvement of a close and trusted assistant. This, more so, on occasions of official foreign travel when the hectic schedule and frenetic pace demands the Honourable Prime Minister’s undivided attention, without the distraction of critical personal care.”
The Prime Minister said the particular expertise Newton brought to bear was critical.
“Ms Vidwatie Newton was a qualified nurse with many years experience. She is responsible for the Prime Minister’s diet, medication, exercise, wardrobe and other health-related and personal issues. It is quite reasonable for the Honourable Prime Minister to trust and rely upon her sister for this level of personal care and attention. It should be noted as well that this support is provided on a continuous basis literally, as and when required,” Persad-Bissessar stated.
The Prime Minister said the Office of the Prime Minister, “like the Office of the President”, has traditionally recognised the need for a level of personal service and ancillary support to the office-holder. She stressed there was “ample precedent” of personal staff accompanying past and present presidents and prime ministers.
The Prime Minister, who has been criticised for having the State pay substantial per diem payments to her sister, defended the practice, pointing out that a previous (PNM) Cabinet had approved such a facility.
She stated the provision of the per diem to said individuals, including persons who are not public officers, was, in fact, contained in the Cabinet Minute 780 of April 2006 captioned: “Revision of the Per Diem for Official Overseas Travel”, which states: “the allowances provided in the per diem schedule be applicable to official overseas travel by non-public officers where Government is required to meet all cost”.
The Prime Minister said it should be noted she had the option of formally employing her sister, Ms Newton, as a member of her personal staff. “She refused to do so to avoid any allegations of nepotism, in consequence of which, Ms Newton receives no salary from the State. Moreover, such employment would essentially be for fixed hours and a fixed work week, in keeping with industrial relations practice,” she said.
The Prime Minister concluded, therefore, that in the circumstances, the criticism of the decisions of the Cabinet to have her sister accompany her on some of her more demanding overseas official visits was “unjustified, ill-conceived and totally without merit”. Such criticisms “failed to appreciate the human and practical side of the hectic life and schedule of the nation’s first woman Prime Minister”, the statement said. It added that Government reaffirms its commitment to the principles of transparency and integrity in public life.