Gov’t loses vote on duty-free grants for FIU workers

-after Ramjattan, Gaskin abstain

Three years into the 11th Parliament, the opposition People’s Progressive Party/ Civic (PPP/C) yesterday won its first vote in the House after two members of the Alliance For Change (AFC) abstained on a motion to grant two employees of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) duty-free concessions for vehicles at 2000-cylinder capacity (CC).

The motion, which was brought to the House by Minister George Norton on behalf of the Committee of Appointments, was defeated by a vote of 28 to 26 after Minister of Business Dominic Gaskin and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan, both of the AFC, chose to break ranks and abstain on the vote.

The 26 other members of the APNU+AFC government present in the chamber, including other AFC members, such as Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, voted in support of the motion.

Additionally, Minister of Finance Winston Jordan, who was present for the debate on the motion, left the chamber before the vote and returned to his seat after the motion was defeated.

The motion, brought by Norton, was opposed by PPP/C MPs on the basis that it contradicts laws which specify the scale of workers entitled to duty-free concessions and that it attempts to have the Clerk of the National Assembly give directives to the Minister of Finance and the Commissioner-General of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA).

Opposition front bencher Irfaan Ali told the House that the request was wrongly placed. “Coming with a motion to address this issue is not and should not be the approach. If we want to address the issue of benefits for employees of the FIU, it should have been addressed in the law itself. The fact is that if the Committee of Appointments wants to give benefits to two employees in the unit, we have to amend the law and add the benefit to the law,” he stressed, while adding that the motion cannot be approved.

“The Minister of Finance and Commissioner-General are the ones exercised in the law with this authority… this has to be a recommendation to the Minister of Finance, not to the House,” Ali concluded.

Fellow PPP/C Member Juan Edghill went further by positing that there may have already been failed attempts to engage support from the Minister and Commissioner-General Godfrey Statia.

We are destroying parity

“What should’ve been a simple exchange of correspondence between the FIU, whose subject minister is the Minister of Finance, and the Commissioner-General, is now being brought to the House. Or did the exchange take place and the Commissioner-General said no, so we are here to give parliamentary approval and big stick to this action?” Edghill questioned.

He went on to explain that the motion, which directs that the National Assembly signifies to the Clerk that the employees were to be granted duty-free concessions, was unenforceable.

“If this motion is passed by majority, the Clerk still doesn’t have any power to grant duty-free concessions to anyone. If the Clerk were to write the Commissioner-General and say the National Assembly has directed that you grant this person a duty-free concession of 2,000 CC, the Commissioner-General, who is on record as saying that he operates on principle, is likely to respond, ‘Well, amend the law.’ So, you are wasting the time of the Parliament with a motion outside the scope of the National Assembly. The committee has no jurisdiction or authority whatsoever to determine who gets duty-free concession of what capacity. It is set by regulation controlled by the Commissioner-General,” Edghill argued. 

He further noted that the accountant mentioned by name in the motion, Surendra Lall Boodhoo, is not currently employed by the FIU, so only the attorney Yonette Romao Scarville would be likely to benefit if the motion were passed. Such an action, he warned, is likely to destroy parity and create great disaffection in a large section of the public service as the qualification of the attorney is no different from that of any state counsel, while the accountant’s qualifications match those of any accountant in the public service. “If it is case where we would like to give higher capacity vehicles to persons, let’s do it across the board; let’s formulate a policy to be administered based on principle,” Edghill advised.

This position was supported by another member of the opposition, Neendkumar, who noted that his side of the House has no problem giving those who serve more benefits but added that the adjustments could not be made based on individuals.

He stressed that the motion could also have implications for other committees and other bodies set up by the Appointments Committee. Neendkumar specifically noted that the public service register of travelling positions with benefits is clear before accusing the committee of a lopsided approach, since the Local Government Commission, which would be required to travel the length and breadth of the country, has not been given the same consideration.

Faced with this barrage of criticism Norton, who was the only government member to speak on the bill, attempted to refer the issue to the Minister of Finance, who sits to his immediate left, for advice.

Speaker Barton Scotland, however, indicating that this was not within the scope of the minister’s options, asked that he be clear in what he was asking the House to do about the motion.

Norton chose to move that the motion be adopted even as the opposition implored that he withdraw it.

At the initial vote, it appeared that the motion had been passed since the volume of the government’s “ayes” out matched the opposition’s “nays” but once Chief Whip Gail Teixeira called for a division, a different picture emerged.

Rising just before the vote, Ali once again implored the Speaker to not allow the motion as it contradicted the law.

In response, Scotland indicated that “the Speaker cannot assist in that regard; the House must assist.”

Subsequently, just as it seemed the government benches would once again use their one-seat majority to win a controversial vote, Gaskin chose to abstain and later Ramjattan did the same as well.   Up to press time, Stabroek News was unable to ascertain their reasons for doing this.

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