Our Land – The Review

“…A small State such as Trinidad & Tobago must accord a very high priority to the judicious management and utilization of its land resources or perish. All elements of land policy must be designed to ensure that these finite resources are efficiently utilized and husbanded in such a manner as to serve the long term interests of the national community…”
—Conclusion of “A New Administration and Policy for Land” (19 November, 1992)

The PNM won national elections on 7 September 2015 by 23-18.

Two key themes emerged during the PNM’s successful campaign –

  1. Firstly, there was a strong emphasis on the critical need to restore proper standards of Accountability, Transparency and Good Governance;
  2. Secondly, a commitment was given to ‘keep the various promises made by the PP government’.

When one considers the various promises, policy changes and actions of the PP in relation to land and property, it seems clear to me that those two campaign commitments made by the PNM are entirely incompatible.

Our country has a very high population density and the previous Minister of Land and Marine Resources estimated that some 63% of our country’s land belongs to the State. It is therefore a cardinal State responsibility to properly manage those critical resources so that short and long term interests can be reconciled in a sustainable manner. The present situation is so serious and damaging to our collective interests that I am calling for a halt to any attempt to keep promises with respect to land and property while a fact-finding and policy review is conducted.

landpolicyThe opening quotation is from the National Land Policy 1992, which is now a virtually unknown document since its very existence is denied by all the relevant agencies. This Policy provides critical guidance for how this scarce resource should be best managed in the Public Interest.

The severe crisis now evident in relation to our State Lands resembles a ‘Tragedy of the Commons‘ in which this crucial resource which should offer long-term collective benefits is effectively abused by self-seeking individuals. The pattern of abuse is facilitated by gross mismanagement, in profitable partnership with deliberate obscurity in how the State Land system actually operates.

Food Security

foodplan-2012-15This remains elusive since in March 2012 the Ministry of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources published its Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015. The major goal of that Action Plan was to halve the country’s annual $4.0 Billion food import bill. Yet in March 2014, the Food Production Minister, Senator Devant Maharaj, stated that the food import bill had been reduced by only 2% since 2010.

The significant reduction of our food import bill will require a flexible plan, with dedicated implementation and continuous monitoring. The one inescapable requirement is for farmers to have access to land of suitable quantity, quality and location. Without a good supply of land, no food security plan can succeed.

Land for the Landless

The proposed revisions to the State Lands Act 1998 were approved by the Lower House of Parliament on 3 June 2015 and withdrawn after the JCC raised certain objections. The proposed change in the ‘Land for the Landless’ policy were approved by Cabinet on 19 March 2015 with these main elements –

  • Occupation Date – Was moved from January 1998 to June 2014, which means many more persons would qualify.
  • Income Limits – Previously the maximum monthly family income was $8,000, this was now revised to $30,000.
  • Definition – the 1998 Act defined a landless person as one who was ‘disadvantaged’ according to the Ministry of Social Development, that word was deleted from the revised proposals.
  • Designated Areas – these were specified in an extensive list of over 400 areas covering the entire country.
  • The Numbers – The total number of persons identified was 250,000 and a commitment was given to regularise some 60,000 of those.

A policy which was originally intended to alleviate the plight of our poorest citizens has now effectively been extended to offer ‘Land for Everybody’. The existing commitment in respect of 60,000 lots will consume about 8,000 acres of land.

EMBD

https://vimeo.com/7987617
embd logoThe EMBD website states that it is responsible for the development of the former Caroni lands – some 7,500 residential lots are being prepared for ex-Caroni workers as part of their retrenchment package, with a further 8,400 agricultural leases of 2-acre parcels reportedly being processed. That means about 940 acres are to be used for the residential lots, with at further 18,500 additional acres for the agricultural plots. The total land area to be used would be about 19,420 acres, which is about a quarter (26%) of the estimated area of the Caroni lands.

Caroni Lands

caroni1975_logo_smallCaroni Lands were leased to ex–Caroni workers as part of their retrenchment compensation – they were entitled to one residential lot and a two-acre parcel for food-crop farming. The use of those lands for those purposes was intended to be controlled by the restrictive covenants in those leases. For instance, the residential lots were to be developed by a residential building within three years and the agricultural lots were to be held by the ex-workers for food-crop farming. In the 2015 budget, the restriction on sale of those agricultural lands was removed (pg 14). In addition, Cabinet Minute 3093 of 6 November 2014 approved the removal of the restrictive covenants in the leases to ex-Caroni workers – both agricultural and residential. No restriction on sale and no requirement to build on the lots.

This is tantamount to the State entirely gifting the development and transactional rights to these lessees, with no effective means of ensuring the originally desired results.

Housing Development Corporation (HDC)

hdc-logoThe HDC sells new homes at heavily-subsided rates to middle-income families, subject to restrictive covenants which prohibit open-market sale within the first ten years. Under the terms of that clause, the owner of one of these homes is required to offer the property to the HDC at the original price. It now seems that the HDC has relinquished those restrictive covenants. I have seen several letters signed by the HDC which authorise the open-market sale of those homes within the ten-year embargo period. I am not aware of any policy decision which supports that pattern of approvals and none of the vendors I have spoken with have paid any penalties of profit-share to the HDC.

This is yet another example of the State or its agents abandoning its fundamental duty to properly manage the public property rights within its remit.

Property Tax

The proposed Property Tax would require a live, open-access database which would allow anyone to examine the details of any property in the country. Those details would include land area, building area, number of bedrooms/bathrooms and other facilities, transaction history, ownership and assessed taxes. One of the strongest sources of opposition to the Property Tax is persons who would wish to keep the details of their property holdings and dealings as secret as possible.

The new Property Tax system and the modern database is in fact a key element in unearthing the facts of our country’s property ownership and occupation.

Property Tax must therefore be a priority in this arena.

The unrealistic policy of homes with gardens consumes too much land and will jeopardise our country’s sustainable future.

CL Financial Bailout – Studied Disdain

Sen the Hon. Larry Howai, Minister of Finance and the Economy

SIDEBAR: How much Public Money has been spent on this CL Financial bailout?

These are the official statements as to the actual cost of the bailout since 2012. It really resembles the ‘carefully cultivated confusion‘ which I deplored recently in relation to the Invader’s Bay fiasco.

  • 3 April 2012Affidavit of then Finance Minister, Winston Dookeran, which specifies the Public Money committed to this colossal bailout as –
    Para 21 (a) $5.0Bn already provided to CLICO;
             (b) $7.0Bn paid to holders of the EFPA and
    Para 22 $12.0Bn estimated as further funding to 
    be advanced.

    Dookeran is saying in April 2012 that $12 Billion had been paid and an estimated $12 Billion remained to be paid, which is a total of $24Bn in public money to be spent to satisfy the creditors of the CLF group.

  • 1 October 2012 – Senator Larry Howai, delivering his first Budget Statement, stated the cost of the CL Financial bailout at page six –
    …The cost to the national community has been substantial—an amount of $19.7 billion or 13.0 per cent of our current GDP; yet this expenditure was necessary and decisive for containing an economic and financial crisis…
    Howai is telling the Senate in October 2012, a mere six months after Dookeran’s Affidavit, that $19.7 Billion has been spent. If we follow this official account, which fixed the total spent in April 2012 at $12 Billion, an additional $7.7 Billion of Public Money was spent in six months. I continue to contest whether this bailout was at all necessary, but it was certainly an incredible rate of expenditure, that cannot be contested.
  • 4 May 2013 – In this newspaper, under the headline ‘$25b and counting – Cost to taxpayers of CLICO bailout and enquiry‘ –
    …However, Government’s intervention into the CLICO fiasco has cost taxpayers more than $25 billion
  • 17 May 2013 – UNCTT’s website contains a formal Press Release from the office of the then Attorney General, Anand Ramlogan SC –
    …It should be noted that efforts to stabilize and resuscitate CLICO have thus far cost taxpayers over $25 billion dollars…
  • 2 April 2014 – At the Senate sitting , Minister Howai stated at page 35 of Hansard
    …Mr. President, as you would perhaps be aware, the cost to the country of the CL Financial bailout—the actual cash that has been put out—is approximately $20.8 billion. This was done in an effort to preserve the stability of the economy of Trinidad and Tobago…
  • 7 August 2015 – I was therefore astonished to hear the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai, stating on CNMG TV, that the cost of this bailout is ‘not quite $20 Billion‘.

The first item, Dookeran’s April 2012 affidavit, is the one for which Howai is now being required by the Court to produce the details.

Some of my views on this, from last week

“…Well, this is the usual practice, in which the public right to know is subordinated to private, undisclosed interests…it seems to me at these moments that the job of the State’s attorneys is to shroud the entire indecent affair in ‘something resembling an important principle’, but ultimately the effort is intended to wear me down and let the issue fade from collective memory…I am continuing to fight this very hard…what we have here is the ultimate collapse of our Republic by Public Officials who are sworn to uphold the Public Interest without fear or favour, but end up exposed as serving the toxic interests of the financial robber barons…I am reminded of Simon Johnson’s ‘The Quiet Coup‘ published in The Atlantic of May 2009…in T&T, we too, had a quiet coup…”

As the Season of Reflection and the impending election flow together, there is a bitter brew now being offered in relation to the CL Financial bailout.

Disdain is an attitude which denotes someone or something as being unworthy of proper consideration. I think that in relation to our collective interests in the CL Financial matter, we are now being subjected to Larry Howai’s ‘studied disdain’ in relation to our collective interests in the CL Financial matter.

On Tuesday 10 August 2015, the State announced its decision to appeal the recent High Court ruling that the details of the CL Financial bailout must be published. That appeal was also filed that day and the State applied to have the stay of execution extended to the end of the appeal process – the latter issue will be heard on 19 October 2015.

The Minister of Finance & the Economy is the main public official with responsibility to account for how Public Money is spent. The Public Money being used to bailout the CL Financial creditors is our money. The Minister of Finance therefore has a fundamental duty to publicly account for how our money has been spent.

Our collective interests in this matter, of exactly how $25 Billion of our dollars were spent, far outweigh the undisclosed interests on whose behalf the Minister is now appealing.

This appeal is against every one of the orders made in the High Court judgment of 22 July 2015 and therefore represents an utter abdication of the fundamental duties of the Minister of Finance and the Economy.

Our collective interests could benefit from the unintended juxtaposition of national elections, the apparent halt of USD sales by the country’s leading bank and the hostility of the Minister of Finance to the truth. These are rare moments in which we might gain insight and regain fundamental rights, but we have to be aware of what is at stake.

The Ministry’s Press Release deserves stern scrutiny, so these are my points. Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – Studied Disdain”

CL Financial Bailout – The Hidden Truth

We are now in what I call the Season of Reflection, which for me covers the period from Emancipation Day on 1 August to Independence Day on 31 August, right up to Republic Day on 24 September. Those celebrations appear in proper historical sequence in our calendar and every year I find this two-month ‘season’ to be a sobering period for deep reflection. This year, with this CL Financial judgment and the impending election seeming to converge, the reflections are piercing ones.

Sad to say, this CL Financial bailout is resembling a situation in which well-connected persons are getting what they can, anyway they can, but making sure not to get caught. Who were the beneficiaries of this lavish payout? What is this reluctance to release details?

That is the Code of Silence in effect.

Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance
Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance

I was not at all surprised at the reported statements of the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai, on the 22 July 2015 High Court judgment ordering him to provide the detailed information I had requested on the CL Financial bailout. The High Court granted a 28-day stay of execution and the Ministry is reportedly in consultation with its lawyers, claiming that “A decision will be made within the period of time allowed by the court,”. The article closed with this quote –

“…Finance Minister Larry Howai said in the statement it should be noted, none of the requests refer to “how over $25b was spent in the Clico bailout”…”

Given that the very request was for the detailed financial information which has been deliberately suppressed since 2009, it is of course impossible to say with any certainty just how much Public Money was actually spent on this CL Financial bailout. That is the inescapable fact at the centre of this scandal. The Minister’s tautology is really a powerful explanation of this point.
Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – The Hidden Truth”

CL Financial Bailout – The Real Case

Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance
Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance & the Economy

In 2013 I sued the Minister of Finance & the Economy for his continuing failure or refusal to provide the details relating to the huge $25 Billion bailout of the failed CL Financial group.

On Wednesday 22 July 2015, the High court ruled in my favour by ordering the release of all the requested information.

The basic principle behind the Freedom of Information Act is that the information held by Public Authorities belongs to the public, unless one of the valid exemptions is applicable.

The Court also granted the State a 28-day stay of execution which seems intended to allow them the time to decide whether to appeal before they have to provide the requested information. Given the ongoing Information War and the high stakes to maintain the ‘Code of Silence’ in relation to this bailout, I would not be at all surprised if the State were to appeal against this ruling.

The unexplained gap

On 1 October 2010, the Prime Minister addressed Parliament to explain that $7.3 Billion had been spent on the bailout and that a further estimated $7.0 Billion was required to settle all debts. That is a 2010 estimate of $14.3 Billion to settle the CL Financial bailout, but the current estimated cost of the bailout is in excess of $25 Billion. That means that over $10.5 Billion more than the 2010 estimate has been spent, so where did all that extra money go? That information and the defined official policy of secrecy are at the heart of this scandal. Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – The Real Case”

CL Financial Bailout – Steal of a Deal

The CL Financial bailout was a steal of a deal for the owners of that troubled company. After all, the wealthiest man in the Caribbean was able to obtain an interest-free loan exceeding $25 Billion in Public Money at a time when no one else would lend him. Our Treasury was effectively the ‘lender of last resort’, so those terms were hugely in favour of CL Financial and its controlling shareholder, Lawrence Duprey. What is more, the shareholders kept all their shares.

In the previous column, I stated my view that Mariano Browne had taken what seemed to be a position supportive of Lawrence Duprey’s attempt to regain control of CLICO. I also pointed out that Browne was a member of the Cabinet when that fateful and detrimental deal was made to bail out CL Financial in 2009 and called on the significant members of that Cabinet to explain their rationale. I went further to say that Browne was one of the five significant persons who had been requested to testify and refused to do so.

browne-karen-dupreyI am pleased that Mariano Browne has replied on the record, so this column will deal with those valuable points. For starters, it is even clearer than before that former Minister of Finance, Karen Nunez-Tesheira, has serious questions to answer in relation to her central role in this bailout. Given that financial training and experience formed a weak part of her profile, one can only wonder at what prompted Manning to appoint Nunez-Tesheira to that position. We will see. In addition, the terms which were negotiated between the State and CLF are essential to understand today’s dilemma with respect to Duprey’s ambitions. A related issue which needs clarity is the role of the powerful, unelected ‘bigger heads’ who are seemingly in control of our country.

mariano-to-afra1mariano-to-afra2mariano-to-afra3

mariano-to-afra4

Duprey and his cohorts benefitted from an unprecedented degree of access to key decision-makers in the Cabinet and the Central Bank.

One of the enduring paradoxes in how our society is governed is the lopsided distribution of information. There is an abundance of relatively unimportant information, alongside a severe scarcity of critical facts on the big issues of the day. It seems that we are now ‘Amusing ourselves to Death‘, to borrow an insightful phrase from Neil Postman.

There is a world seen and a world unseen. The challenge is to discern the scope and influence of the unseen world. The current lexicon describes the unseen world as the ‘Deep State‘. I have no doubt that such a state of affairs exists in our country. So what do we know about the huge decisions in our society’s governance and how do we come to know those things?

For instance, the most serious decisions are taken by the Cabinet, which consists only of members of Parliament – some directly-elected as MPs and others appointed as Senators. Some of those decisions are announced at the Thursday afternoon post-Cabinet Press Conference. But the coverage is always partial with my suspicion being that stories are often presented so as to conceal their less-favourable aspects.

Cabinet seems to operate according to two conventions – the first being ‘Collective Cabinet Responsibility’ and the second being that the discussions of Cabinet are secret. The Freedom of Information Act gives Cabinet documents a 10-year embargo against publication. So, the first problem is that the highest decision-making Chamber in our Republic is essentially a secret one. I have always felt that the veil of secrecy which covers Cabinet’s deliberations is most times severely detrimental to our collective interests. This sordid CLF bailout fiasco fortifies that view.

Another critical aspect of the current arrangements is the role of the powerful Party Political Financiers, which is rarely revealed, but often suspected. In the case of the CL Financial group, we know that CLICO was a major funder of both major parties, which gives this bailout fiasco its lingering, bitter, flavour. There are few opportunities for us to get a real insight, beyond rumours, as to the true role of the party financier. Apart from the role of CL Financial as financiers, we also learned in the Colman Commission that Nunez-Tesheira’s 2007 campaign benefitted from Hindu Credit Union (HCU) financing.

The 2009 negotiations

One question I always ask is whether Karen Nunez-Tesheira told her colleagues that CLF had paid a dividend three days after it requested a bailout? As a shareholder, she would have been in receipt of dividends. If the Cabinet was told, they should have insisted on immediate repayment of any dividend since an insolvent company cannot pay a dividend. If the Cabinet was not told, we are dealing with a most deceptive course of action. Which was it?

So, what did Browne say about those negotiations?

…I have said that Duprey’s (and other shareholders) legal position is strong as the government depended on a MOA (memorandum of Agreement) the time frame of which has long since passed. On that basis, the shareholders have rights. Even if the state has expended money, the State and or its agents (the Central Bank) must do so in way that protects both the policy holders and the shareholders.

That was my advice in cabinet and at the Finance Policy Committee. The view of the Minister of Finance prevailed. I am of the opinion that Karen Nunez Tesheira was wrong then and is wrong now…

Browne is concurring with my view that the State’s position is weak in this bailout endgame, the key point being “…the shareholders have rights…”. Being bound by the first convention of ‘Collective Cabinet Responsibility’, Browne kept his silence during the raging controversy of the past 6 years, but he has now chosen to break the secrecy convention. I am grateful to him and it is telling that the most expert Cabinet member in that critical arena of finance and economics is now revealing his recollections of these critical events.

karenandlawrenceNunez-Tesheira needs to share the rationale for the bailout formula which let Duprey and the other shareholders keep their shares and loaned those huge sums of Public Money to the wealthiest man in Caribbean on an interest-free basis. What were the public policy considerations which could possibly have supported such a course of action?

Browne goes further to outline a situation in which he seems to have been excluded from the negotiations –

…And for the record I have not been part of any negotiations with Clico or CLF as part of the bailout action. Neither was I a part of the cabinet which took the decision to support the CLF/ CLICO Group. Those decisions were taken at a Cabinet meeting of which I was not a part on 29th January 2009 as I was in Barbados representing the Minister of Finance at a COFAP meeting. This bailout was always the province of the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank and (sic) had no part in those decisions.

Further, Clico/CLF/Duprey made no contributions to the PNM during my tenure as Treasurer…

I can remember Browne telling me before that he had been involved in negotiations related to the CLF Shareholders Agreement of June 2009. That Agreement, at para A of its preamble, undertakes to protect the interest of shareholders. Note – Browne has since denied this claim of mine, so that has to be noted.

Of course, we know that Browne was part of the Cabinet which made those decisions, even if he was not in attendance at those particular meetings (I have no reason to doubt him), it is immaterial. As a member of that Cabinet he bears collective responsibility.

Duprey’s intended re-entry

Browne contested my statement that he seemed to be supporting Duprey’s attempt to regain control of CLICO –

…With regard to your opinion, I am am (sic) supporting nothing…The state only owns 49% of the company. If the shareholders act in concert there is nothing to prevent them from having an extra ordinary shareholders (EGM) Meeting and replacing the state appointed Directors. It is unlikely that Lawrence Duprey can pass the fit and proper rule and therefore cannot be appointed to CLICO’s Board, but he can be appointed to the CLF Board…

Browne listed the reasons which seemed to favour Duprey’s position, which position is fortified by his interpretation of the fit & proper rules. In his view, those rules would have prevented Duprey’s appointment to CLICO’s Board, but he would have still been eligible to sit on CL Financial’s Board. If we are considering a situation in which CLICO would still have CLF as its majority shareholder, that is an entirely misplaced view.

In the Central Bank’s ‘Fit and Proper Guideline‘, the question of ‘Who should be Fit and Proper?’ is addressed at page 2 –

“…4.1 According to governing legislation the following persons referred to in this Guideline as holding “key positions” are required to be fit and proper: -…
…4.1.4 Controlling Shareholder – may be an individual or a corporate entity

  1. Under the IA, any person who is entitled to control at least one-third of the voting power at any general meeting of the company.
  2. Under the FIA, any person who controls twenty five per cent or more of the voting power at any general meeting…

Before the bailout about 89% of CLICO’s shares were owned by CLF, so Duprey cannot regain control of CLICO, either directly or via a holding company, if the fit and proper regulations are enforced. As I said previously, the acid question is whether the Central Bank will summon the will to apply those rules without fear or favour.

This is no academic dispute, since Duprey has made it clear that he is seeking to regain control of CLICO, so that financial company and the rules which govern it, must be central concerns in this matter.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Come clean.

AUDIO: Election Hardtalk interview on Power 102FM – 16 Jul 2015

Power 102 FMAfra Raymond and Peter Permell are interviewed on the ‘Election Hardtalk‘ show on Power 102FMFM by Tony Fraser about the continuing impact of the CL Financial bailout on the economy and the request to get back the company by Lawrence Duprey. 16 July 2015. Audio courtesy Power 102FM

  • Programme Date: Thurday, 16 July 2015
  • Programme Length: 1:19:47

CL Financial Bailout – Impunity Insanity?

© 2015 Dion Jennings
© 2015 Dion Jennings. Used with permission.

The headline ‘Duprey wants back CLICO‘ in the Sunday Express of June 28th 2015, did not surprise me at all. That is exactly the threat against which I have been warning throughout my campaign against this appalling and unprecedented bailout.

To allow Lawrence Duprey to regain control of CLICO would do serious violence to the fundamental notions of the law not allowing persons to benefit from their wrongdoing.

Already, we can see various positions being taken – the Movement for Social Justice and Peter Permell of the CLICO Policyholders’ Group stating their objections, while Mariano Browne (former PNM Treasurer and Minister in the Ministry of Finance) and Mary King (economist and former Minister of Planning) setting out what seem to be supportive positions.

Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – Impunity Insanity?”

Our Land – Land for Everybody?

A detrimental ‘land grab’ is almost upon our country and we all need to be alert to prevent the destruction of our patrimony and prospects.

Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources
Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources

The State owns most of the land in the country – recent estimates by Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, place the proportion of State-owned land in the 63% range – and as such those lands are critical national assets with which a progressive government could seek to address issues of poverty in a sustainable fashion. Those policies would have to be redistributive in nature if they are to effectively address the serious poverty faced by some of our citizens. That means the State using our resources to provide affordable land and housing to those who are unable to do so in the open market. It is critical to ensure that these redistributive programs operate properly so that the benefits will go to the needy persons for whom they are intended. Those are objectives which I fully support.

I quipped that the ‘Land for the Landless’ program should be re-named ‘Land for Everybody’, but recent developments have turned that quip into a growing reality.

There have been three big changes which have effectively undermined the very meaning of these important redistributive programs –

  1. THE CARONI AGRICULTURAL LANDS

    The Trinidad Express reported that the Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, announced a significant change in the original policy in the 2015 budget, in that the ex-workers receiving agricultural leases were now free to sell these lands. Those lands which are sold will likely leave the agricultural use for which they were allocated, representing a significant and detrimental ‘alienation’ of those limited lands.

  2. THE NEW ‘LAND FOR THE LANDLESS’ PROGRAM

    This important program has been revised to now provide for an annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. Even if one makes the most optimistic assumptions that the upper target of 4,000 lots is achieved at the estimated cost of $1.0 Billion, the cost per lot is $250,000. I do not know if the cost of the land is included in those estimates, but experience suggests that it would have been excluded, which would be a serious gap in the planning for the development of these important public assets.Most alarmingly, the income limits have now been increased in a manner which suggests that this program is no longer intended for the benefit of the disadvantaged in our society. The original ‘Land for the Landless’ program set an upper limit of $8,000 on the family’s monthly income, but that has now been increased to $30,000. A family with a monthly income of $30,000 can readily afford to buy a home with private mortgage financing. Apart from that, there are serious questions as to whether the inclusion of those upper-income applicants would force-out the poorer people this program is intended to assist.

    It is just impossible to reconcile the new family income limit of $30,000 for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is only for residential lots, with the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) $25,000 limit on the monthly family income of applicants for homes.

  3. THE NEW LAND REFORMS

    The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and those proposed amendments were passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3 June 2015.

    The main points of this proposed new law, which still has to be approved by the Senate, are –

    • Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
    • The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to be allocated in this new process.
    • Who is ‘Landless’? – In the original 1998 Act, a ‘landless’ person is defined at S.2 (1) as –

      “…“landless” refers to a person who falls within a category designated as disadvantage (sic) by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and who has no legal or equitable interest or any other interest or claim to such an interest, in a dwelling house, residential land, or agricultural land upon which a dwelling house is permitted to be built…”

      Obviously, the original law was intended to assist the most needy persons in our society.In the proposed amendment, just approved by the House of Representatives, ‘landless’ has been redefined as follows –

      “…(c) in the definition of “landless”, by deleting the words “who falls within a category designated as disadvantage by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and…” (the emphases are mine)

      The landless class has now been expanded by our Parliament to eliminate any mention of disadvantage. I tell you.

    • Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected, from Charlotteville to Los Iros.
    • The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys from 2014 and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted? These critical policy changes must be underpinned by substantial research and consultation which can earn the required degree of public confidence.
    • Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or any property at all. These records must be open and searchable so that the potential for serious improper behaviour amounting to a ‘land grab’ is minimised. In the present opaque arrangement the real beneficiaries could remain unknown for too long. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.

When one considers the numbers involved, there is a clear sense that these programs, which were intended to benefit the poorer class of citizen, are being systematically ‘gamed’. It is even possible that officials are assisting those elements for the advancement of their own political agendas. The numbers wrangle is beyond the scope of this column, but I will be exploring it in the near future to explain how they relate a particular story.

The degree of confusion is immense, with LSA officers denying the existence of the national Land Policy. If we are to go by his evasive response to simple questions on the SIS occupation of State lands at Couva in disputed circumstances, the very Minister Seemungal can be seen as hostile to providing essential facts. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements.

We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.

Integrity Inquiry

ic-logo

“…The question really is integrity, and if he or she does not have it he or she should not be a Commissioner in the first place. The simple fact is that try as we might, we cannot legislate for integrity…”

From Press Release of 21 June 2013 by then Integrity Commission Chairman, Ken Gordon, in response to strong criticisms of his meeting privately and alone with opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley.

Once again we are beset by what appears to be yet another fiasco at the Integrity Commission, so Ken Gordon’s fateful words echo in my mind.

Given the current political season, there is every temptation to discuss this crisis as being caused by the impending election, together with either the improper behaviour of the present Peoples Partnership government or the ‘PNM operatives’ who infest the public service. You can take your pick from those prevailing theories, but I think these recent and alarming events were preceded by earlier ones. So much so that when the entire situation is placed in context, we are facing a troubling scenario in terms of the extent to which we can trust high public officials.

The current crisis is serious enough grounds to require a full Commission of Enquiry into the conduct of the Integrity Commission since the 2000 revisions to the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA).

I do not agree with those who call for the abolition of the Integrity Commission, since it is critical that any progressive society establish what are its aspirations and work towards those. Despite the social, religious and legal restrictions on murder, robbery and rape, those acts occur all the time. That sobering truth is no reason at all to retreat from putting strong legal and social prohibitions in place. Society needs laws and institutions to promote its values, so I am not calling for any move towards abolition of the Integrity Commission at all.

Such a Commission of Enquiry is necessary to clear the air on strategic issues and its Terms of Reference would cover aspects such as –

General

  • What is the record of the Integrity Commission in deterring corrupt and improper behaviour by Public Officials?
  • To what extent would the amendments to the IPLA, as proposed by the Ken Gordon-led Commission in its 2012 Annual Report, be effective in improving the Commission’s performance?
  • Given their growing importance of Public Private Partnerships in large-scale projects and commercial enterprises, to what extent should the IPLA apply to those organisations.
  • Apart from the legal framework as outlined above, how can the limited resources of the Integrity Commission be best applied to promote ‘Integrity in Public Life’?

The specific issues

  • 19th October 2004 – The Integrity Commission wrote to then PM Patrick Manning seeking detailed instructions on how to handle Ganga Singh’s complaint against Dr Keith Rowley. According to the ruling in the case brought by Dr Rowley against the Commission – “…The Court does not accept the Integrity Commission’s explanation as to why it wrote to the Honourable Prime Minister on the 19th October, 2004, to ascertain whether an inquiry was to be undertaken and if so, the names of the persons to man the enquiry and their terms of reference…”. The public needs a full and proper explanation as to how and why the Integrity Commission took such an extraordinary decision.
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  • The TSTT exemption – In 2006 the Commission was alleged to have written to TSTT Directors to confirm that they were exempted from filing declarations as required by the IPLA. That letter was the subject of Freedom of Information litigation at both High Court and Appeal Court levels – Magdalene Samaroo vs TSTT CV 2006-0817 and CA 180 of 2010 – and it is fundamental that at no point was the existence of that letter denied. A simple denial would have readily defeated the request for that letter since the Court cannot order publication of a document which simply never existed. The matter was ‘compromised’ by agreement between the parties at an Appeal Court hearing on 28 October 2013, which means that both sides agreed to discontinue the lawsuit. There is obviously something substantial and improper at work here, so an Enquiry can force publication of that suppressed correspondence.
  • The TSTT litigation – Since 2005 TSTT has been in prolonged litigation to remove its Directors from Integrity Commission oversight. The High Court ruled in 2007 that TSTT’s Directors were required to file declarations under the IPLA. That judgment was reversed in the Appeal Court ruling of 27 June 2013 that TSTT was not a State Enterprise, with its Directors therefore not required to file declarations to the Integrity Commission. Upon careful reading of those judgments it seems clear that the Integrity Commission offered little, if any, resistance to the TSTT challenge. This sustained collaboration between the Executive, the supposedly-independent Integrity Commission and the Public Private Partnership also known as TSTT is nothing less than remarkable, given the challenges in getting agreement on important and beneficial matters. A proper account is also required for how and why the Commission agreed to this course of action.
  • The 2009 collapse – The newly-appointed Commission collapsed in early 2009 due to disastrous appointments by then President Max Richards. One of the several outstanding issues at that time was the strong complaint from Justice Zainool Hosein who claimed that President Richards had promised him the position of Deputy Chairmanship and then reneged on that commitment. President Richards proceeded on an extended leave before deigning to make a public statement on 29th May 2009 which amounted to a stunning ‘I don’t have to explain myself’. An important part of this Enquiry would be to establish just how this series of unfortunate appointments were made.
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  • CL Financial group of companies – The Commission has never explained its failure or refusal to seek declarations from the Directors of the CL Financial group of companies, which have been under State control since June 2009. I have personally checked and those Directors do not submit declarations to the Commission. CL Financial is the largest by far of the ‘bodies under the control of the State’, yet the Commission has not exercised its lawful duties in respect of proper oversight, so a full and public examination is necessary.
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  • Emailgate Fiasco – The Commission’s role in this charged affair certainly needs a full, public Enquiry if trust is to be restored. Fixin’ T&T claimed, in its 7 May 2015 letter to the Commission, that the PM had claimed to have had possession of certain files ‘containing information which the IC had requested from Google’. The Commission was asked in that letter whether it was aware of any information being passed onto the PM or any other person. The Commission’s response on the same day was remarkable, in that there was neither confirmation or denial of any information being passed to anyone else. That reticence on such a critical point is even more remarkable when one examines the Commission’s letter of 19th May 2015, which confirmed the end of its ‘Emailgate’ investigation. The first part of that letter states that the provisions of S.35 (1) & (2) of the IPLA prohibits any release of information unless charges are to be recommended. On the one hand, the Commission declines to say if information was released to the PM or anyone else, yet, on the other hand, it stresses the legal rules against such a release. So what is really happening here? What is more, the resignation of two of the IC’s five Commissioners can only add to the sense of confusion in the air. The first resignation came from Dr Shelly Ann Lalchan, supposedly for personal reasons, but the clear statements from the second Commissioner to resign, former Deputy Chairman, Justice Sebastien Ventour, are worrying to say the least. Can it be true that the media was the first place the Commissioners were made aware of that important letter of the 19 May? If that is indeed so, it is clearly unacceptable for a public body to conduct itself in that fashion.

A final issue for an Enquiry to consider would be the role of whistleblowing within bodies such as the Integrity Commission. On the one hand the Commission could not perform its work without reports from people who are reporting suspected wrongdoing, probably in breach of their employers’ rules, yet the very officers within the Commission are prevented from reporting wrongdoing in its own operations. That is the true irony at work and a proper Enquiry will be able to take evidence and make recommendations to deal with this.

A full and urgent Commission of Enquiry into the Integrity Commission is now required.