Over the years I have written many articles on Local Government in which I supported devolution of greater authority from central Government. The proposal to allocate $10 million to Members of Parliament for use in infrastructure works and other projects in their constituencies is a death blow to Local Government. I followed the attempts of the People's National Movement (PNM) at reform of Local Government—two White Papers and a shift in policy from genuine reform to pretence at reform.
Hazel Manning, while she was Minister of Local Government at first made an attempt to develop a policy of devolution of authority to Local Government but this was reversed by the Prime Minister at that time, Patrick Manning, who was not in favour of devolution but emphasised central control with Local Government helping only to implement central government programmes. Thus it was with much anticipation of change that I welcomed the policies of the Congress of the People (COP) manifesto in 2007 which emphasised Local Government and the manifesto of the People's Partnership in 2010 which also promised strengthening Local government-the emphasis being on "people participation" in governance.
No doubt this was influenced by the COP. Where is the COP now? The members of the present Government who are COP members evidently support the present decision to allocate $10 million to MPs but what is the position of the COP as a party?
I quote from a recent letter in the newspapers from Lennox Sankersingh who has been a Local Government representative and has long been an advocate for Local Government reform. Indeed he is one of the few who has consistently raised his voice in this cause. With respect to the $10 million for members of Parliament Sankersingh states: "In the first place, this would be a serious blow to the relative funding of Local Government bodies.
If one looks at the Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Regional Corporation the geographical area of which includes almost six constituencies, this would amount to $60 million to the parliamentarians. This would far exceed the present development budget of the Regional Corporation. Further since a parliamentarian may have a wide discretion as to how the $10 million is used, it would further erode into the function of local government bodies, already seriously affected by URP and CEPEP and other State agencies.
This proposed parliamentarian funding should be allocated to local government while at the same time seeking to put in place measures to increase the productivity of the councils. I would urge all local Government bodies to discuss this matter and to officially reject this proposal".
In previous articles I have referred to the fact that the Partnership Government has as yet taken no action to implement the policies in the manifesto with respect to Local Government. Now I understand why. There has clearly been no intention of doing so as there were plans that would not be compatible with strong Local Government.
It is ironic that at the after Cabinet briefing the Minister chosen to introduce the new arrangement for MPs was Minister Bhoendradatt Tewarie who, I believe, was once in the Tapia group which is strongly in favour of strengthening Local Government! Was his selection to do this accidental? I certainly do not see it as a thrust in planning which is the major portfolio of his Ministry.
The reform of Local Government could be a strong influence in moving away from ethnic divisions in politics since all groups in the society are interested in their immediate environment and in having efficient services that Local Government can provide. This goes much beyond garbage collection and keeping the drains clean. Recreational facilities-parks, playing fields and so on are areas of Local Government responsibility.
Local planning and approval of local developments that impact directly on the lives of citizens need to be under local control. This is the true meaning of people's participation in governance. Participation cannot be achieved by so-called consultations in which the few citizens who attend are told what the central government intends to do — and will do whatever the comments at the "consultations".
Preservation of local heritage sites, community tourism, preservation of the natural environment, partnership with local Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), first call for social services can all be a part of Local Government activities and are more likely to be non-partisan than if they are carried out by central government.
What of the other duties of Parliamentarians? Even now Parliamentarians fall down on their duties in attending Parliamentary Committees for over-site of Government activities. If this new funding under the control of parliamentarians were to be implemented there would be even less time for such duties. But perhaps that is part of the plan-to achieve less over-site of Government activities!
The proposal shows a lack of understanding of governance under our present Constitution and the essential role of Members of Parliament in attending to parliamentary business. The fact that MPs represent certain geographic areas does not mean that they are to provide services to those areas. That is the role of Government, particularly Local Government. If these services are not being supplied efficiently then that problem should be tackled. The problem will not be solved by introducing another layer of participants (the MPs) and thereby creating utter confusion in the delivery of such services.
It seems to me that as each day passes we see the need for a new broom that hopefully will sweep clean. And so, as I have done in my last two articles, I urge the Movement for Social Justice (which I notice has spoken against this new arrangement for placing funds at the disposal of MPs) to get its act together and develop a strong well organised political party with sensible policies which are set out for the citizens of this country to see and discuss.
• John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator