Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, in a statement, said Government is willing to hold back legislation on MPs and judges pension reforms until scrutiny by a Parliament Committee in light of objections being raised. But she said it would be for the Senate to decide if this course of action is taken.
In a statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister at 2.25 pm, while the Senate was in session, the Prime Minister stated this position was being taken consistent with a policy of allowing all views to be aired before taking a position.
The Senate was geared for a vote on the Retiring Allowances (Legislative) Amendment Bill 2013 and the Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill, 2013, when the Prime Minister issued a statement.
“There have been strong objections in some quarters to the Bills,” the Prime Minister said. “Consistent with my policy of always allowing views to be ventilated and decisions arrived at after such due consideration the government’s current position would be not to proceed with approving the Bills until all perspectives and opinions are ventilated.”
She observed that, “The Senate debate on the said Bills which commences today (yesterday) will allow for some of these perspectives and opinions to be ventilated.” Persad-Bissessar said the Government is willing to refer the matter to a Parliament Committee should the Senate so resolve.
“Yet further the government expresses its willingness to accept and adhere to recommendations made by the Senate Select Committee,” she said. The Prime Minister said the State must act in the interest of all.
“At the end of the day, the national interest is what must be served,” she said adding however, that both bills were passed unanimously in the House of Representatives. “It is rare that Government and the Opposition ever agree on anything,” Persad-Bissessar said. “The Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill, 2013 and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative) Amendment Bill 2013 were passed in the House with the full support of the Opposition.”
She further noted the Retired Judges Association had also come out in full support of the said Bill which impacts their representative group.
The Prime Minister did not specify which concerns had prompted the Government’s row-back.
The MPs pension bill increases retirement allowances for MPs — in some cases tripling it; widens the scheme to include the unelected Senators; makes it easier to qualify for an allowance and introduces, for the first time, a “termination benefit” for MPs voted out of office after a general election.
The judges pension legislation increases the proportion of base pay used to calculate the pension benefit but it also widens the allowances that must be included in the base for the purpose of the calculation.
The effect is almost a doubling of the pension which, for example, would see the Chief Justice’s pension move from $50,350 to $93,223.
The bill also provides that when a sitting Judge, retired Judge, a sitting Chief Justice or retired Chief Justice dies and leaves behind a widow, the widow is paid the annual sum of 85 percent of his pensionable emoluments (rather than one-quarter) or a monthly pension of $3,000, whichever is greater.
The Bill also provides that whenever judge’s salaries or pensionable allowances increase, widows are also entitled to have their pensions recalculated as though the judge was still in that office or retired from that office. The judges pension legislation, as well as the MPs pension legislation, heads to the Senate.
Prior to the statement, the Government Whip in the Senate Ganga Singh, yesterday stated the Senate was due to sit “late” into the night to debate both matters, which had been handled in the House of Representatives concurrently late at night on Black Friday.
Concerns were later raised by some lawyers over whether raising pensions through amending existing judges pensions infringed the role of the Salaries Review Commission and the separation of powers. There were reports that the SRC met and sought an audience with President Anthony Carmona on the issue.
Others — such as former SRC member Kenneth Lalla – have also stated the move to raise MP retirement allowances and introduce a termination benefit is “self-serving.”
In a letter to the editor published in yesterday’s edition of Newsday, former civil servant Reginald Dumas and senior counsel Martin Daly both called for “interim” measures to be implemented to deal with retired judges and criticised the self-serving nature of the MP pensions hike.
“What possible impact on our institutions, our economy and our democracy might there be as a result of this decision by persons whom we elected to serve us and who are now seen as serving themselves at our expense, and, moreover, to be doing so to the exclusion of persons similarly circumstanced?” both asked in the joint letter.
They further stated, “Given the constitutional position of the Salaries Review Commission, we strongly urge that the legislature should limit its intervention to the extent that interim provisions designed to take care of the needs of the directly affected persons - former judges, magistrates, parliamentarians, public officers, etc. and their surviving spouses or co-habitants - on clearly defined bases such as length of service, the effect of cost of living over a defined period and compassionate need arising out of illness.”
The letter was copied to all members of the Senate.
Daly yesterday stated, “It is important that both sides are prepared to pause”. He said the move showed how serious the issues raised were. President of the Retired Judges Association Justice Zainool Hosein yesterday said the association would hold a meeting on Thursday afternoon at 2pm at the Hall of Justice.
“We shall issue a statement thereafter if necessary,” he said. The senate was still in session up until last evening dealing with the committee stage of unrelated planning legislation.