Up to press time last night, the Senate had not begun its considerations of the two controversial pension bills.
But long before the Senate deliberations were due to begin, the Prime Minister, bowing to public pressure, stole its (the Senate’s) thunder. At 2.46 p.m., the Prime Minister announced the Government had decided to put the Judges Salaries and Pensions Amendment Bill and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative) Amendment Bill on hold.
“Consistent with my policy of always allowing views to be ventilated and decisions arrived at after such due consideration, the Government’s current position would be not to proceed with approving the bills until all perspectives and opinions are ventilated,” she said.
However, in her statement, the Prime Minister made it clear the matter of judges and parliamentarian pensions was not a dead issue. She suggested the sensitive issue go to a Select Committee of the Senate.
The two bills, which had been passed unanimously in the House of Representatives on June 13, proposed radical changes to the pension arrangements for judges and parliamentarians, which would lead to pension increases of between 200 and 500 per cent. It led to a public outcry.
The Prime Minister was careful to link the Opposition to the passage of the bills, remarking: “It is rare that the Government and the Opposition ever agree on anything.”
She stated, “The Senate debate on the said bill which commences today will allow for some of these perspectives and opinions to be ventilated. Further, the Government expresses its willingness to refer the matter to a Senate Select Committee for review should such a procedure be agreed to by all parties in the Senate debate. Further, the Government expresses its willingness to accept and adhere to the recommendations made by the Senate Select Committee.”
“At the end of the day, the national interest is what must be served”, the Prime Minister concluded.
AG: No revision in the last 38 years
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan told the Express yesterday there had been previous amendments to judges’ benefits via regulations without reference to the Salaries Review Commission.
He said in 1980-81, former prime minister Eric Williams introduced the judicial contact allowance. He said in 1988-89, former prime minister ANR Robinson introduced the tax-free concession for judges’ salaries and allowances.
Challenging the view that Parliament does not have the power to make amendments with respect to pensions, Ramlogan said: “There was no outcry from the Salaries Review Commission then that its jurisdiction was being undermined or the Constitution violated.”
The Attorney General said the Judges Salaries and Pensions Act, first introduced on August 31, 1961, had been in force for over 50 years. He said the last review of judges’ pensions was done in 1976. “There has been no revision over the last 38 years. That meant that many judges and their families were forced to live in a ruinous and impoverished state after retirement,” he said.
He added the amount of a pension was based on the judge’s last salary and pensions calculated on that, regardless of inflation, the rise of cost of living and the vagaries of the Trinidad and Tobago dollar or medical services and expenses.
“They faced acute hardship and the situation became oppressive and [intolerant], given the fall in the value of the dollar. Many judges live well into their 80s and 90s and were forced to survive on any unrealistic pension, some having to undergo the indignity of living on the charity of friends and family. One personally complained to me that they were even unable to afford adult disposable pampers and bring required medication,” Ramlogan said.
He said the pleas of retired judges over the past three decades fell on deaf ears and he was therefore moved to take a note to Cabinet to seek an increase of their pensions. He noted the problem of the retired judges was exacerbated by the restrictions imposed by the Constitution on judges’ ability to resume a career as a lawyer for ten years after retirement, effectively consigned to a life of misery that was based on an outdated and impractical pension.
Ramlogan said he was advised by the Retired Judges Association the SRC repeatedly ignored their pleas, on the basis its jurisdiction did not extend to retired judges.
“There is no public office known as retired judge, but simply a public office known as judge. And therefore they fell into a twilight zone. The retired judges had no alternative but to seek the assistance of the Parliament through the Government,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s decision
was met with varying responses. Opposition Leader Keith Rowley, who had strongly supported the measure, questioned her motives. Martin Daly was pleased. Reginald Dumas and Ramesh Maharaj maintained that in any such arrangements the SRC
must be involved.