consultation: Members of the Prices Council yesterday at MovieTowne's Conference Centre in Port of Spain. From left are Raymond Aaron, Deborah Cumberbatch, Wendy Lee Yuen, Balliram Maharaj, Dr Sharon Hutchinson and Arlene Job-Thomas. —Photo: ISHMAEL SALANDY

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'Vacancies leading to high food prices'

By Julien Neaves

A NUMBER of vacancies for public health officers and Customs officers are part of the reason for the country's high food prices, Prices Council chairperson Wendy Lee Yuen said yesterday.

She said the council was "alarmed" at the number of vacancies, noting that the human resource area was important in increasing efficiency at these agencies.

Lee Yuen also said many senior staff members in Government agencies were in acting positions where authoritative decisions were at times put aside or denied because they did not want to "rock the boat".

She was speaking at the new council's first public stakeholders consultation yesterday at the Banquet and Conference Centre of MovieTowne, Port of Spain.

The council was installed in December 2010.

She said there had been suggestions to address prices, including elimination of overtime for workers handling cargo to encourage higher production, and the implementation of electronic payment systems for speedy clearance of items.

Customs officer Deryck Cateau said the elimination of overtime was a "touchy issue", as it was necessary in some instances.

He noted that as public servants, Customs officers worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. "The only way I see overtime being eliminated is double the Customs staff and have Customs working around the clock. Because a boat or plane does not land in Trinidad and Tobago between the hours of eight to four," he added.

He noted that many delays were caused by filing mistakes, including customers doing incomplete or inaccurate declarations and incorrect description of goods.

He said the department was slowly moving toward greater automation to increase efficiency.

Chamber of Commerce representative Anthony Agostini said there were reasons for add-on costs to food prices, including long delays to clear goods from Customs, security costs due to the general crime situation, lack of enforcement by police over bounced cheques, intermittent foreign exchange access and delays at Government departments.

Lee Yuen said the council has been accused in the past of being a "toothless bulldog", which was "quite accurate" as it had no direct control over prices, but noted that it made recommendations to Government ministries to make interventions where possible to reduce prices.

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