Editorial | Audit Parliament
Assuming she acted on her own volition – as was indirectly implied by Finance Minister Nigel Clarke – Valrie Curtis’ recent premature advisory to senators that were in line for a hefty pay hike is another case of managers bungling in Parliament.
Or worse, they pay insufficient attention to their fiduciary obligations and, thereby, become fast and loose with taxpayers’ money – as was suggested by the Integrity Commission (IC) in the Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert affair.
In either event, Parliament is clearly in need of a major management and audit review, perhaps by the Auditor General’s Department.
Getting these done should be a priority for the new Speaker of the House, Juliet Holness, who has prime responsibility for the management of the legislature, although day-to-day oversight is the purview of the clerk.
Senators, unless they hold full-time ministerial jobs and are paid accordingly (Kamina Johnson Smith, Dana Morris Dixon, Matthew Samuda and Aubyn Hill), receive a stipend of $53,000 per sitting. But in a September 14 letter to Senate leaders, which was disclosed this week, Ms Curtis, the clerk, indicated that this would jump by 179 per cent, to $148,000, which would be retroactive to April. The hike, it was suggested, was in keeping with a policy that indexed senators’ stipend to what is paid to members of public sector boards.
What was surprising about these hikes is that they were proposed only months after a major backlash against the steep increases to ministers and other members of the House. The outcry forced Prime Minister Holness to accelerate the fashioning of his long-promised terms of reference and job descriptions for MPs and ministers.
Faced with opposition criticisms of the senate hike, Dr Clarke, the finance minister, moved quickly to head off the political fall-out. The adjustment, he said, wouldn’t be implemented.
The minister explained that shortly after the last adjustments to the Senate stipends in 2020 he met with a bipartisan group of senators “to discuss the administration’s view of the unsustainability of the automatic peg and the likely unintended consequences”.
At the time, Dr Clarke said, he told the group that stipends would remain unchanged while a new basis for determining how they are adjusted was finalised. That was more than three years ago. That is enough to have established an independent commission to establish a rational and workable formula.
While Dr Clarke said that Ms Curtis’ advisory “followed from” the old indexing policy, what isn’t clear is whether she unilaterally advised the Senate of the pay increase with no direction or approval from officials at the finance ministry, which would have to ensure that the money was available to cover the obligation.
If she acted without the ministry’s imprimatur, Ms Curtis would have behaved with an irresponsibility bordering on recklessness. Which would be unusual, and is why she must clear the air.
Even if Ms Curtis acted on the directions of people above, it doesn’t obviate the need for the management review and operational audit of Parliament.
In its investigative report that led to its decision to charge former Speaker Dalrymple-Philibert for failing to list in her statutory declarations a motor car bought through a scheme that every three years affords public sector workers a rebate of 80 per cent of import tariffs on vehicles they purchase, the IC suggested that she abused the mechanism. The vehicle, contrary to the terms of the programme, was consistently in the control of Ms Dalrymple-Philibert’s sister – which the former Speaker explained as the reason she forgot she owned it.
Further, the rules require that public officials who receive the tariff relief, and are also paid travelling allowances and vehicle upkeep, can only receive those payments on the vehicle for which they got the concession.
Yet, between 2015 and 2020 before she became Speaker and was assigned a vehicle from Parliament’s fleet, Ms Dalrymple-Philibert, the IC said, was paid on the vehicle other than the one that was registered.
Said the IC’s report: “It is curious that the accounting and/or accountable officers at the Houses of Parliament did not discover that claims for motor vehicle allowances by Ms Dalrymple-Philibert were being made in breach of the relevant legislation and circular. Note, the application for 20 per cent duty concession by Ms Dalrymple-Philibert was made through the Houses of Parliament. They therefore had actual or constructive knowledge of same, as well as the terms and conditions attached thereto.”
Ms Curtis became the clerk in 2021, after the seemingly irregular payments ended.
Apart from the eight counts for failing to account for the car in her filings, for which the former Speaker is to be criminally charged, the IC recommended that the finance ministry attempt to recoup the vehicle allowances she was paid. Additionally, it recommended that “Parliament undertakes a review of the approval process for the payment of motor vehicle allowances … with a view to ensuring that it is both fit for purpose and fraud proof”.
Jamaica Customs, it recommended, should seek to recover, with the appropriate penalties, the duties that were forfeited on the vehicle.
These are serious issues that demand urgent attention, if Parliament is to enjoy the trust of citizens.