Editorial | MPs want more pork
When the members of the gangs of Gordon House make common cause on any issue, the rest of us should be wary. For it's usually about getting their hands on public resources, to be fashioned into political pork and delivered as vulgar patronage.
That is what we believe is behind last week's bipartisan rounding on the charity, Food For The Poor (FFP), at a meeting of Parliament's Infrastructure and Physical Development Committee, over the cost and quality of homes FFP has been delivering to needy people under an arrangement with the Government.
Agreed originally with the former People's National Party (PNP) administration, the project, which is about to enter the fifth of its initial five years, aims to produce 1,200 wooden homes annually. They are each 320 square feet, with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, with flush toilet, water tanks and solar electricity.
These homes were initially delivered at around J$800,000 a piece, but recipients pay nothing. The cost is shared 50:50 between Food For The Poor and the Jamaican Government. It is perhaps useful to bear in mind that homes of equivalent size with similar amenities, but built with concrete blocks, so highly valued by Jamaicans, are substantially more expensive.
At present, anyone, including members of parliament (MPs) and non-governmental organisations, can recommend persons for these homes, but MPs have no more say than anyone.
At that parliamentary committee meeting last week, the members first heaped faint praise on Food For The Poor. It is a great organisation that does good work and their questions and statements were merely to ensure that the project is efficient and transparent. The real intent was soon obvious: rendering the project into one in which MPs would be the ones perceived to be delivering dollops of pork to grateful constituents.
Fenton Ferguson, the former health minister and PNP representative for Eastern St Thomas, couldn't have been plainer.
Having questioned whether Jamaica was getting value for money and attempted to exploit the fact that Food For The Poor has raised the prospect of an increase of up to US$800 on the cost of the homes, Dr Ferguson went on: "My preference would be for those allocations to be given directly to the MPs, who can use local labour to achieve better results. I'm just horrified."
Juliet Holness, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) MP for St Andrew East Rural and the wife of the prime minister, threw in some caveats about sourcing material locally, but claimed she and her constituents could build homes at the same standards "far cheaper".
Mrs Holness' JLP colleague and MP for North East St Catherine dispensed with the provisos: "I can build anyone of these units in my constituency for half the price."
Predictably, none of the MPs offered evidence of how they would reduce the price of the homes, ensure transparency, or prevent political partisanship in the allocation of the benefit. We are not sanguine that they can, or want to. Further, we are influenced by evidence of the Constituency Development Fund, the slithering trough of fat into which each MP can, in the fiscal year, dip greasy fingers to extract J$20 million of taxpayers' money to be spread in their constituencies as though it were their own resources.
Fortuitously, a rare sane political voice has emerged in this matter, that of the House Speaker and North Central Clarendon MP, Pearnel Charles. "We must apologise to Food For The Poor. We must be grateful (for what they have done)," he told this newspaper.