CHAIRMAN: Edward Collier

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Heated pension debate in the Senate

By PORT OF SPAIN - by Ria Taitt Political Editor

The Salaries Review Commission (SRC) has come in for heavy jamming from Government leader Ganga Singh, Minority Leader Camille Robinson-Regis and even, though to a lesser extent, Independent Senator Helen Drayton.
The Senate was uncharacteristically caustic on Tuesday night as it debated the Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill, which radically alters the pension arrangements for retired judges. And in the vigorous debate, the SRC found itself in the firing line. The licks was directed at all those who had opposed the bill.
The debate took place hours after Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced the bills were on hold.
“This legislation has elicited quite a lot of acrimony in our society. It has resulted in some rats coming out of their holes,” Robinson-Regis said, getting desk-thumping support.
“Determining that in the situation where persons who have served this society, and now find themselves almost in a state of mendicancy, are being attacked unfairly by persons who are perhaps millionaires,” Robinson-Regis said to deskthumping, and drawing satisfied “aaahhhhhs” from both Government and Opposition benches.
“There has been a feigned outcry, feigned ignorance and there has been an unexpected level of hypocrisy,” she said. “Parliamentarians must be treated like dogs,” she said, drawing the response of “yes” both Government and Opposition senators. “That is what this society believes...You must work hard and at the end of the day, you must be kicked, be ill-treated,” she said, stating that both judges and parliamentarians give public service.
She said people were sitting in “ivory towers”, “pontificating” and “misleading” the public. MPs had been knocking on the SRC’s door to deal with their emoluments for 15 years to no avail, she said.
Robinson-Regis zeroed in on SRC chairman Edward Collier, saying that while MPs were being accused of being self-serving, “It is strange that no commentator raised any claims of self-interest or bias when the SRC, which meets at most twice a month to fulfil its limited mandate, recommends a remuneration package for its (own) chairman of $15,540 per month and $8,210 for its members,” he said. In response to which one member said: “Even more than senators (whose salary is $13,000 month).”
“The current chairman was been on the SRC for 25 years. Twenty-five years, Mr Vice-President ! And he has received representation from the Parliament on this matter (of pensions) for more than 20 years,” she said. “Wow, he is part of the problem,” one senator rejoined.
She noted the late Ken Valley was part of a team which had met with the SRC years ago. “Can you imagine? Gone!” Ganga Singh said, as he joined her in lamenting that Valley passed away before anything was done.
Robinson-Regis said a bipartisan team met with the SRC in 2005 and again in 2013. On all these occasions, she said, the SRC ignored the representations made to them by MPs and judges, including representations on pensions. “And now, Mr Vice-President, they have the temerity, the audacity, to say they were not consulted,” she said.
She said the PNM was advised that the SRC’s consistent response to retired judges was that they had no jurisdiction to treat with their static pensions and that it was the responsibility of the Parliament to address this issue. “So it is...shocking, that the SRC could be complaining...on this occasion. It is almost as if they were either Rip Van Winkle or Lazarus being resurrected all of a sudden,” she said, to thunderous deskthumping from both sides.
“If for over 15 years a body with the duty to recommend fails to do so, are we being told that as a legislature, we must not act...because the SRC is incapable of acting or impotent ? I beg to disagree,” she said. Robinson-Regis said the PNM did not want this legislation to be banished to the waiting room of the SRC “where it would collect dust and mold”.
Robinson spoke of the plight of former justice Clement Phillips whose daughter and herself were best friends in Bishops’ Junior and Bishop Anstey High School.
“I know as a fact” she said, that when he died his daughter was at university in Jamaica and had to leave due to lack of funds. She said it was sitting judges who put money together to sent her back to university. “Clement Phillips gave his life to the judiciary, he acted as Chief Justice on more than one occasion. He was in the process of building a house, when he died, they couldn’t finish it and had to sell the property,” she said. “That cannot be right!” she said.
“When you work, you not getting the consideration of the SRC. After you leave the job, you still not getting the consideration of the SRC,” she said.
Saying that judges give up a lucrative life to sit on the bench, she added: “There are attorneys who make in one brief what a judge makes in one year.”
“Eh, Mr Attorney General?” she asked.
“I hate the fact that I keep repeating (the words of) Devant Maharaj this evening but “how many more (judges) must die, how many more must become more seriously ill, bedridden? And we will sit as a society and say there is nothing we as a Parliament can do? That must not fall on this Parliament,” she said, adding, “we can do something!” “And we will! How yuh like that?”
Minister Gerry Hadeed offered. “Ah love it,” she said.
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