PROPER procurement practices could save this country a conservative $5.2 billion a year–otherwise lost to corruption or inefficiency–and translate over time into an improved standard of living for citizens.
For chairman of the Office of Procurement Regulation, Moonilal Lalchan, this alone should drive Government to seek full proclamation of the Public Procurement Act as soon as possible.
Lalchan, whose office has been fully prepared for proclamation since October last year, also said last week he has noted with concern that Trinidad and Tobago has entered another election year without the legislation, which he views as “the tool” to help wipe out white collar crime and protect taxpayers’ assets.
Lalchan said while the OPR has work to do with its public outreach, it was important for the national community to understand what savings of up to $5.2 billion per year could mean.
“Think about education, health, infrastructure,” Lalchan said, stating again that the estimate was conservative and could increase where efficiency was improved in self-sufficient, State-run agencies. This includes agencies such as Caribbean Airlines and National Flour Mills (NFM).
He said savings for one year alone could be used to run the country for a year but the OPR remained virtually toothless until the Act is proclaimed.
In an interview with Express Business, Lalchan also disclosed that the public service appears ready for change, with at least 170 agencies reaching out for guidance with their best practice handbooks even in the absence of full proclamation. Among them was the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC).
“A number of bodies are ready for best practice,” Lalchan said.
The OPR, based in Tower D on the Port of Spain International Waterfront, has moved fast on its work.
Lalchan said the OPR would have been ready last March had the Act been proclaimed as anticipated by Finance Minister Colm Imbert.
“But we keep moving the target,” Lalchan said and the Act was then to be proclaimed by October 2019, by which time the OPR would have been “fully, fully prepared”.
The Public Procurement Act was passed in December 2014 and has been proclaimed in parts, as written regulations must be submitted to the Ministry of Finance and be approved, before being laid and passed in Parliament.
Until then, the OPR lacks the backing to investigate allegations of impropriety in tender evaluations for State contracts.
Bid-rigging a thing of the past
Can corrupt practices like bid-rigging actually be wiped out?
Lalchan believes “yes” and said the Procurement Act alone could begin that process, as it would force into place mechanisms that monitor and control the use of public funds–including who gets paid from it.
Lalchan noted that Police Commissioner Gary Griffith last year spoke against the practice of bestowing Government contracts on persons involved in criminal activities, especially gang-related, and said the Act could address such issues.
For one, the Act would allow the OPR to impose a “pre-qualification” listing on the public procurement system, from which companies and contractors could be drawn, having already been vetted for authenticity.
He said most bid-rigging was possible because persons were able to submit bids under “paper” companies, leaving room for conspired bidding and the awarding of projects to a preferred bidder.
Lalchan said the work done by the OPR team, for which he was high in praise, has attracted the attention of private entities and he believes that with serious implementation of the Act, the public service could even surpass the private sector in transparency and efficiency.
The impending Act has caused excitement in the various industries he said, that the playing field may soon be levelled to the extent that all are treated fairly.
Asked his opinion as to why the Act is yet to be proclaimed and whether the delay is due to a cultural clinging to corruption, Lalchan said he believed the legislation was not prioritised–and noted amendments last year to the Dangerous Drugs Act, decriminalising personal possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana.
In addition, he said: “I believe the political will is not there.”
He said the population should pressure Government to bring the Act, especially with a general election constitutionally due this year.
Protect the public purse
Is the OPR concerned that the Act remains hanging while a general election looms closer and with it, the possibility of public resources being used to influence the electorate one way?
“I would say I’m very concerned,” Lalchan said.
“Because at this stage, we all know the alleged corruption that happens in an election year...the award of contracts and so on...and the transparency by which it is done.”
He continued: “It would have been a good thing for the population, at last, to say we have a mechanism to manage this whole issue of alleged corruption. I am very concerned it is not being done in an expeditious manner. I think I speak for most of the people, that we have gone too far to turn back and we really need to get it done.”
Lalchan said, without reservation, that the Procurement Act is “the tool” to tackle white collar crime.
“This is not another tool, this is the tool,” he said.
“This, together with campaign finance reform, will put us exactly where we want to be as a country.”
Lalchan said he was recently told by a senior agent in the construction industry that at this time, queries on the status of various Government contracts are being met with silence.
“Recently, when they try to get that information nobody will talk, because they are scared of the impending legislation and the repercussions it could cause,” he said.
In time, the framework could expand to include efficient, long-term planning — meaning some Government projects may not even get the green light.
This would further eliminate wastage he said, noting large projects around the country that remain incomplete as the funding was no longer available, while contractors were unpaid, yet massive amounts of money were already spent.
The Finance Minister last year took umbrage to criticism of the delay in proclaiming the Act and had noted in a letter to the Express editor that “the Minister is not a rubber stamp”.
Imbert also stated that “the Public Procurement Regulations are made by the Minister on the recommendation of the Office of Procurement Regulation”.
“In making regulations under any legislation, a minister is required to ensure that these regulations are lawful and are consistent with the intent and purpose of the parent legislation and the public interest. If a Minister were to do otherwise, he or she would be in breach of his oath of office,” Imbert had stated.
Lalchan said the OPR has submitted its last regulations as required and the Ministry of Finance would have sought, as indicated, the advice of Senior Counsel.
“I don’t think he was wrong in doing that,” Lalchan said, referring to Imbert’s seeking of Senior Counsel.
Recommendations were then sent back to the OPR and “we accepted some and rejected some”.
The OPR now waits and Lalchan, who was again hopeful of full proclamation last December, said:
“I want it to happen this quarter, full proclamation.”
But the OPR is also looking to widen its scope and stage a school education programme that speaks to integrity and accountability.
“This alleged corruption is too engrained right now in the population,” Lalchan said.
“We have to get the changes started in a new generation.”