UNC: Government has duty of disclosure in public spending

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein. – File photo by Faith Ayoung

OPPOSITION MPs emphasised the need for transparency and accountability in government spending as the motion for supplementary appropriations of $2.3 billion was passed in Parliament on June 7.

Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein noted Attorney General Reginald Armour had been asked to provide the names of the attorneys to whom additional funding for the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Legal Affairs would be paid.

Speaking in the debate of the motion to adopt the report of the Standing Finance Committee of the House of Representatives on supplementary appropriations for the 2024 financial year, Hosein said at first Armour refused, but later decided to provide the names of the attorneys who consented to disclose their names.

He said originally Amour requested $45 million to pay legal fees and an additional $120 million during the Mid-Year Review for a total of $165 million. He said the Opposition had yet to see the document with the information, but the fees of those who consented amounted to $10 million, and the fees of those who did not amounted to $51 million.

“And today, Trinidad and Tobago does not know who this $51 million is paid to.

“This is not the money from Balisier House. This is not the PNM money. This is the taxpayers of Trinidad and Tobago money.

“So Madam Speaker, the government has a duty of disclosure, transparency and accountability to the people of TT to let them know where the money has gone, and who is being paid with this enormous allocation of $165 million.”

The report of the Standing Finance committee proposed $124.3 million to the Office of the Attorney General and Ministry of Legal Affairs for the Supplementary Appropriation for fiscal year 2024. Hosein said under Armour, the government had the highest legal bills in the country’s history, at $190 million in 2023 and $165 million in 2024.

He said disclosure of fees should be a condition of hiring attorneys, as such disclosure was a settled practice, and listed several occasions in the past, under both UNC and PNM governments, when this was done without the consent of the attorneys.

“If you want to collect taxpayers’ money, be ready to be accountable and transparent to the taxpayers.

“We believe, on the Opposition Bench, Madam Speaker, that this government owes a duty of candour. They owe a duty of full disclosure, to be accountable and transparent to the taxpayers of TT.”

Imbert: We don’t have to spend full $2.3b

During his contribution, Finance Minister Colm Imbert first addressed the remarks of the Opposition, describing the statements of the Opposition Leader that the country was bankrupt and the economy collapsed as “ridiculous.”

He went on to quote the June 5 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report on TT which said TT was experiencing a gradual and sustained economic recovery for the first time in ten years.

It praised the government’s fiscal policies, its management of the public debt, diversification efforts and moves to strengthen its tax regime, its climate and green-energy agenda, and that the economic outlook was favourable.

He added that the nation’s roads were “clogged with vehicles,” concerts were packed and this year’s Carnival fetes were sold out, so obviously the economy had not collapsed.

Imbert said under the UNC government there were supplementary appropriations every year  between $3 and $4 billion.

Also, between 2010 and 2015 the UNC increased annual expenditure by $20 billion without an increase in revenue. He said as an energy-based economy, the country was at the mercy of energy prices, which it did not control. So when prices went down, the government had to take measures to manage the economy.

He said when oil prices dropped from US$100 to US$40 when the UNC was in power, it left the economy in a mess. He said it withdrew $17 billion from the National Gas Corporation, borrowed $31 billion, took $14 billion from the Central Bank account and left the government’s accounts in overdraft of almost 100 per cent.

He recalled when oil prices dropped to US$25 and then into negative figures during the pandemic, the PNM government managed it. He said it ensured public servants got their salaries and back pay, and the elderly their pensions. And even though the $2.3 billion requested this year took the total approved appropriation bill to around $61 billion, the government would prioritise and manage expenditure.

“And every year, this administration, when it does its supplementation, we are cognisant of revenue challenges. We control expenditure. If you look at the actual outturn end of the year, we never use the entire supplementation.

“We have to do the appropriation so that the fiscal space exists that if there’s an emergency and the expenditure is inescapable, that the appropriation is there. Because if you don’t have the appropriation, you can’t make the expenditure.”

He said all the supplementations were necessary and the government would manage the country’s finances prudently.