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Not so fast, Mr Speaker

Inside Parliament

With BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter

Sunday, April 28, 2013    

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SPEAKER of the House of Representatives, Michael Peart, has suggested that Member of Parliament for South West St Andrew, Everald Warmington, apologise for suggesting that Political Ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair, may be seeking a $3 million salary increase before retiring from the position.

The Speaker may be right, but before he made that request, Peart should have realised that there are a number of issues which he, as Speaker and chairman of the Parliamentary Commission, needs to clarify before going that far.

First of all, Warmington is not a member of the Commission, and therefore whatever information he has, was obtained second hand. So, in the interest of clarity, the first thing that the Speaker should have done, especially after the Commission met last week Wednesday and decided on the salary that Blair is to be paid, was to issue a statement explaining the episode leading up to the commission's decision to meet, privately, to ascertain what the ombudsman's salary really is, and why King's House had found it necessary to write Parliament asking it to clarify Blair's salary in light of a likely announcement of his departure at the end of this month?

Parliament has never negotiated a contract with Blair, although his office is a commission of Parliament. Blair was first appointed in 2002, for a seven-year term, following the passage of the Political Ombudsman (Interim Act), at a salary of $2 million plus $316,440 in travelling allowances per annum.

The rate was approved by the Parliamentary Commission in August that year, but the process actually started in the Ministry of Justice, and it seems likely that, in approving the initial contract, Parliament relied on instructions from that ministry.

Our understanding is that Parliament has no record of Blair negotiating a new contract in 2007, when his office was extended for a further seven years: No contract was signed, but the Ministry of National Security sent a draft order to Parliament setting out new emoluments amounting to a salary of $5.3 million and a fully maintained vehicle, which became effective in November, 2007.

However, in February 2012, Warmington tabled a motion in Parliament suggesting that it consider whether or not there was still the need for a political ombudsman, arguing that the original mandate of that office has already been met. He also argued the matter should be considered in the context of budgetary constraints.

"At this time, we don't believe it is necessary nor has a function within the whole realm," Warmington said.

The matter was referred to the House of Representatives' Human Resource and Social Development Committee, chaired by MP Rudyard Spencer, which met a number of times on the issue. Although Warmington is an Opposition MP, most Government members of the committee sided with the points that he raised in his resolution.

In one case, Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting, responding to a request for a comment in his role as general secretary of the People's National Party (PNP), told the committee that he did not see the need for a permanent ombudsman's role.

"I do not believe that it is efficient to maintain an Office of the Political Ombudsman for the next few years, since elections are not due within that timeframe," Bunting said.

However, in the end, the committee's efforts came to nought, as the Clerk to the House advised the members that the matter had been referred to the committee under Standing Order 26 (a), which does not require more than a decision among members on whether Warmington's proposals should be considered. But, the committee, by this time had heard from a number of civil society groups and individuals, and decided to table its report anyway. It has since been forwarded to the Cabinet.

Blair was obviously disappointed by the developments and the negative comments about his office, coming out of the committee's deliberations, which were covered extensively by the media, and decided to throw in the towel.

There is some confusion over whether or not he had actually sought to have Parliament clarify his salary for pension tabulation. However, King's House wrote Parliament in March stating that he said that he had written Parliament on the matter, but got no response. King's House asked for information on Blair's emoluments "as soon as possible in April", as necessary for the Governor General to discuss with him "conclusively" concerns he had raised about his contract.

Since Warmington's most recent pronouncements, the issue seems to have boiled down to the question of whether or not Blair is seeking an increase in salary to $8.5 million per annum, and formalisation of his current arrangement with Parliament, prior to retirement.

There was no information available to confirm that Blair raised the $8.5 million issue, but it is understood that this is the amount paid to members of the Electoral Commission and it should be noted that the letter from King's House to Parliament did mention the figure. Why? It is not clear, but the Speaker ought to know and King's House ought to know, and maybe we should hear their explanations before calling for an apology from Mr Warmington.

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