THE BILL passed by the parliamentary opposition to amend the Former Presidents’ Benefits Bill has been described as an affront to the National Assembly and the people of Guyana, and not just former Presidents.
Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh made this comment on the National Communications Network during a televised interview last evening. The minister said that the cap of $5,000 annually, later revised to $5,000 per month, for medical expenses, plus a similar cap for utilities, was an insult as, “Former presidents were permitted to receive a far higher amount”.
The wording of several sections of the amended bill are also a cause for concern, the minister said, and cited the revised benefits as only applying to the naturally born children of former presidents.
This automatically discriminates against the possibility of adopted children benefiting, and is an offence to the tremendous work that government has done over the years to ensure equal rights for all Guyanese, he stated.
The clause calling for the removal of all benefits from a former president once charged is against the accepted notion of natural justice which presumes that everyone is innocent unless proven guilty. Minister Singh described as an absurdity, the clause that states that if a former president is paid for his services, even if he’s paid for making a speech as many former leaders often do, his benefits will be taken away.
Minister Singh described the efforts of the Opposition as, “an attempt to stoke a manufactured controversy they started during the last election campaign”. He noted that the formula for setting the former president’s pension dates back to 2004. The Hansard of Parliament will reflect that this matter did not feature from 2004 to 2010, he stated. This formula covered the utilities, medical benefits, security arrangements and more in a comprehensive manner and the only exception was the case of Former First Lady Joyce Hoyte’s pension, which was quickly addressed via a government-sponsored motion given the peculiar circumstances of the late President Hoyte, said the minister.
In 2011, this matter was brought to the fore as a feature of the Opposition’s election campaign. The claim that “President Jagdeo’s pension would be removed was described as “a deliberate obfuscation” by the minister. It should be noted that any passage of such a revised bill would legally only apply to presidents who demit office in the future. It cannot be applied to the only two surviving former Heads of State, Bharrat Jagdeo and Samuel Hinds.
According to Minister Singh, the Opposition has attempted to blur the lines between the former president’s pension package and the benefits’ package, an effort he also views as, “an attempt to breathe some life into a nonexistent issue”.
The vulgar attempt to reduce the Presidents’ Benefits Package represents a“low ebb in politics”. He added that it was not the way to begin a harmonious political relationship and likened the matter to an assault on the legacy of the former president, whom all Guyanese would recognise has made a phenomenal contribution to the country, particularly in turning the economy around. “It is a political contest and an assault on a PPP president who has served his country extremely well”.
Interestingly, the Finance Minister noted that the Former Presidents’ Facilities and Benefits Act was also part of a holistic package encompassing a comprehensive benefits package for the leader of the parliamentary Opposition, and that of the office of the former spouse of the president. There has not been single comment from the Opposition on these two packages, noted Minister Singh.