Tight budget hits parliamentarians

Inside Parliament

With Balford Henry

Sunday, April 27, 2014    

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THE tight expenditure climate in the public sector is obviously affecting Parliament's ability to meet its commitments on time, as revealed in the issue over payments to MPs, which was raised by Everald Warmington (South West St Catherine) on Thursday.

Warmington objected to the members being paid their basic salaries and allowances separately, which resulted in some members getting only a portion of their salaries up to Thursday, while others said they had not yet been paid anything at all.

Parliamentarians, like other public servants, are paid on the 25th of each month and receive their pay advice then. However, this time there were complaints that they had received the advice, but only a portion of the full salary or none at all was paid.

Speaker of the House Michael Peart's response that the salaries were divided into basic pay and allowances, was not accepted by Warmington, who noted that this was the first time members were having this experience.

Minister of Finance and Planning, Dr Peter Phillips explained that the Accountant General's Department had provided the funds on time, and any hiccup would have to be the responsibility of the Houses of Parliament. But the minister knows very well that the flow of funds through the sector has been very uneven recently and, in many cases, public servants have been receiving their allowances much later than their salaries as managers try to "juggle" the funds.

The issue was further compounded by the fact that the office of the Leader of the Opposition, which is a direct commission of Parliament, had been without telephone services for about two weeks because of the non-payment of the bill.

The responses from the Government to the bill payment problem at the Opposition Leader's office, however, sent different signals to the country. While Leader of the House Phillip Paulwell committed to dealing with the issue, Dr Phillips' response when the issue was first raised during the meeting of the Standing Finance Committee was that the office, like any other department and agency of government, would have to bear some of the discomfort created by the tight fiscal policy.

The phones at the Opposition Leader's office have been turned back on by LIME, but our sources tell us that LIME turned back on the service prior to the bill being paid, and there is still no confirmation whether it has been paid, or how soon the issue will be resolved.

It was interesting to note that the housekeeping budget for the Leader of the Opposition's office was only increased by $103,000 over the 2013/14 allocation. This must raise serious challenges for its management, in light of the increased costs of running the office, not to mention increases in utility costs expected this year.

The budget only moved from $16.7 million to $16.8 million, so the figures had to "juggled" to meet outstanding recurrent costs from 2013/14. The allocation for compensation to employees was reduced by $1.9 million, which was then added to the allocation for utilities and communications. But there was no indication that the staff of the office had been reduced.

The "juggling" of the funds will certainly help Parliament to meet the cost of the old bill. But what will happen if it continues to use funds from its 2014/15 recurrent budget to pay off bills left over from 2013/14, unless Dr Phillips is planning on bringing supplementary estimates to the House very shortly?

The office's allocation for the use of goods and services, obviously another critical element in its performance, was cut by almost $800,000 to slightly improve the allocations for travel expenses and subsistence as well as the purchase of capital goods which would include repairing and purchasing things like computers and furniture.

It is interesting that there is nothing in the Opposition Leader's office budget to cover things like entertainment. So, one has to wonder what happens when he has to entertain visitors, including overseas guests of the country?

The importance of this is that it is indicative of what has been happening in all government ministries, departments and agencies affected by the current tight fiscal policy.

As Dr Phillips said, the Office of the Leader of the Opposition will have to hold strain like any other public office.

The burden is not limited to the Leader of the Opposition's office. It is obvious that government ministries, departments and agencies are all suffering a similar fate. But one would hope that in light of the importance of the Opposition Leader's office to the process of democracy and the fact that its budget is relatively limited, the governor general spends over $170 million annually, including $47 million on salaries alone, some discretion would be shown in the current circumstances.

Sectoral Debate

The annual Sectoral Debate in the House of Representatives, is scheduled to be opened by Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining Phillip Paulwell, on Tuesday, May 6.

Gordon House confirmed Friday that the debate will last until June 3, and will include presentations by at least 48 Members of Parliament, including all the Cabinet ministers who did not participate in the budget debate, and their junior ministers.

Sectoral debates usually follow the dudget debates and allow Government ministers who did not participate therein, as well as all other Members of Parliament, to address Government's plans and programmes, as well as issues affecting their constituencies.

Under the current format, the time limits are: 45 minutes for the opening speaker; 30 minutes for the closing speaker; 40 minutes for ministers; and 30 minutes for all other members. However, Paulwell, who is Leader of the House, has indicated that the House's Standing Order Committee will discuss changes to the format prior to the start.





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