Archive for category Politics and Public Affairs

Privacy Pros & Cons

The recent high-level of public concern over the SSA Amendment Bill was of limited concern to me, until I started listening properly. In the event, the proposed law was passed by the Parliament and there is some threat from the Opposition of a lawsuit to test its constitutionality. We will see.

Two very interesting stances surfaced during the heated debates and it is at these kind of moments that I sometimes think of our so-called political divide. Those were the Right to Privacy stance disclosed by the AG and the private briefing of Parliamentarians as a legislative tool.

Sen. Faris Al Rawi, Attorney General

Faris Al Rawi, Attorney General

The AG, Faris Al Rawi, was emphatic on 2nd May 2016 that we have ‘…no enshrined right to privacy under the law…‘. He was almost immediately contradicted by former CJ, Michael de la Bastide QC, who relied on Section 4 (c) of the Constitution which specifies ‘the right of the individual to respect for his private and family life’. In ‘The creep of Tyranny‘ on Monday 9th May 2016 in this newspaper, my colleague Michael Harris also made strong objections to the AG’s stance. Of course we have rights to privacy and those are entrenched in our Constitution, but now those rights can be limited by the new law, intended to promote national security.

This is all a part of what I have come to call the Global Information War or World War Three. In this phase, citizens’ rights to privacy and the space to consider, discuss, disagree and plan is all being challenged and effectively undermined by the incredible reach of the large surveillance agencies. I did not limit it to state agencies because there are a significant number of huge private sector entities which constantly read private information crossing their networks for their own private purposes.

The best single book on this which I would recommend is Glenn Greenwald’s ‘No Place to Hide‘. The title says it all.

Here in T&T we have known since the disturbing revelations of 2010 that private communications of a wide range of persons have been intercepted by the SSA and this recent furious debate in Parliament was to place those surveillance operations within a legal framework. It is also clear that we are beset by rising levels of increasingly violent and sophisticated crime, so this approach would be generally welcomed by beleaguered citizens.

The AG’s statement on ‘No Right to Privacy‘ alarmed and intrigued me. As AG, Al Rawi is the legal adviser to Cabinet so his views on this issue can readily be accepted as representing the views of the government.

In respect of the alarming aspect, I was struck by the tenor of the statement as it did not fit well with the notion that the SSA Bill was intended to target the ‘serious criminals’. It seemed to foreshadow a more general approach of broad-band surveillance and its tone alone gave me pause.

What was intriguing was the question –

‘Exactly who has no right to privacy?’

It seemed that the AG was speaking, on behalf of the government, in support of a great relaxation of possibly outdated notions as to the right to privacy. Do those new standards of openness apply to the State and its organs? How about the Cabinet? How about the very briefing of Parliamentarians in pursuance of this SSA law? It seemed to me that we were being told that the right to privacy previously assumed by citizens was in fact not guaranteed and further, that the State had rights to delve into one’s business.

No privacy rights for citizens and enhanced protections for the State and its organs is wrong-sided behaviour in a Republic. The Two taken together, taste terrible.

Of course there are many wrinkles and swerves which can be put onto this criticism, but the State is our creature, or ought to be, so its conduct must be exemplary and lawful.

Revisions to the Freedom of Information Act are upcoming and I would expect those to strengthen the rights of citizens to obtain information held by public authorities and to stipulate serious penalties for failure or refusal to do so.

All of which touches and concerns the second of my issues, the government’s invitation to privately brief Independent Senators and Opposition Parliamentarians on the proposals. Despite the ironies, given that the subject was national security, it may only have been possible to have private briefings.

The Opposition (UNC) made the strongest possible objections to this Government (PNM) proposal to host private briefings. The AG reminded the Opposition that when they were in government, the same procedure was used to obtain support for two new laws related to the CL Financial bailout in September 2011. I also remembered the 2013 objections of then leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, on the very same proposal to host private briefings for the Independent Senators.

I noted the various political swerves with a smile, but that was not really the target of my attention. The substantive issue in 2011 is what concerns me, because it has a strong echo in my current efforts to obtain the details of the CL Financial bailout.

The two new laws the PP government were proposing in September 2011 were –

  1. The Central Bank (Amendment) Act 2011 – to prevent any lawsuits against or Judicial Review of the Central Bank in Relation to the CL Financial bailout;
  2. The Purchase of Certain Rights and Validation Act 2011 – to permit the Minister of Finance & the Economy to borrow an additional $10.7 Billion to fund the CL Financial bailout.

So, what happened in September 2011? These Acts were passed with the full support of the Independent Senators, but the Opposition did not vote for these new laws.

One of the items I requested in my legal challenge to the Minister of Finance & the Economy was the contents of that Parliamentary briefing to the Independent Senators in September 2011. My request was refused on the basis that it was exempt.

It is troubling to read the assurances of then Minister of Finance & the Economy, Winston Dookeran, to the Senate on 16th September 2011 on the question of the briefing –

“…I just want to give you the assurance which I gave to the Lower House when we debated this, that already the Ministry, along with the Central Bank and Clico, have begun the preparation of a public document—many questions that are still to be answered—to provide the necessary information. In addition to that, we did present to the hon. Senators, for those who afforded us the opportunity to accept our invitation, a document that is in the vicinity of 57 pages as of now, outlining all the necessary information that led to the story that assess what is the current challenges and why the proposals to go forward have been put forward.

This document, I assure you, along with the questions and answers, will be converted into a simple, easy to read, hopefully, document for the sake of establishing that this Parliament has mandated us to put this as an anchor document for the purposes of evaluating our performance in the future…”

Yet, despite these clear assurances from the Minister, the presentation used to obtain the support of the Independent Senators was deemed ‘exempt’ and denied me.

The High Court ruled in my favour on 22nd July 2015 and ordered the release of the requested documents. The Ministry quickly appealed and as yet, I have been unable to obtain those documents, despite my constructive dialogue with the new Minister of Finance & the Economy, Colm Imbert.

It is even more concerning to consider the situation in relation to the Central Bank (Amendment) Act 2011 which the High Court deemed ‘unconstitutional‘ as a law which “…infringed the separation of powers and ultimately the rule of law…” in its ruling in the Stone Street Capital v AG case in 2013.

The intention of that Act was to prevent any lawsuit or Judicial Review against the Central Bank and that created a situation in which the Central Bank, acting as agent of the State in managing the CL Financial bailout would be effectively immune from the oversight of the Courts. Carte Blanche.

The entire case was to regain control of some 5.7 million Flavorite shares held by Clico Investment Bank (CIB). Stone Street Capital is owned by Andre Monteil, who was one of the CL Financial chiefs, having been its Group Finance Director and Chairman of CIB up to April 2008. Monteil was certainly one of the PNM’s most powerful ‘sowatees’ in the period up to 2010, serving as Party Treasurer, as well as Chairman of Home Mortgage Bank, HDC and EFCL.

The State appealed that ruling and that appeal continues despite the fact that the PNM, who voted against that law when in opposition, are now in power.

The imperative to control information and oversight certainly appears to be in conflict with the assertion that there is no established right to privacy. Whose privacy? We will see.

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CL Financial Bailout – Duprey’s Gambit

Lawrence Duprey. Photo courtesy the T&T Review

Lawrence Duprey

Last week we learned that Lawrence Duprey and his fellow CL Financial shareholders are victims of a badly-handled bailout. According to the Duprey version, the State must halt all asset disposals and he must regain control of the CL Financial group of companies. In what seemed to be an immediate response, Minister of Finance & the Economy, Colm Imbert, said he was so alarmed at the gross mismatch in the bailout figures that he decided to order a forensic audit on the entire process. These two contrasting stories are the latest big news on the CL Financial bailout.

I have always objected to the CL Financial bailout and is has become a strong example of how the Public Interest can be perverted under a series of disguises.

The Duprey Gambit is just the latest attack on good values in our country. It is a nasty, shocking outbreak of moral hazard. It needs to be dismantled and discredited, nothing less will do.

The Imbert Initiative looks like a welcome move to examine the details of this scandalous waste of Public Money. The proposed forensic audit seems to signal some official appetite for disclosure. However, if this is to properly protect the Public Interest, there are some ‘litmus tests’ which can show the official commitment to disclosure

This article will examine those two proposals so that some meaning might emerge from this utter, deliberate confusion.

The Duprey Gambit

The CL Financial group was the largest commercial group ever in the Caribbean and its collapse in January 2009 had an immense impact across our region. Apart from Lawrence Duprey’s single, brief speech at the press conference to announce the bailout on 30th January 2009, there has been no proper forum at which the CL Financial chiefs have been made to give an account of this catastrophic collapse. Duprey has offered no cogent explanation for this failure, only a series of bizarre periodic interviews. I can even remember one amazing November 2012 interview in which he claimed to be ‘flat broke’ at the same time as enjoying his new life of philanthropy. I have never heard of a flat broke philanthropist, but that just goes to show.

Duprey, Monteil, Sakal

Lawrence Duprey, Andre Monteil, Gita Sakal

Even when the Commission of Enquiry was established under the Chairmanship of Sir Anthony Colman, both CL Financial chiefs, Lawrence Duprey and Andre Monteil, refused to appear to answer questions. Both men invoked their right to avoid self-incrimination, but they were both represented by high-calibre attorneys who seemed to take every point during that Enquiry. At one point, I can remember a slightly bemused Colman describing those two chiefs as ‘The Dynamic Duo‘ and asking CLF’s former Corporate Secretary, Gita Sakal, whether she would agree that ‘Duprey was Batman and Monteil was Robin‘. The room echoed with our startled laughter, but Sakal did not answer.

One of the greatest pieces of mischief in all this is the recurrent attempts to compare our bailout to the Wall Street one. Apart from the refusal to offer any public explanation, there are two further details which separate the CL Financial bailout from the US example.

The CL Financial shareholders have never lost their shares. Which is why they can be confronting us with all kinds of options and proposals, not to mention threats of lawsuits and so on. In the US bailout, the troubled companies were forced to give equity to the Federal Government. In order to receive taxpayers’ money in the USA, Fannie Mae (the huge mortgage company) gave 79.9% of its equity; while AIG (at that time the world’s largest insurer) gave over 85% of its equity; 36% of Citibank belonged to the US government in February 2009.

In addition, in the Wall Street bailout of AIG for example, the Public Money advanced to cover AIG’s exposure was lent at 11.5% interest. At that time, LIBOR (the base rate) was 3%, so it was a clear signal from the State that the bailout was being conducted on the most punitive terms. These details were found in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s ‘Too big to Fail’. In contrast, our government agreed to bailout CL Financial at ZERO-percent interest. In the language of the financial world, that implies a ‘sweetheart deal’. To my eye, it really resembles a marriage. Definitely, the parties appear to be related.

There are three implications of the zero-interest rate enjoyed by CL Financial –

  1. firstly, the public interest was seriously prejudiced by our government effectively ignoring the time value of money;
  2. secondly, the amount of interest which would have accrued over the ensuing seven years would have placed the company completely in the State’s hands – i.e. the interest of the shareholders would have been extinguished by the effluxion of time and,
  3. thirdly, the CL Financial Shareholders’ Agreement of 12th June 2009 has been extended several times and for me, that raises the pregnant question of why the State did not subsequently negotiate a proper interest rate for these vast sums of Public Money being lent to the wealthiest person in the Caribbean. I will return to this issue.
Michael Carballo. Photo courtesy Trinidad Guardian

Michael Carballo

One of the most sobering things about this unfolding crisis is the extent to which the public interest has been diluted to almost a mere talking-point. For those readers who are wondering just how could Lawrence Duprey be insisting on regaining control of his companies, it is interesting to consider this explanation from Michael Carballo, the then Group Finance Director of CLF –

“…Carballo said the government was in control of the management and running of the Caribbean conglomerate, but what has not changed is the ownership.

‘The shareholding hasn’t changed. There is no intention to change the shareholding. It’s an agreement for about three years whereby the assets are managed and restructured and then the company will be returned to the shareholders,’ he said…
— “Lascelles untouched – Duprey remains chairman.” Jamaica Gleaner. Wednesday June 17, 2009.

Finally, the simple fact is that Lawrence Duprey and the other CL Financial chiefs would not be allowed to regain control of the financial parts of this empire since they can not be considered as ‘fit and proper persons’. That means that CLICO, British American, Republic Bank, COLFIRE cannot lawfully return to the ownership and control of those persons, as detailed in ‘Steal of a Deal‘, earlier in this series.

The Imbert Initiative

Min of FInance, Colm Imbert, MP

Min of FInance, Colm Imbert, MP

I have long campaigned for full disclosure of the details of the bailout – all the details of all of the payments must be published. I therefore have to say that Minister Imbert’s call for a forensic audit of the payments made under the bailout is welcome. That is exactly what I was calling on him for in ‘Finding the Facts‘.

Imbert explained at the post-Cabinet briefing on Thursday 28th April 2016 that the gross differences in the stated amounts paid in the course of the bailout had so concerned him that he had decided to proceed with a forensic audit.

We are now witness to a new appetite for disclosure on the details of this CL Financial bailout and that is good. If we are proceeding along that road, these are the ‘litmus tests’ I am proposing so that this progress can be accepted –

  1. The CLF Shareholders’ Agreement has been amended several times since its establishment in June 2009. I obtained a copy of that Agreement in March 2010 via the Freedom of Information Act and I am now requesting Minister Imbert to publish the subsequent amendments, extensions and revisions.
  2. Colman Commission Report – There was a report in June 2015 that the completion of the Colman Commission’s Report into the failure of CL Financial was being effectively strangled by a lack of resources. I am reliably informed that proper resources have since been made available for completion of that important Report. The Colman Report into CLF must be published.
  3. Forensic Audit – The Report of the forensic audit into the CL Financial bailout must also be published when it is completed.
  4. CBTT (Amendment Act) – One of the most serious steps taken in this entire affair was the Central Bank (Amendment) Act passed in September 2011 to prohibit any lawsuit against or judicial review of the Central Bank’s actions. In November 2013, the High Court ruled that Act to be unconstitutional in a case brought by Andre Monteil’s Stone St Capital, but the State has appealed. The State must reconsider this course of action and withdraw its appeal.
  5. Freedom of Information Ruling – In July 2015, the High Court ruled in favour of my Freedom of Information request to obtain the details of the bailout, but the then Minister of Finance appealed. I have requested that the new Minister withdraw that appeal and publish the requested details.
  6. Interest – Finally, we come to the issue of the various demands and proposals from Lawrence Duprey and the other CLF shareholders. It is my view that the Minister of Finance must now insist on a proper rate of interest for the Public Money advanced in this scandalous situation. That rate of interest must be well in excess of the base rate.

The stage seems set for a legal mangle of epic proportions – we will soon see.

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Telling Truths

“…The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy. Democracy means more, much more, than the right to vote and one vote for every man and every woman of the prescribed age…”
—Dr Eric Williams, in his first Independence address, on 31st August 1962.

We are now at a place in which our political parties routinely subject us to misleading promises to win elections, followed by a sharp dose of reality as we realise which financiers are actually in charge of important public policy. This has been happening for a while now, but while we can criticise the various political parties, our gullibility is at the root of the problem. Many of us still believe in ‘Father Christmas’, so we remain stuck in a loop of high expectations leading to deep disappointment. Frustration and outrage appear to be key features of the ‘new normal’ we are all now living.

Obviously, we need a big shift in how the membership of the political parties hold their leaders accountable once office is attained, but there are other aspects of public affairs which need to change. Some say that once we choose not to vote, we have lost the right to criticise the actions of public officials, since we are effectively opting-out of the system. I believe it is important to remember that politics is not a single choice made by the voter at elections: politics is how we live our lives together and choose everyday.

This article is intended to discuss certain critical issues which arise for Civil Society and Professional organisations. Having considered Martin Daly’s ‘Protecting the Public Interest‘, Wesley Gibbings’ ‘Sorting out this Civil Society business‘ and Christophe Brathwaite’s ‘To sue or not to sue‘, it seems that there is a shared concern as to the proper role and control of these groups. According to Brathwaite’s searching article, there is a real question as to just how we can hold national sporting organisations to account for their decisions.

At this time the Civil Society and Professional groups in our country exist to campaign on various important issues outside of the electoral cycle. Some of those recent issues have included Constitutional Reform; Workers’ Rights; Environmental protection/sustainability; Diet; Women’s Health; Violence in the society; Road Safety; Public Procurement; Agricultural Reform.

That list is a formidable one which shows the range of burning concerns on which we citizens have decided to organise ourselves to campaign. It is therefore critical for our Civil Society and Professional organisations to be mindful of threats to their effectiveness.

My own experience as JCC President from December 2010 to November 2015 and the various issues which prompted my resignation, has required consideration of the lessons learned. These are my views on three of those issues which seem to have wider meaning for other Civil Society and Professional organisations.

  1. WHAT IS THE APT LEVEL OF OUTRAGE FOR PERSONS IN PUBLIC LIFE TO ADOPT IN RELATION TO PUBLIC CRITICISM?

    By ‘persons in public life’, I am referring to public officials and prominent citizens who may not be in public service.

    This is an important issue, since we are in a situation of flux insofar as the acceptable standards of public criticism.

    Do we have to observe silence as to the personal behaviour of these persons or can that be criticised? Where is the line of reasonableness? Is it OK to ridicule the physical attributes of these persons such as their height, weight, complexion or facial features? What of their personal beliefs such as sexuality, choice of religion, dietary and drinking habits? Is there a single, acceptable, standard to which all such persons should conform? If yes, is it therefore OK to criticise or ridicule those who do not conform to that standard? In the alternative, is it that we adopt an entirely liberal position which effectively embargoes any personal criticism?

    The existing situation is one in which there are certain issues about which it is acceptable to criticise or ridicule, right alongside customary silence on other, seemingly more delicate, issues which are never mentioned. My own position is that there are enough issues arising from the way these people perform their duties for me to criticise or ridicule. I therefore never publicly criticise or ridicule the personal behaviour or choices of people in public life.

    A more troublesome series of issues arise when we shift to consider the question of how should we criticise the performance of their duties. Is it that persons in public life are fair targets for the barrage of rumours, innuendoes and plain lies with which the public is beset? Our society has always had a tremendous imagination, which can sometimes be terrible to observe. The growth of social media has caused a seemingly-irreversible flattening of the information pyramid. The result is that we are now in a situation which allows just about everyone to broadcast the basest rumours about persons in public life without the intervention of editors. Add to that these increasingly-litigious times in which thin-skinned people can seek to silence their critics with a pre-action protocol letter alleging libel or slander. That threat of a lawsuit can cost very little to the pockets of those prominent persons and can have a ‘chilling effect’ on the constitutional right of freedom of speech.

    In recent years it has gotten to the point that the very politicians are proving to be the most litigious of the persons in public life. As a result, a major part of those lawsuits are within the political ranks – politicians suing politicians.

    In the JCC case, the false claim was being made, by some of my erstwhile colleagues, that we were under threat of lawsuit from UDECOTT Chairman Noel Garcia as a result of the letter to the editor published in this newspaper on Sunday 27th September 2015. I refused to apologise for what seemed a necessary and critical observation made as to the apparent contradiction arising from Garcia’s silence in the face of repeated reports of his reluctance to appear at the Las Alturas Commission of Enquiry. In the event, Garcia did testify, so it seems that those concerns ventilated in the media were misplaced. I now know that Noel Garcia never requested an apology from the JCC, so he is not one of those thin-skinned public officials whose eagerness to sue is an unacceptable threat to the proper enjoyment of freedom of speech.

    It is interesting to note that in the USA, the society to which so many of us aspire, public officials are effectively unable to sue for libel and slander, so strongly defended is the right to freedom of expression. Witness the many bizarre and insulting media attacks on President Obama and his family without any lawsuit.

  2. WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR CIVIL SOCIETY AND PROFESSIONAL GROUPS OF THEIR LEADERSHIP BEING COMPRISED OF PERSONS ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN THE ‘ISSUES OF THE DAY’?

    This is a more delicate issue, in that a significant part of the vitality of those organisations is derived from the degree to which its leadership is involved in the issues of the day. Some of the organisations are headed by retired persons who are so detached from the issues of the day that they are unable to properly evaluate and respond to the various challenges arising. This is why the organisations must make every effort to attract into their leadership the active professionals who are fully engaged in those issues. Of course that has to be balanced by a mix of older, retired persons who can share their experiences with colleagues.

    The other challenge is ‘How do we counter-balance the role and influence of organisation leaders who are deeply involved in the issues of the day?‘ It is not only the JCC which has had to grapple with that issue, as there are several other Civil Society and Professional organisations which have in their leadership persons who are either high-level State Appointees or the beneficiaries of major State contracts.

  3. What is the apt stance of high public officials in relation to lawful enquiries?

    This is a troubling issue, given that $2,000 is the maximum fine for refusal to appear at a Commission of Enquiry, which the parties involved in the high-level crimes under investigation are easily able to afford that. That low fine is entirely unrealistic, having been set in 1976 and never revised. There is also the growing public unease about the expense, purpose and tangible results of Commissions of Enquiry.

    This is one of those issues in which we can see the gap between what is legally acceptable and what is ethically acceptable.

    Most recently, the Chairman of the Las Alturas Enquiry, Justice Mustapha Ibrahim, in his closing statements on Monday 11th April 2016, lamented the failure of two important witnesses to appear. The first of those witnesses was former UDECOTT Chairman, Calder Hart, whose testimony was required since UDECOTT purchased the Las Alturas site for housing before it was transferred to HDC. The second witness was China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC) the company which had been awarded the contract to design and build the ill-fated Las Alturas complex.

    In this case, Garcia responded to the JCC’s letter to the editor by explaining that he had received no summons from the Las Alturas Enquiry and would attend once he received a formal request. Now that appears straightforward enough but that reply gave me grounds for concern.

    One could understand that insurrectionists or persons who have participated in large-scale fraud would have something to hide or a degree of hostility to any questions being asked on their actions. One could expect evasive or obstructive tactics from that sort of person.

    It is not at all acceptable, in my view, for any public official to take such a stance. Far less a high-level appointee who has nothing to hide. To my mind the best practice would require that such an official should be proactive and promptly inform the Enquiry of his willingness to testify.

    So, is there an important difference between legal conduct and ethical conduct? On the former point as to the legal limits, only the delivery of a summons can make a potential witness liable to be prosecuted for failure to appear. On the latter point as to the ethical approach, we are being asked in the JCC episode to accept that a public official is entitled to ignore a lawful enquiry until and unless he receives a formal request. I tell you.

    I maintain my belief that no public official, serving or retired, should show any reluctance to testify before a lawfully convened tribunal. There can be no reliance on any technicalities or loopholes.

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Property Matters – Housing Issues – part 5

hdc-logo

SIDEBAR: CORRECTION

With apologies to readers, this is to correct my figures in relation to the amount of Public Money which TTMF received in relation to the 2% subsidised mortgage programme. The figures disclosed in TTMF’s Summary Financial Statements are actually liabilities, being the reducing balance on the original allocation of $200M for this programme.

The recalculated figures for TTMF’s recovery of 2% mortgage subsidy 2007 to 2014 are

YEAR SUBSIDY (cumulative)
2007 $.9M
2008 $5.3M
2009 $16.5M
2010 $34.1M
2011 $52.7M
2012 $70.4M
2013 $87.4M
2014 $105.2M

These figures are far less than those I cited in my article, since only $105.2M has been drawn from the original allocation of $200M, as against my erroneous claim that $1,227.5M of Public Money had been spent on this subsidy.

Last week I examined housing subsidy to illustrate the ways in which Public Money is used to provide better housing opportunities.

The sidebar contains my correction, which shows that a total of $105.2M was spent in this 2% subsidised mortgage programme between 2007-2014. I was also informed that the 2% subsidised mortgage had been granted to 1,466 applicants, who earn less than $10,000 per month, to buy homes under $850,000. In late 2014, TTMF also started offering 5% mortgages to applicants who earn up to $30,000 per month for homes up to $1.2M – 298 of those mortgages have been granted to date.

This revision and the new information will require that we pay even greater attention to the HDC’s operations, since it far outstrips the other agencies providing housing options.

So, what is the proportion of applicants between the lower and middle income groups? At pg 28 of the Vision 2020 Housing Sub Committee Report (2005) that is estimated as follows –

…shows that more than half of the demand for housing to 2020 (57.3%) falls within the low-income group with 30.7% in the middle income group and 12% in the high-income group…”.

It is difficult to reconcile those researched conclusions as to the demand for homes with the actual distribution of new HDC homes, in which only 21.7% were rentals. The pattern of distribution of those homes seems to indicate that the decision was taken to promote home-ownership in preference to building rental units. There is no doubt that this decision was detrimental to the neediest applicants, who were unable to qualify for mortgages, while at the same time being beneficial to those whose earnings qualified them for mortgages.

Of course it is true that income levels increased since the original 2005 Report, so the definition of low and middle income would have shifted. Nonetheless, it is clear that the construction of rental units was a low priority.

That decision to promote home-ownership may well have been rooted in the desire to reduce the ongoing management challenges of renting homes to poorer households. If that is indeed the case, it would represent a significant departure from the housing policy which is intended to serve the needs of both low and middle income persons.

SIDEBAR: Time is Money

One of the significant issues which has impacted the HDC’s programme of building new homes for sale is delays in obtaining clear title to the properties. These cases can result in completed homes which do not have the proper title to allow a mortgage to be granted. In such cases, the HDC has reportedly been allocating those homes to purchasers under a ‘Licence to Occupy’ in which 90% of the Licence Fee (rent) goes towards the purchase price.

This is a sound way to proceed since the new homes are occupied, while the title is organised and most of the rent is applied to the purchase price.

A large number of units have been subjected to these delays, with the anticipated sale postponed and that has a serious financial impact. A sum of money which is received in the future is less valuable than the same sum of money received instantly. That decline in the value of money with delay is due to such elements as the reality of inflation, the risk of devaluation and of course the sheer uncertainty of being paid.

According to the Joint Select Committee’s 2015 Report into TTMF

…In 2008 we had established what we called an HDC Unit in anticipation of 3500 mortgages from HDC within three years. Three years later we had to disband that Unit because the HDC did not have the title that would afford mortgages…” (testimony of TTMF Managing Director, Ms Ingrid Lashley, at pg 126)

This is a limited insight, but it can give us some idea of the scale of the issue, if 3,500 homes did not have proper title over a period exceeding three years. One can scarcely imagine a private developer surviving if that sort of situation ever occurred.

The fact is that issues such as these are a potent warning of the dangers of the rush to development in which the numbers game and output targets can eclipse good practice.

There is also the fact that some of these HDC homes are used as investment property by owners who live elsewhere, perhaps even owning other property. The HDC leases prohibit renting-out, even in parts, those properties without prior written consent being obtained. A casual search on the internet can show many such properties offered for rent on the market by agents. Is the HDC managing its portfolio properly in relation to this issue?

Apart from the issues as to the types of homes built in the HDC’s large-scale development programme, there are other concerns as to its operation.

At pg 71 of the Vision 2020 Housing Sub Committee Report (2005)  it is stated –

…It is apparent that the cost of administration of the public housing programme (costs related to the Ministry of Housing, NHA, LSA, SILWC and UDeCOTT) is extremely inefficient when expressed in terms of cost per unit produced. It is estimated that $0.71 out of every dollar spent on housing is spent on administrative costs…

Which means that in 2005, over 70% of the money spent on public housing was going to recurrent expenditure.

The HDC was created in October 2005 as a successor agency to the National Housing Authority (NHA) and there were specific provisions in the HDC Act to avoid some of the management issues with which the NHA had been beset.

The then Housing Minister was Dr Keith Rowley, our newly-elected Prime Minister, so his remarks at the inauguration ceremony for HDC are noteworthy –

…There are a lot of things that did not go right in the NHA and one of those things had to do with accountability…The HDC is not going to function like that. We are required by law to have the accounts ready in a certain period of time. The CEO will be held accountable and the Cabinet will hold the minister accountable and the Parliament will hold the Cabinet accountable. That is what the HDC means…

According to the provisions in the HDC Act, its audited accounts are required to be published at a set date every year, within 6 months of its financial year-end. Despite the legal requirement, the HDC’s audited accounts have never been published. Which means that we are unable to tell if there has been any improvement in the NHA’s ‘efficiency ratio’ of only 29% of its spending going directly to build new homes. Is the HDC doing any better? There is simply no way for the public to know.

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Call for OPEN DATA for Parliamentary expenses

No More Secret Spending! Public Money is Our Money!

opendata

This is an open call for the Administration of our Parliament to take the lead in publishing all the details of Parliamentarian’s expenses for the past ten years – 1st January 2005 to 31st December 2015.

Recent revelations have sparked a national discussion on the use and abuse of MPs’ entitlement to Public Money for the operation of Constituency Offices. We are now having a vital and long overdue national conversation about the proper use of MPs’ benefits and the need for the public to scrutinize this aspect of public money expenditure.

Our Parliament provides freely-available information with great ease of access at www.ttparliament.org and in its various online broadcasts, as well as GISL and 105.5FM.

The details of the Constituency Office expenses of MP Marlene McDonald were disclosed to Fixin T&T under the Freedom of Information Act. That precedent having been established, it is difficult to imagine that any tenable objection could be raised to the publication of the same information for the other 40 MPs.

We are therefore proposing to the Administration of the Parliament that they take this historic opportunity to lead the transition from the current ‘Freedom of Information’ paradigm, in which citizens have to apply for information, to the modern, more proactive, approach of ‘OPEN DATA’ in which public information of interest is routinely published on a voluntary basis online, in searchable databases.

We also suggest that the Legislature consider the lessons from the UK Parliament (often considered to be the our ‘Mother’ Institution), which, as a response to the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, announced the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), intended to manage Members’ expenses at “arm’s length” from the House.

Our Parliament is our highest Court and it is important that it take the lead in setting higher standards of Transparency, Accountability and Good Governance. These challenging times call for non-partisan and decisive leadership: we expect no less from our Parliament.

Specifically, our call is for the details of MPs expenses to be published for the ten year period – January 1st 2005 to December 31st 2015, with quarterly updates as necessary. The expenses which should be disclosed are –

  • Details of annual allocation of Public Money to be spent via Parliament for operation of Constituency Offices;
  • Guidelines on the use of those sums of Public Money, together with changes in those guidelines, with updates to show when these were in force;
  • MP’s names;
  • In relation to each MP’s office/s, names of employees to include period of employment, position held, salary etc;
  • In relation to each MP and their office/s, details of the non-salary expenses claimed and paid, to include utilities (TTEC, TSTT, WASA etc) furniture/equipment rental etc;
  • In relation to each MP’s office/s, details of the rentals paid, lease/tenancy agreement;
  • Annual Financial Reports submitted to the Parliament by MPs and the consolidated Financial Reports to the Parliament.

Many of the positive steps taken by our Parliament in relation to disclosure of information were supported by former Speaker of the House, Wade Mark. We expect this to be continued by the current Speaker of the House, Bridgid Annisette-George.

Friday 25th March 2016 Trinidad Express Link
Afra Raymond
Disclosure Today
Trinidad & Tobago Transparency Institute
Constitution Reform Forum

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AUDIO: The Breakfast Roundtable interview on Sky 99.5FM – 23 March 2016

sky995fmAFRA RAYMOND, Immediate Past President of the Joint Consultative Council (JCC), comments briefly on the firing of Jearlean John by the new HDC board, after being on administrative leave for a couple of months. He says we should not be too quick to believe the Marlene McDonald dismissal is a sign of greater accountability to come on the part of governments. Mr. Raymond also lauds Government’s proposal to use the housing sector to create opportunities for construction industry, to help pull T&T out of recession.

  • Programme Date: Wednesday, 23 March 2016
  • Programme Length: 26:04

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VIDEO: TTTI Couch session with Reginald Armour, SC.

transparency-logoThis is the ‘On the Couch’ session at the T&T Transparency Institute’s 2016 Anti-Corruption Conference held on Tuesday 8th March 2016. The moderator was Reginald Armour SC, President of the Law Association; Michael Harris, Tapia Member and Express columnist; Mark Regis of Shell Trinidad; and Afra Raymond, managing director of Raymond & Pierre Ltd and Immediate past-President of the JCC

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