BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS Observer senior reporter email@example.com
THE country will have to wait a while longer for news on the status of negotiations for the divestment of Government's stake in Clarendon Alumina Partners (CAP), which were slated to be completed this month.
Managing director of CAP, Winston Hayden told Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) in May that those negotiations were expected to end this month. However, the PAAC was left hanging on Wednesday in what was its first meeting since the summer recess as neither CAP's Chairman Dr Vin Lawrence nor Hillary Alexander, permanent secretary in the energy and mining ministry — under which the entity falls — showed up. Hayden, in apologising for the absences, said both were "abroad".
But the explanation did not sit well with PAAC Chairman Edmund Bartlett and the other PAAC members.
"This committee does not take kindly to the fact that the permanent secretary and the chairman is absent... certainly the whole issues relating to CAP are central to the financial health of the country and indeed it predicates a number of other activities that Government relies on for the budget as well as our own foreign exchange generation," Bartlett said.
The Government has been involved in feverish negotiations to sell its stake in the bauxite company. This forms part of a number of demands made by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a precursor to a new agreement with the Fund. The Government owns 45 per cent of the shares in the company. Alcoa, an American company, owns the remaining 55 per cent.
Only in March this year, Alcoa signalled that it would close the Clarendon-based operation if the administration did not fork out its share of the operational costs. This came in the midst of agitation by the IMF about the government's debt, the combination of factors pushed it to table an $11.2 billion Third Supplementary Estimates.
Commenting on the issue Wednesday, the Central Clarendon Member of Parliament (MP) Lester 'Mike' Henry said that the position in respect of the sale of CAP and its implications on the budget was "a serious matter that needed an urgent response".
"The Supplementary Estimates in relation to programmes we are going to be examining later on were also subject to the selling of CAP which would be supporting the central fiscal space of the Government and that is why we collectively feel so strongly because we were expecting to know what the status is and it is not represented at the highest level. I think we should make it clear that the disrespect shown to a Committee at this level this morning should never occur from any ministry at any time again," Henry said.
Said Bartlett "it is not acceptable to this committee that only you - and this is not any disrespect to your Mr Hayden - but we are saying the responsibilities of this Committee is so onerous and our duty to Parliament does not allow us to have the full leadership of CAP at the level of policy as well as at the level of implementation.
So I am moving with respect that we ask you to come again with the full team, chairman and permanent secretary, for this committee to do its duty to the Parliament and people of this country".
Bartlett, who said he had been in communication with Dr Lawrence, said while he understood that the Chairman might have been absent there had been no indication that the Permanent Secretary would also be missing.
"It is absolutely unacceptable and we have to treat this committee with more seriousness. As a matter of fact we want to make a report to Parliament in regards to this so that ministries and agencies and departments of Government recognise their responsibility to be here when this Committee summons them and to be fully equipped to give all and complete information as to the management of the resources of this country as provided for through the Appropriations budget," he said.
"CAP has to appear before us and in good time. We know that the sale of CAP is an important prerequisite to an IMF agreement, therefore this committee takes the strongest exception to the manner in which CAP has treated us," he added.
Meanwhile, Opposition MP Andrew Wheatley was of the opinion that "a letter should be sent and in no uncertain terms tell" CAP the position of the committee. The view, which was not shared by Government MP Denise Daley, was, however, endorsed by the Opposition's Marisa Dalrymple Phillibert.
The previous JLP administration approved the sale of the Government's interest in CAP, to pave the way to finalise ongoing negotiations with the IMF on the targets contained in the stand-by Agreement.
Yesterday Alexander in a statement issued to the media said she had taken note of the comments relating to her absence and expressed "regret that the incident was interpreted as disrespectful". She went further to "place on record her longstanding career as a public servant and her recognition of and respect for the authority of the Houses of Parliament and by extension their committees".
Alexander said official correspondence was delivered to the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday September 18 advising that she would be off the island on official business as well as the next ranking officer authorised to speak on the matter.
She said she also requested that the CAP deliberation be rescheduled to allow for ministry representation.
"Aparently there was a delay in this being forwarded to the Chairman," she said.