PPP/C MP Juan Edghill on Friday appeared before the Privileges Committee of Parliament and used the argument of fair comment to defend statements he made in the House about the quantum of controversial salary increases awarded to APNU+AFC ministers last year.
“I therefore categorically deny that I had any intention to mislead the House or deliberately misinform as it relates to the statements I made in relation to the motion that was tabled,” Edghill said in a statement to the Privileges Committee which he released to the media.
Edghill’s release to the media said that he also presented a document to the Privileges Committee with his computations of the salary increases in which he maintains his position on the quantum.
The government side moved to send Edghill to the Privileges Committee after he claimed in an address to the House on December 17, 2015 that the increases quietly announced for ministers would cost an additional $1 billion over five years when compared to the PPP/C Cabinet. This was objected to during the same debate by the government side which said the annualized increases would be about $67.8 million per year or $339 million over five years.
Edghill’s document to the Privileges Committee on Friday asserted that the salary increases in all of the categories in Order #16 of 2015 would total $964.4 million over the five-year period and
with the inclusion of Minister in the Ministry of Communities, Valerie Patterson, the figure would rise to $1.001 billion.
He told the committee, “Mr Chairman, Committee Members and by extension the entire electorate, I wish to assure that I would not have done anything that could have brought my integrity, honour and dedication as well as commitment to the oath I took in the National Assembly into dispute or question. It is with that understanding that I appear here today and I hope that my statement and explanations would be received within that context and looked at in a fair, impartial and independent manner regardless of which side of the National Assembly you sit.” The Privileges Com-mittee is expected to deliberate on Edghill’s presentation. Committee members have been barred from publicly speaking on the issue, as is stated in the Standing Orders of Parliament and this has not found favour with the PPP/C.
“It is quite unusual that this standing order has now been invoked to prevent disclosures in relation to the work of the select committee when in the past members of select committees freely discussed their work with the press,” PPP/C’s Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs and member of the committee, Anil Nandlall complained to Stabroek News.
However, he said that the party was confident that its member would be able to defend his voice and prove that he did not mislead the House.
“We are having some very novel changes in parliamentary procedure in this Parliament. The name of the place where parliamentary business is conducted is named public building that by itself sends a particular signal. In addition, it is my considered view that every aspect of parliamentary work is public business and the public has a right to be informed of the working of its parliament. After all we are all representatives of the people who have been given a mandate by the people to canvas and agitate for what is in the best welfare and interest,” Nandlall said.
“Everything we do in that parliament is for and on behalf of the people. On what basis and by what principle are these very people prohibited from receiving information which touch and concerns the mandates that they have given to us and their interest and their welfare which we are supposed to advance,” he added, as he pointed to the Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) committee which saw both sides speaking to the press.
“A select committee that readily comes to mind is the AML/CFT Committee. Every single day both sides briefed the press on what transpired in the committee meetings. In fact when officials from CFATF (Caribbean Financial Action Task Force) were invited to brief the select committee they also addressed the press, why the change now?” he asked.
Edghill’s statement to the Privileges Committee chronicled the various initiatives that were taken to address his controversial statement.
He said that his statement on December 17 on the salary increase could have been clarified had the Speaker allowed him a personal explanation to the House as had been requested by PPP/C’s Chief Whip Gail Teixeira in a letter to the Speaker on January 7, 2016. That request was denied.
On the same day, Edghill noted that Scotland convened a meeting as Speaker of the National Assembly at which he (Edghill) and other MPs were present. At this meeting, Edghill said Parliament Office produced its own figures on the salary increases which totalled $458 million compared to the government’s tally of $338 million. “It was clear that there were now three figures provided,” Edghill noted.
Edghill, a former Minister in the Ministry of Finance, said another meeting was summoned by the Speaker on January 21, 2016 during which the APNU+AFC Chief Whip Amna Ally demanded that he withdraw his figures and apologise to the House. Edghill said that APNU+AFC MP Raphael Trotman who was present at the meeting offered to draft language that would satisfy this request but he (Edghill) was not amenable to this.
The government then submitted a motion on February 11, 2016 for Edghill to be sent to the Privileges Committee but this did not come up until May 4, 2016 when it was read before the House and approved by the Speaker.
Edghill said that in August this year he was invited by the Speaker to discuss the matter in the interest of an “amicable settlement”. Edghill said that he told the Speaker that he would be prepared to offer his computations in the presence of the Auditor General or the Accountant General.
At the final sitting in August, Edghill said he was again invited to meet with the Speaker and asked Nandlall to accompany him. Even in the absence of the Auditor General or the Accountant General he shared with the Speaker his computations. He said that the Speaker requested the computations in writing but that he (Edghill) did not honour that request.
On November 22, 2016 Edghill said he received a letter from the Clerk of the National Assembly summoning him to the Privileges Committee meeting.
The salary increases for ministers – particularly the 50% hike for Cabinet ministers – remains a matter of much controversy.