It was one of the rare occasions when Government and Opposition were on the same page. The Judges Salaries and Pensions Amendment Bill and the Retiring Allowances Legislative Service Bill, 2014, which propose sweeping changes of the system of pensions for legislators and judges were unanimously passed on Friday, by a vote of 29 for.
In explaining the need for the measure, Government leader Dr Roodal Moonilal said it was important that members of Parliament and judges “leave behind their work, their legacy, their sacrifices and their contribution” and “it is up to us to provide that such outstanding citizens are not themselves suffering in retirement, impoverished and are unable to provide for themselves and their families”.
He said there were challenges such as health and the payment an assortment of bills, which confront former judges and former parliamentarians.
Moonilal said the last adjustment to the judges pensions was made in 2005. He said there were several former members of the judiciary who experienced hardship. “Deceased Justice Ulric Cross who served the country in several capacities and served the region, served in the military, on the bench and the diplomatic service and we named a installation after him at the air guard, and lived to a ripe age...received a pension of $3,500 a month,” he said.
Moonilal said Government also tried to ameliorate the hardship of the widows of judges. They too would receive a more “favourable calculation” based on the pension the deceased judge would have received were it not for his passing, he said.
Moonilal said a member of the House or senator was an extremely honourable position conferred on persons, who, “like judges make enormous sacrifices at a personal level, at a financial level, in terms of their health, at every level”.
He said when someone at age 30 who has tertiary education and comes to parliamentary level, they make sacrifices as well. He noted that the Opposition, like Government, was attracting “youthful professionals as well”. But, he said, the salary and terms and conditions of parliamentarians, were not competitive with the private sector. “So what you can do is offer a measure of social security...so you give to your country with the understanding and assurance that you would also be provided for when that period of service comes to an end. “It is the decent thing to do,” he added.
He said in doing this, Government was mindful of the desirability of attracting a higher calibre of persons, who would know that on retirement they are receiving some decent benefits, even though they would know that if they stayed in their professional world they would receive “ten times” more in terms of benefit. “You will always make a sacrifice,” he said, adding that Government was merely correcting certain “imbalances”.
Moonilal also spoke of the greater responsibilities which MPs now had to assume in terms of committee work, parliamentary-related travel, longer sittings etc. He also compared the salary and pension benefits of MPs in other jurisdictions, which were much higher than what is accorded Trinidad and Tobago legislators.
He said the termination benefit in the legislation, a new feature to this country, was payable to MPs demitting office and equivalent to six months pensionable emoluments, was very common in several jurisdictions. “On leaving office the bank doesn’t say take six months (grace) or the school that you are paying fees too,” he said, adding that MPs often cannot get jobs right after departing office.
“Mr Speaker there was a time when we demitted office after 2000 when I thought my phone was not working...Nobody was calling me,” he said, causing chuckles in the chamber. “All these people who you thought were your friends...,” he said laughing. “In all fairness, these things happen because of the nature of the society,” Moonilal added.
He caused more laughter as he recalled seeing the late Ken Valley having to adjust to sitting in economy, after having sat for many years in the more spacious first class seats. And he recalled a former NAR minister whose car became a taxi after losing office.
Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley said Moonilal did “a good job” explaining the circumstances surrounding parliamentary life. He said the responsibilities of MPs had grown exponentially over the years, the budgets had grown, the duties to the population of MPs had increased. He said he had written to the President of the Republic to instruct the Salaries Review Commission to carry out a job evaluation exercise for members of Parliament and the Senate as a matter of urgency, since it was critical if proper management and monitoring were to be brought to the State’s affairs. He said he was yet to receive a response.
“Today we are dealing with the after-life. But I would have great difficulty, even though I am concerned with some of the proposals, voting against this arrangement, when, in the parallel arrangement of when you work, you don’t get the considerations of the SRC. And when you are in the final stage, you also would have denied yourself what is required to live decently and properly after (by voting against the measure). And that is where I am coming from,” Rowley said.
On the issue of the judges, Rowley said as a longstanding member he has been approached by a former member of the judiciary to plead on their behalf. “People who have served the country well, in the twilight of their years, find themselves having to approach existing politicians to plead a case which has been properly presented here by the member for Oropouche East (Moonilal),” Rowley said.
He added: “There are members of Parliament who served the country well; it doesn’t matter what side they served on and the country benefitted from their service and sacrifice; and for whom the location Balisier House was a place where the devil lived, but in the their period of hardship, at the end of their parliamentary term, they found their way to Balisier House to plead a case for help”.
Rowley said it was against that background that he told his colleagues at the start of the parliamentary term that this matter had to be dealt with; “that the Opposition would support proposals of the Government to address this matter once and for all. Today is that day,” he said.