In what he described as an “adjustment,” President David Granger yesterday announced three changes to his Cabinet, including the demotion of the embattled Minister of Public Health Dr. George Norton to the Ministry of Social Cohesion.
Granger, who only last month declared that he was satisfied with the performance of his ministers, also announced that Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence would replace Norton in the Public Health Ministry, while Minister of Social Cohesion Amna Ally would head the Ministry of Social Protection.
All three of the ministers are senior members of the PNCR—the largest party in the coalition government—and observers have pointed out that it would have been difficult for the president to fire any of them.
Norton yesterday told Stabroek News that even though his strength lies in the health sector, where he would have been advocating for nearly three decades, he would be taking up his new appointment and putting his best foot forward. “I will be taking up the appointment,” he said, when asked, before adding that he has been a “political animal” for many years and wherever the party [he is the vice-chairman of the PNCR] needs him he would function. “My modus operandi is always to do my best that is what I did at the Ministry of Public Health in spite of the treatment by the media, that only helped me to be stronger…,” he added.
In a recorded statement released by the Ministry of the Presidency, Granger made a point of saying the reassignments were “not a “reshuffle” but “adjustments” or a “shift” to ensure the government continues to deliver the quality of public service to the people.
“It is my responsibility, as head of Government, to continuously assess the ability of the Cabinet to fulfill its functions and this is a normal activity,” he explained.
Although he said that he was “quite happy” with Norton, Granger noted that criticisms over the last year influenced the decision to remove him. “I felt that the criticisms were detracting from the Cabinet as a whole and as a result I thought it prudent and timely to make the changes at the beginning of 2017,” he said.
While he did not mention what the “criticisms” were, Norton has come under tremendous pressure after he misled the National Assembly about the single-sourcing of a house converted in a drug bond, for which he was forced to apologise. He is now facing the Privileges Committee over the same issue.
In justifying Norton’s reassignment to the Ministry of Social Cohesion, Granger pointed out that there has been some criticisms about the “quality of national unity and social cohesion.” He also said Norton joined A Partnership for National Unity as leader of the Guyana Organisation of Indigenous People and he “has broad knowledge, deep knowledge” of the hinterland. “When we look at social cohesion, we are not just speaking about African and Indians; we are not speaking about the ethnic problem or religious problem, we also have to look at spatial dimension and I felt he had an advantage in his knowledge of the hinterland because our administration has always spoken about closing the gap between the coastland and the hinterland,” he added.
Since its inception, the Ministry of Social Cohesion, which falls under the Ministry of the Presidency, has faced criticisms over its mandate and critics have argued that its only purpose is to conduct political work.
Granger said he believes Norton is ideally suited for this ministry and added that in the run up to local government elections and future development he feels that his contributions “will be critical to helping to bring about social cohesion.” “I was very happy that he agreed to serve there and I was happy to retain him as a member of the Cabinet,” the president stated.
Asked yesterday by Stabroek News if he felt that the reassignment was a demotion, Norton responded, “One can look at it from two ways: moving from a ministry with a 23 billion budget to one with a ninety million one; [one] can hardly view that as a promotion.”
Last year August, Norton landed himself in hot water when he was faced with questions over government’s decision to single-source the contract to store pharmaceuticals at a Sussex Street bond, which he had claimed was due to the urgent need to find a new storage facility in light of the $19.2 million per month that government was then paying to use the New GPC bond.
The government, it was revealed, was to pay the new rental company, registered as Linden Holding Company, $12.5 million a month and according to the minister there was no public tendering because it “was an emergency.”
Norton had said that with the “exorbitant price called by the New GPC” for storage at its Ruimveldt warehouse and the conflict of interest posed by using a facility run by a potential drug supplier, there was an urgency to find new storage.
It later emerged, however, that the new facility was in fact a converted house and was still being renovated. In addition, no payment had been made to New GPC. The opposition had been further incensed by Norton’s flippant attitude to the questioning. In light of the ensuing controversy, President Granger appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee to review, examine and report on the deal. It completed a report which found that the bond was fit for pharmaceuticals storage but also recommended negotiations for a lower rental fee.
Left unanswered in the scandal was the question of who in the government was the initial contact for Linden Holding head Larry Singh as there had been no public tender and he seemed to have been aware of the search for a storage bond even though he had no history in that area.
Following the controversy, Norton said he was sorry and asked for a chance “to do better.”
“I take full responsibility for this unfortunate episode…,” the minister had said at the time, before assuring that it would “not happen again.”
The matter came up again in Parliament during the budget debate last month and subsequently prompted a team comprising members of both sides of the House and parliamentary staff to visit the location, after opposition member Anil Nandlall had told the House that “not a tablet is being stored” there. Norton asked Nandlall to withdraw the statement as it was not true. The visit to the bond proved that no tablets were being stored in the building.
The result of the Speaker’s review of the exchanges in Parliament on this matter is still pending.
On Friday, Norton had said that while there are still no tablets being stored at the Sussex Street bond, the facility is being used to store medicines, medical supplies and medical equipment.
Meanwhile, speaking about Lawrence’s reassignment, Granger said that she would bring “certain managerial skills” to the Public Health Ministry.
He noted that the ministry has a management problem “in terms of material and human resources and the delivery of services to the various regions in Guyana and I believe she would be ideally suited to that ministry.”
Lawrence had also faced public criticisms last year over her labeling molestation accusations against then APNU+AFC candidate Winston Harding for the Georgetown City Council as a “family matter.”
Harding, who has never been convicted, eventually won a seat on the city council although the APNU+AFC coalition withdrew its support for him after a report in Stabroek News on the accusations against him.
When he was asked about the issue, the President had said there were no plans to dismiss Lawrence over her comments. He had also said that he had received an explanatory report from Lawrence on the issue and forwarded that report to the Central Executive Committee of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR). He had noted that any disciplinary action taken against Lawrence would have to come from the party and that there is no “question of her arbitrary dismissal from her ministerial position.”
Several groups, including Red Thread, had continuously staged protests against Lawrence’s continued tenure at the ministry as a result of her handling of the matter.
As it relates to Ally, the government’s Chief Whip in the National Assembly, Granger described her as a “very steady” and “reliable” person.
He pointed to her knowledge of rural and urban areas as well as her ability to interact with people.
“So, I believe in terms of social protection, she would be able to bring skills in terms of her ability to interact with people, her knowledge of the problems affecting poor people and I am very confident that she will complement or she would add to the work, supplement the work that is done before by Minister Volda Lawrence,” he said.
Ally was said to be unsuited for the Social Cohesion Ministry because of her partisan disposition. Critics have also questioned the purpose of the ministry and Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo has been chief among them, stating that it was a cover for political work by the government.
Early last December, on the weekly televised programme The Public Interest, Granger was asked if he was pleased with the performance of the ministers in 2016 and whether there would be any reshuffling of the Cabinet. “I think we have a good team. As you know the Cabinet is made up of representatives of six different parties and right now every party is represented at ministerial level,” Granger said and he added that the Cabinet was the best possible one.
“They work very hard and I am very happy to work with them in the New Year,” he further said.
In the statement released yesterday, he said he was happy with the changes and likened them to the appointments of Cathy Hughes as Telecoms Minister and Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman at the end of 2015.
“…I think the people of Guyana could understand that this not a negative move, this is a very positive move and I believe the quality, the delivery of public service would be improved as a result,” he said.
The President did not mention the other changes he made at the beginning of last year when junior Minister Simona Broomes was reassigned from the Social Protection ministry to the Ministry of Natural Resources, while junior minister Keith Scott was moved from the Communities ministry to the Social Protection ministry and Valerie Adams-Patterson was appointed as a new minister to replace him.