On May 28, last, Head of State Bharrat Jagdeo assented to the controversial Former Presidents (Benefits and Facilities) Bill bringing it into to law, securing his financial and other benefits when he demits office in 2011.
Under the new law, 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 Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh presented the Bill for the second reading in the House, he told the House 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.
The provisions for former presidents attracted sever criticism for society at large.
Shadow Finance Minister and PNCR front bencher, Winston Murray, had at the time told the House 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-based 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?”
Alliance for Change Chairman, Khemraj Ramjattan was critical of the Bill’s largesse nature but conceded that former presidents must be allowed, when demitting office, to live a life reflective of that fact.
The Leader of Opposition (Benefits and other Facilities) has also been tabled but has continuously been deferred for some time now and it is unclear when the Bill will come up for debate and eventual passage.
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