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'No fiddling while Rome burns' - Move to amend NHT Act not an admission of wrong, but a need to take quick action, says Gov't

Published:Thursday | February 28, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Patrick Atkinson

Livern Barrett, Gleaner Writer

The Government yesterday insisted that its proposed amendments to the National Housing Trust (NHT) Act is not an admission that the planned $45.6-billion drawdown from the state-owned agency is illegal.

Instead, two members of the Portia Simpson Miller-led Cabinet have asserted that the proposed changes are being undertaken to ensure that the pending legal action by one civil-society group does not derail the country's economic programmes.

"We have people out there who want to scuttle the IMF (International Monetary Fund) deal because they think it will give them some kind of political advantage," Attorney General Patrick Atkinson fumed yesterday.

"Nobody understands the importance of this. We are bogged down with (things such as) whether we should go tax the banks or do this or that while Rome burns," he reasoned.

"We sit back and watch the country go bankrupt while we argue in court, is that so?" he questioned.


But Citizens Action for Principle and Integrity (CAPI), the group mounting the legal challenge to the NHT drawdown, said while it viewed the proposed amendments as vindication, it was outraged that the changes were being done to legalise the Government's action.

In a strongly worded statement released yesterday, CAPI charged that amending the NHT Act to give the finance minster "unfettered powers to exploit the contributions of hard-working Jamaicans" would result in the "erosion and plundering of the NHT resources".

The statement further said: "The Government's vulgar abuse of its majority in the Parliament raises the urgent need for constitutional reforms to restrain the powers of government in enacting legislation which may prove inimical to the people's interest."

But Sandrea Falconer, the minister with responsibility for information, stuck to the argument posited by the attorney general when she met with journalists yesterday for the weekly Jamaica House press briefing.

Falconer noted that Jamaica's standby loan agreement with the IMF hinges on the $45.6-billion drawdown from the NHT and insisted that the country "cannot afford to have any delays by court action".

"What we want to do (by amending the NHT Act) is be abundantly clear to persons who may want to delay this through court action that we need to get this done," she said.

The yearly drawdown of $11.4 billion from the NHT over the next four years was among the new revenue measures announced by Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips in Parliament two weeks ago.

The Government is seeking to meet certain fiscal targets, including raising the primary surplus to 7.5 per cent annually between the financial years 2013-2014 and 2016-2017, and believes the drawdown will help to meet this objective.

Amid widespread public outcry and the legal challenge by CAPI, Atkinson has insisted that his department is "fairly sure" of its position that the Government is entitled to access the NHT funds.

"It is an urgent matter and we need to address the economy of this country and we need to start building and getting the country to grow so we can get out of this mess," he insisted yesterday.

The introduction of the bill in Parliament on Tuesday, setting out the proposed amendments to the NHT Act, paves the way for a debate where it is expected to be passed because of the superior numbers on the government side.

It will then have to go through the Senate before being sent to the governor general for his signature.