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We have to find a way!

Published:Sunday | June 17, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Government vows to press on with pension reform despite AG's warning

Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer

Horace Dalley, the minister without portfolio in the finance ministry, is adamant that a way has to be found to implement the public-sector pension reform programme despite the legal hurdle put in its way by the ruling from the Office of the Attorney General.

Dalley told The Sunday Gleaner that he will be going back to the drawing board with stakeholders after this week's final parliamentary committee meeting on the issue.

Strenuously maintaining that the current system of pension payout through the Consolidated Fund was unsustainable, Dalley appeared undeterred by a caution from the attorney general's office that the proposed public-sector pension reform is capable of breaching workers' rights.

"Once the Government and the unions representing the workers of the public sector agree for pension reform, the methodology can be found to effect that change," argued Dalley, the chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Public Sector Pension Reform.

'Must proceed'

"I am going back to the public-sector unions and their representatives through the Public Sector Monitoring Committee and if we all agree, as we did before, that pension reform must take place, even though the AG's office has an opinion, we must proceed with it and we must find the methodology to have it done," Dalley asserted.

Declaring that he was in full agreement with the Gleaner editorial of Friday, June 14, Dalley stressed, "It is possible, a way must be found as the present scheme is unsustainable."

Quizzed whether he had harboured any suspicion that the proposals would run afoul of any law, Dalley responded: "I would not say we knew all along and that is why the opinion was sought."

He said the attorney general's take on the matter was sought in November 2011. Asked why it took so long for a response to be forthcoming, Dalley cited heavy workload on the part of that office. "We just got it," was all he was prepared to say.

The minister was also tight-lipped when asked about Attorney General Patrick Atkinson's involvement in the opinion which was tendered to him.

The Sunday Gleaner understands government officials were upset that Atkinson did not see the report from his office before it was sent to the committee.

Atkinson sidestepped?

It is understood that a staff officer assigned to the attorney general's office prepared the report and sent it to the parliamentary committee. Dalley reportedly received it while he was chairing the committee meeting on Wednesday.

Dalley also refused to say whether Atkinson knew of the opinion from his office.

He stressed that he would be pressing ahead despite the setback. "We are coming to a closure, as I have said, only one more hearing will be held," said Dalley.

He told The Sunday Gleaner that in the lead-up to the 2011 general election, there was a lot of anxiety among police, soldiers and public-sector workers who were rushing to take early retirement because they thought that the system of lump sum payments would have been cut out.

"The Cabinet had to make a decision and I prepared a policy statement to the public-sector workers, particularly those approaching retirement, that their lump sum was secure and would not be jeopardised. We couldn't change that just like that," said Dalley.

He said since the work of the parliamentary committee started in January, several general themes have run through the presentations.

These include the need for urgent reform as the present arrangement was unsustainable. As things stand, the Consolidated Fund could reach the point where it is not able to meet its obligation of payment to the public-sector workers who retire over a period.

He said the vast majority of the presenters agreed that there was a need to change the retirement age to 65; workers should contribute about five per cent of their wages for this purpose, the pension fund must be separated from the Consolidated Fund and a manager must be appointed similar to the private pension scheme.