The long awaited Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Bill was yesterday approved in the National Assembly with only principled support from the two main opposition parties, namely the Alliance for Change (AFC) and the People’s National Congress Reform.
The Bill, which was first read on April 9, last, was presented by Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh. It seeks to spell out what benefits any former President of Guyana will be entitled when demitting office.
Under the proposed legislation, a former President will receive payment in respect of the expenses incurred in the provision and use of water; electricity and telephone services at the place of residence in Guyana; services of personal and household staff, including an attendant and a gardener; services of clerical and technical staff, if requested; free medical attendance and medical treatment or reimbursement of medical expenses incurred by him for the medical attendance or treatment of himself and the dependant members of his family; full-time personal security and services of the Presidential Guard Service at the place of residence; the provision of motor vehicles owned and maintained by the State; toll free road transportation in Guyana; an annual vacation allowance equivalent to the cost of two first class return airfares provided on the same basis as that granted to serving members of the Judiciary; and a tax exemption status identical to that enjoyed by a serving President.
When the Minister presented the Bill for the second reading in the House yesterday, Dr Singh said that in the past former presidents were in receipt of their entitled benefits but it was done so with the latitude of the administration and the government in its commitment to transparency was moving toward a “statute based approach”.
He noted that benefits will now be paid using a structured framework and would remove the need for the use of discretionary powers by the administration.
Leading off the opposition arguments on the Bill was Shadow Finance Minister and PNCR front bencher, Winston Murray, who said that his party welcomed the move by the government to have a statute-based approach whilst commending the move away from the use of discretionary latitude. He said that when latitude is used it is often dangled as a “carrot or stick.”
Murray did take umbrage to the statement of removing discretion when there was no specificity in the Bill such as how many cars the President will use; how much support staff and the tax exemption status to be extended when all of that would be subject to make regulations order giving effect to the provisions of this Act by the Minister.
Murray argued that his party’s move to have a proper consensus Bill before coming to the House was rebuffed and suggested in vain that the Bill be subject to a select committee so that the specifics could be worked out. Murray also questioned whether the President had anything to do with the Bill and was afraid of the discretionary latitude and is as such securing his benefits through a statute base approach.
“I don’t blame him. He is wise. It shows that he is aware of the risk and uncertainty.”
He noted also that another touchy section of the Bill was the tax exemption identical to that of a sitting president.
According to Murray, the income of a sitting president was tax free. “If he goes into a business and makes millions, is that going to be tax free?”
Murray posited that all income for former presidents except his/her pension should be taxable.
Alliance for Change Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan was merciless in his onslaught of the Bill’s largesque nature but conceded that former presidents must be allowed when demitting office to live a life reflective of that fact.
He noted, however, that when laws are passed it must be certain, clear and specific and not as vague as the one that was before the House.
According to Ramjattan, the Bill that was before the House was a far cry from the original teachings of the party, which was to work hard and struggle for the betterment of the people and not the perks of the office.
Among some of the other speakers on the Bill were Aubrey Norton and Lance Carberry of the PNCR and Everall Franklin of the Guyana Action Party.
The House also approved the Office of the Spouse of the President Legislation.
The Office of the Spouse of the President Bill establishes an official public office for whoever is the spouse of the sitting president.
In the event that the sitting president is a man, then it will be referred to as the Office of the First Lady.
“The Office of the Spouse of the President shall be held by the spouse of a serving President and its tenure shall be co-terminus with that of the serving President.”
Under the legislation, the Finance Minister will be responsible for the determination of allowances and other benefits to which the holder of the Office of the Spouse of the President will require in discharging public functions.
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