Region Two Regional Executive Officer (REO) Rupert Hopkinson yesterday told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that he used his “discretion” to allow personnel to occupy government quarters rent-free, although they were not entitled.
“I need to say that, instead of allowing a number of houses to remain unoccupied, for example—one person… instead of having too many houses that are unoccupied, we will make an allowance for senior persons who are not really entitled, but who, rather than having the houses exposed to wood ants and all of that, that they can occupy the house with the understanding that they’re doing so temporarily,” Hopkinson told the committee.
The committee was at the time probing an observation noted in the Auditor General’s 2015 report, which stated that of the 62 government-owned living quarters, 54 were occupied, but rent was only being paid for the occupation of 11 of those spaces.
After what appeared to be confusion on Hopkinson’s part, the REO was able to provide an update on the matter, relating that 43 of the quarters are occupied by government functionaries, who are entitled to rent-free housing.
Skeptical of this figure, Chairman of the PAC Irfaan Ali expressed his disbelief that so many government officials would be entitled to free housing, and went on to enquire as to the designation of the most junior occupant.
“Accounts clerk,” was the answer he was met with, but Hopkinson would, however, go on to verify that accounts clerks were not, in fact, entitled to free housing, nor were others who currently occupy the quarters.
The REO made an attempt to explain to the Chairman how “discretion” may be applied depending on a person’s location, but was cut short by Ali, who raised the question of who exercised that discretion.
“The REO sometimes has the prerogative,” Hopkinson stated, to which Ali responded:
“I don’t know if you can exercise your discretion with government assets.”
Ali also said that if Hopkinson was taking the authority to use discretion to decide housing placement, then he should also harbour the “responsibility of getting the rent paid, as the REO.”
“What I am saying to you is that I hope that the REO can make such decisions…,” Hopkinson began, before his comment was greeted with laughter from members of the committee. “… And I hope that if the REO sees a number of houses vacant and an officer comes to work in the region, or an officer in fact resides in the region, but doesn’t have an office, whether the REO couldn’t find it in his discretion to offer temporary housing to that worker… rather than having the house remain empty and subject to burglary, subject to destruction—you know when a house is left unoccupied what happens?”
Ali then took the opportunity to read to the REO a section of the Public Service rules related to the occupancy of government quarters, which it stated was rent-free in special cases, but approval must be garnered from the Permanent Secretary or the Public Service Ministry.
After being read the statement, Hopkinson stated, “Well I wouldn’t want to contravene the rules and so I will not permit myself to provide occupancy to someone if I don’t have that authority.”
Ali had earlier requested that the Auditor General look into the matter.
Yesterday’s hearing was the first held in six weeks, after the REOs of regions One, Two, and Seven were booted from Parliament Chambers due to their ill-preparedness.
The Chairman had cause to leave several paragraphs related to Region Two open yesterday for the very same reason, as Hopkinson had trouble providing answers and documents to address questions posed by members of the committee.