THE National Assembly yesterday approved the Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 2015, placing a cap on the benefits of former Presidents and setting out the conditions under which these benefits can be obtained.The Bill repeals the Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act of 2009, and provides greater specificity, especially if account is taken of the fact that a former President is eligible for a pension which is seven-eights that of a sitting President.
The Bill was passed as the PPP/C again chose to stay away from the House.
Piloting the Bill, Finance Minister Winston Jordan said that in keeping with Resolution Number 22, passed by the National Assembly on August 2, 2012, the legislation seeks to render the conditions acceptable and predictable, and to place a limit on the benefits, including tax-free concessions to which former Presidents are now entitled.
The House passed the contentious Presidents Benefits Bill in 2009, which was later signed into law by then President Bharrat Jagdeo. The Act has been harshly criticised.
Many view the uncapped expenses of the former President as extravagant, and according to Minister Jordan, it is a “burden on the Treasury.”
The amendments passed in the National Assembly in 2012 were never approved by then President Donald Ramotar. The shunning of the amendments, the Finance Minister said, was unfortunate, as it was steeped in “narrow, self-serving interests and considerations.”
With Guyana being a developing country, with a long way to go in terms of attaining the standards of some sister CARICOM nations, Minister Jordan said the benefits Jagdeo awarded himself are unconscionable. He contended that if Founder of the PPP and former President Dr Cheddi Jagan were alive, he would have been appalled by Jagdeo’s extravagance.
Dr Jagan had famously said: “We cannot have a Cadillac-style living with donkey-cart economies. Our leaders must set the example of democratic, accountable, clean and lean governance and efficient governance.”
Minister Jordan said that worst yet, under the previous legislation, the benefits of the former Presidents were tax-exempt when even in the wealthy U.S., former Presidents do not enjoy this gift.
The salary of a sitting President in Guyana is currently $1.6M. A former President receives 7/8 of the salary of a sitting President in pension. Taking the current sum earned by the incumbent, a former President receives some $1.4M in pension, which is more than the salary of a senior Cabinet Minister, who earns $579,000.
To crown it all, the pension automatically increases when the salary of the President increases.
Minister Jordan contended that it is not that the Administration has any grouse with former Presidents living in dignity on demitting office, whether they choose to live as hermits, or in a mansion with swimming pool by the seaside.
What the Government is strongly against, he said, is the extravagance the Act of 2009 allows former Presidents. It represents a great disparity, he said, when compared to public servants, who have to serve 33.3 years to qualify for pension.
The vulgarity of the law passed by the Jagdeo Administration, the least, he said, flies in the face of servant leadership.
Through the “outrageous and scandalous” benefits, the Finance Minister said Jagdeo drew down millions from the State to cover his electricity, transportation, telephone, water and other bills.
Quoting from a report in another section of the media, Minister Jordan said Jagdeo made the State fork out $45M to cover his transportation, security and electricity bills from 2011 to 2014.
This sum does not include his pension, which tops $1M. The figures provided by then Finance Minister, Dr Ashni Singh shows that former President Jagdeo racked up an electricity bill of $9.8M, which equates to about $365,000 per month.
On mentioning the amount, one parliamentarian quipped: “Was it a house or factory?”
For the period mentioned, Jagdeo’s transportation bill was tagged at $15.2M, while the State expended $20M on his security. The monthly sum for his security amounts to $752,000, and all security services were done by the Presidential Guard.
“A certain former President,” Minister Jordan said, “also booked a First Class ticket for two, worth $7.4 million, even though he refused to acknowledge his spouse.”
The minister stressed that leaders were “not elected to feast on the hog,” and that given Guyana’s large debt, the Administration sees it necessary to cut out waste where it is found.
Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr Carl Greenidge waived his presentation to the House to allow National Security Minister, Mr Khemraj Ramjattan to share his input.
Ramjattan described the Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act of 2009 as a schema, pointing out that the $375,000 electricity bill racked up by Jagdeo and the other uncapped expenses are cogent reasons why the Act should be repealed.
In the 2012 Resolution, the APNU and AFC, which at the time commanded a majority in the House, capped the electricity, water and telephone bills of former Presidents at $5000 each per month.
But under the new Legislation, Ramjattan said, the Administration has decided to multiply the sums allocated in each line head by 5.
The Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 2015 caps the water, telephone and electricity bills of former Presidents at $25,000 each per month.
The Bill also defines a former President as any person who held the office of the President substantively. This is an amendment to the Resolution passed in 2012 by the APNU and the AFC, which had defined a former President as a person who serves five years in office.
Ramjattan told the House that the amendment was made because the APNU+AFC Administration has no intention of denying former President Donald Ramotar his benefits.
And on that note, he sent an early warning to former President Jagdeo that he (Jagdeo) should not look forward to drawing down a fat sum in pension and a salary as Leader of the Opposition.
It is only the latter he will get, the National Security Minister said, as he sought to apprise the former leader of the perks he will receive when he enters the House.
The Bill that was approved yesterday also provides for former Presidents the services of personal and household staff, including a gardener, but the total number of such staff shall not exceed three persons, including any member of the staff who may be on earned vacation or sick leave.
Former Presidents will also be entitled to three staff for clerical and technical work, which should not be political in nature.
They will also be provided with $200,000 per annum for free medical attention and treatment or reimbursement.
The sum covers the spouse of the former President and his children below age 18.
But reimbursement will not be given where attention and treatment were obtained abroad or at private health facilities in Guyana when the services are available at government institutions.
Former Presidents will also be entitled to two full-time security personnel, including the services of the Presidential Guard at their place of residence; two vehicles owned and maintained by the state; toll- free transportation; and an annual vacation allowance equivalent to the cost of two first-class return airfares provided on the same conditions applicable to judges of the Supreme Court of Judicature.
These benefits will not be subject to tax exemptions, concessions or privileges; and a former President will cease to be entitled to the benefits outlined in the Bill if he/she engages in business, trade or paid employment, or is convicted of a criminal offence for which a prison term is imposed.