BY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR Career & Education editor firstname.lastname@example.org
THE much-touted divestment of Nutrition Products Limited (NPL) — suppliers of snacks to the island's public basic and primary schools — has been put on hold.
"This is to give the new board the opportunity to review and make recommendations to our minister [Ronald Thwaites]," acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Grace McLean, told Career & Education last month.
"Remember, there is no one way of doing anything," she added.
The precise composition of the new board is not known, nor is it clear when the members were appointed.
Word of the halt to the divestment comes more than a year after former education minister and prime minister — now leader of the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party — Andrew Holness announced that his administration would seek to offload the entity.
Up to November last year, things appeared to be on track for the divestment, with then Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education Audrey Sewell, indicating it would go to tender shortly.
An enterprise team — comprised of representatives from the board of the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ), which has responsibility for the divestment of Government assets, the NPL board, the Ministry of Education, the Attorney General's Department, and the Ministry of Finance — was in place, Sewell said at the time.
"They (the DBJ) are preparing the documentation to go to tender shortly because we have to follow Government of Jamaica procurement guidelines. So they are doing the fact-finding and putting the documents together," Sewell told Career & Education then. "Also, the NPL board has directed the administration there to do an evaluation of the assets because that is (also) a requirement."
Divestment of NPL was being pursued as part of government cost-cutting and the transformation of the public sector.
It cost Government $709.486 million last year to operate the NPL. This year, it is costing just over $761 million ($761,125,000), according to McLean.
In February this year, the divestment seemed to have slowed to a crawl, following the change in administration to the People's National Party and the appointment of a new education minister.
When contacted at that time, McLean revealed it had not gone to tender, but said the ministry was working to remedy the situation.
"The DBJ has prepared a request for proposals to procure a valuation consultant to assess the value of NPL's equipment and machinery and is in the process of preparing the standard bidding document for the procurement of a concessionaire," the acting permanent secretary said then.
"The Ministry of Education had previously sanctioned the sale of NPL's machinery and equipment, but intends to retain possession of all real estate owned by the company for future use by the ministry. The DBJ awaits the Ministry of Education's confirmation of funding available to engage the consultant," she added.
Now the ministry has said the divestment is on hold and McLean could not immediately say when the process would resume.
The government currently spends close to $3 billion on its school-feeding programme of which the NPL is only one component. The other is the provision of cooked meals, which is handled directly by the ministry. Together they are costing $2,798,326,000 this financial year.