The public is beginning to get an insight into why the Government has been dragging its feet on the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Act.
With the countdown to election, the Government must realise that time is running out for delivering on its pledge to implement this signal piece of anti-corruption legislation. Last Thursday, Finance Minister Colm Imbert finally addressed public concerns about the delay, announcing the Government’s intention to amend the Act as it relates to two core areas which, if altered, will shift the locus of procurement power from the Office of Procurement Regulation back to the Government. The areas involve procurement through government-to-government arrangements and Public Private Partnerships (PPP).
The Government’s case for amendment is that if implemented as already approved by Parliament, the Act will make it “very difficult” for the Government to enter into an agreement or contractual arrangements with other governments such as the Australian, Chinese or UK governments which “may simply not be willing to do that”.
By inference, it appears the Government intends to amend the Act to significantly alter or remove Sections 7 and 24 which bring both types of procurement under the ambit of the Office of Public Procurement which in turn reports to Parliament. In doing so, the Government would be retaining the status quo under which it enjoys sole authority for procurement under government-to-government arrangements and PPP.
If this were to happen, the whole point of the Act would be completely undone.
The public only has to cast its mind back a few months to understand why this must not be allowed. We refer here to the embarrassing and potentially costly cancellation of the US$72 million contract which was signed between the State-owned Housing Development Corporation and the Chinese construction firm China Gezhouba Group International Engineering Co Ltd for the construction of 5,000 homes. The Government’s decision to cancel the contract came four months after the fact, and only after public interest elements lobbied against it on the basis of its terms which were hugely disadvantageous to the interest of Trinidad and Tobago and well beyond the pale of standard best practice. In announcing the cancellation, the Prime Minister washed his hands of responsibility for the disaster, saying that the contract had not met Cabinet’s “acceptance and approval”. To this day, no one has explained how the contract came to be signed and nobody at the HDC has been held accountable.
This is just one of the very many examples of the lack of accountability and transparency that have plagued the expenditure of public funds by governments going back even to the pre-Independence era.
Procurement legislation did not come easily. After enduring decades of corrupt disposal of public resources by one government after another, a powerful public lobby led by the Joint Consultative Council of the construction industry, business chambers, trade unions and civil society organisations finally succeeded in getting the Act passed under the People’s Partnership administration. It must not now be watered down. Having promised to implement the Act, the Rowley administration must do so now and abandon any plan to undermine it.