Social activist claims NIB chairman’s appointment illegal

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

In this March file photo, people gather outside the National Insurance Board, South Regional office on Harris Promenade, San Fernando. Photo by Marvin Hamilton

SOCIAL and political activist Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj has filed a lawsuit challenging the Finance Minister’s appointment of Patrick Ferreira as chairman of the National Insurance Board (NIB)

The judicial review application, filed on April 12, asks for a declaration that Ferreira’s appointment is illegal. Balgobin-Maharaj will also be asking the court to quash the appointment.

Newsday understands the matter has been assigned to Justice Jacqueline Wilson.

Balgobin-Maharaj’s application, as an interim relief, asks for an injunction restraining Ferreira from acting in the office of chairman until the hearing and determination of the matter.

Alternatively, the application also seeks an order staying the decision of the minister to appoint Ferreira.

Balgobin-Maharaj is represented by a team of attorneys including Anand Ramlogan, SC, Jayanti Lutchmedial, Kent Samlal, Dr Che Dindial, Natasha Bisram and Vishaal Siewsaran.

The application said Ferreira was first appointed a government-nominated director of the NIB on November 25, 2017. It also said on January 20, 2022, there was a notice of Ferreira’s appointment as a government- appointed director and chairman.

The lawsuit said Balgobin-Maharaj became aware of Ferreira’s appointment from newspaper reports that month and in February, when Opposition Senator Wade Mark raised the issue in the Senate, calling on the Government to revoke it.

In response to Mark, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said successive governments have appointed “eminent citizens of TT to serve as directors and chairmen of the board of NIB.”

He said they were drawn from business, labour and government sectors.

“When one looks at the policy and the practice, the chairman is someone who is supposed to act independently of Government, labour and business.”

The application said Balgobin-Maharaj was concerned about the appointment and wants to ensure it was lawful, valid and complied with the National Insurance Act, which sets out who is to be appointed to the board. In the case of the appointment of a chairman, that person has to be, in the opinion of the minister, independent of the Government, business and labour.

“The claimant has read newspaper reports and listened to parliamentary debates relative to the appointment and is concerned about the legality of same.

“He is of the view that the appointment is contrary to law because Mr Ferreira had served as director on the NIBTT’s board previously during the period November, 25, 2017-January, 20, 2022 as a government-nominated director and hence cannot be said to be a person who ‘is independent of the government, business and labour’ within the meaning and intent of section 3 (2) (d) (of the act). He is therefore not eligible or fit to hold the office of chairman,” the application said.

The lawsuit contends that it was imperative, given the roles, functions and duties of the chairman, that the office-holder must be an “independent person” who has had no connection or relationship with any of the specific interest groups which nominate directors to the NIB board.

According to the act, Government nominates three members; three are nominated by associations most representative of business; and three by associations most representative of labour. The two other members are the chairman and the executive director who serves as an ex officio member.

Balgobin-Maharaj’s application pointed to Ferreira’s other appointments as director of NIPDEC, which ended in March; NGL Ltd (a subsidiary of the National Gas Company) which took effect in July 2020; and his previous appointment as a director of the Deposit Insurance Corporation of the Central Bank from 2002-2008.

“During the period 2010-2015 when the present ruling party was not in power, Mr Ferreira was not appointed to serve on any state boards,” the lawsuit contended.

Ferreira is also chairman of Furness Chemicals, Furness Shipping and Marketing and Furness Personnel Services Ltd, subsidiaries of the Furness Group of Companies.

“The nature and scope of the business of the Furness Group of Companies is such that it must proactively and regularly engage with the government; it must have a close and strong relationship with the government in order to succeed.”

The claim maintained because of Ferreira’s “high-level position” in the Furness Group, he could not be eligible to be considered for appointment as chairman of the NIB, as he was “not a person who can be described as someone who is ‘independent of the government, business and labour.’”

“…He therefore serves the interests of both the government and/or business and cannot properly and lawfully be appointed to serve as chairman of the NIBTT.

“In the circumstances, Mr Ferreira’s appointment is illegal and invalid and the claimant, therefore, seeks the relief herein so that the NIBTT’s board of directors can be properly constituted and conduct its affairs.”

It said it was imperative for the NIB to be chaired by someone who was independent, particularly because of the current issues the NIB faces.

It cited the socio-economic importance of the NIB, coupled with statements on longevity risks to the pension system, and consideration of increasing the retirement age to 65.

“Such a measure will wreak havoc on the lives of persons who are approaching 60 years of age and have planned their lives in anticipation of their pension. To deprive such persons of their state pension at a time when medical bills and living expenses mount will be cruel and unjust. It will be a grave act of social injustice,” the lawsuit said.

“The applicant is concerned about the compromised social safety net as well as the vulnerable persons in the country and has hence decided to file this claim for judicial review.”