THE Opposition wants more time for MPs to debate some $2.7 billion in changes to the national budget on Friday, UNC deputy leader David Lee told a briefing at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition in Port of Spain on Tuesday.
He said the speaking time under covid19 restrictions of 20 minutes for each MP and one hour for the presenter and first Opposition responder were too short to examine government spending, including a $15 billion deficit up from $5 billion due to the pandemic.
MPs normally have 45 minutes plus an optional extra 15 minutes, he pointed out, while the presenter has unlimited time, also allowed to the first responder.
“We want to revert to the normal speaking time.”
Lee read from a letter he had sent on Monday to Government Whip Camille Robinson-Regis, who he said has since proposed an hour for presenter and responder and 30 minutes for other MPs.
While this was still under negotiation, he thought 30 minutes was too still short and suggested the debate begin at 10 am to allow more speakers than the usual 1.30 pm start.
He said ahead of a new budget and a general election, opposition MPs want to question government spending, later citing an alleged $541,000 cost to the State to rent two tents for 30 days. “There are a lot of questions to be asked.”
Lee was glad that ahead of Friday’s debate, the House’s Standing Finance Committee on Wednesday will physically sit in Parliament instead of meeting virtually as initially proposed.
Opposition Senator Wade Mark accused the Government of using the pandemic to systematically erode citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms.
“For the Government to curb and curtail our right to speak fully is a cause for great concern.”
He said it is Parliament’s duty to hold Cabinet to account for public expenditure.
“We demand accountability, we demand transparency, we demand openness.”
Saying the TT economy is being reopened, Mark asked why the Government still wanted to curb MPs’ speaking time.
“We have seen a trend developing with this Government, particularly under covid19.”
He cited the Interception of Communications Bill ,which he said will establish an electronic surveillance police state to spy on all citizens and which he said was passed by a simple majority, not a special majority. He said the Attorney General had quoted a legal opinion to circumvent the need for a special majority.
“They can now eavesdrop, wiretap and listen to every conversation.”
Mark said AG Faris Al-Rawi wants to remove public access to deeds of trust, which the Opposition had used to unearth the affairs of a government official.
He said the tyranny of the majority and its suppression of the minority should be of grave concern. Mark urged the Government to seek consensus rather than use its majority and vowed a future UNC government will examine this issue.
UNC general secretary David Tancoo wanted to meet the Elections and Boundaries Commission EBC , but lamented the EBC wants the EBC delegation to be cut from six to two people.
“We have grave concerns we want to raise with the EBC.
“I challenge the EBC to hold a virtual meeting with us so we can resolve issues before the general elections.”
Urging the Government to open the borders before the election, in line with protocols, Tancoo said the Opposition could go to court on this matter. Noting the recent Guyana elections, he called for international observers for the upcoming general election.
Lee earlier listed the proposed variation in the heads of expenditure.
These are: Judiciary $99 million; EBC $44 million; Office of the Prime Minister $47 million; THA $105 million; Ministry of Finance $880 million; Ministry of National Security $177 million; Ministry of Attorney General $76 million; Ministry of Health $224 million; Ministry of Labour $21 million; Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government $116 million; Ministry of Transport $224 million; Ministry of Foreign Affairs $35 million; Ministry of Communication $35 million; and Ministry of Social Development $581 million.