Prime Minister’s Statement on UDeCOTT

Statement by the Honourable Patrick Manning, MP, Prime Minister,
in the Senate on Tuesday May 13, 2008

Mr. President,

Permit me to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to address this august chamber on a matter of national interest. At the Post Cabinet Press Briefing held at Whitehall on Thursday 8th May, 2008 it was announced that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago would make a statement on the issue of the recent comments widely ventilated in the media on the activities of UDeCOTT.

Mr. President, four (4) Government Ministers with varying responsibilities made themselves available to the national media for questioning and sought to clarify matters on the particular areas raised with them. With your leave now, Mr. President, I wish to advise this Honourable Senate that there have been no specific areas of corruption that have been brought to the attention of the Government. Indeed Mr. President, there have been wide allegations in vague terms of the amount of money being handled by the Company i.e. UDeCOTT, lack of supervision, proceeding without the knowledge and approval of the Cabinet and similar broad statements.

Mr. President, let me attempt to synthesize the reports reaching us, as best I can:

  1. The Company is in charge of billions of dollars
  2. One man is more powerful than the Prime Minister
  3. There is no transparency
  4. There is no accountability
  5. There is non-conformity to statutory regulations
  6. The Company is unsupervised.

More latterly, in a press report, an opposition member adverted to a "shady" deal involving UDeCOTT in the purchase of an unnamed, unlocated, property in Port of Spain allegedly at an inflated price.

Mr. President, UDeCOTT has been playing a significant role in advancing the Government's agenda especially in terms of development of the country's infrastructural base in keeping with our vision for attaining developed country status not later than the year 2020. This institution, as a consequence, has been given a heavy responsibily and is entrusted with sizeable portions of public funds in achieving the Government's goals. It follows then that there must be accountability on its part and a rigorous process to safeguard the disbursement of such funds.

Mr. President, I am absolutely satisfied that the Board of Directors of UDeCOTT who are responsible for policy and its Chief Executive Officer can deal adequately with details of the Company's affairs. Nevertheless, I am bound to advise this Honourable Senate and the National Community of the measures taken by the Cabinet to ensure proper Corporate Governance.

In the circumstances, and conscious of the Government's sacred responsibility, we have been particularly meticulous and circumspect with regard to the process employed by this company.

In this respect, the Cabinet has ensured that:

  1. there are presentations to Cabinet by the relevant Boards and Technical personnel at the initial stages of a major project;
  2. a Finance Committee of Cabinet was established to review the financial implications of projects;
  3. a Committee of Cabinet has been put in charge of monitoring construction;
  4. this Committee reports to the full Cabinet;
  5. a system for the implementation of Cabinet decisions is established;
  6. monthly reporting by the Board of Directors of State Companies to the Ministry of Finance is a routine process;
  7. monthly meetings are held with the Line Minister or more frequently as the Minister may desire to address issues of concern as they arise;
  8. quarterly reports are submitted to the Minister on all projects;
  9. audited annual Accounts are prepared and laid in Parliament.

In addition, UDeCOTT has attended meetings of the Public Accounts Enterprise Committee (P.A.E.C.) a committee of this Parliament upon demand. Honourable members will appreciate that this committee is charged with the responsibility of overseeing the operations of State Enterprises in the context of their Parliamentary role as watchdogs.

These robust arrangements have been clearly established to buttress our strong and unchallenged record of accountability and have been quite successful.

Mr. President, in view of the recent allegations circulated in the media and comments from certain other quarters, it is absolutely necessary for me to indicate that the Government wishes to establish beyond any doubt the truth as it relates to the process and procedures of this Company lest the population be further misled by loud voices and uninformed conclusions by some who have political agendas and a few others who have economic agendas.

Mr. President, the Honourable Minister of Works was at pains to give an example of the challenges faced by the Government. He indicated that there was an instance of a nine (9) month delay from the first call for prequalification for the interchange project and the actual submission of tenders for that same project all at the request of the local contractors involved. Despite this long extension, they never submitted a tender. This information is a good example of important information which has not been highlighted to the National Community.

Mr. President, one member of the Opposition in the other place hammered last Friday that the Government has something to hide. We do not. We think things through, seek appropriate technical advice and take courageous decisions. That is our approach as we work sedulously to protect and preserve the integrity of the Government and at the same time continue to expand our delivery system of important projects.

Let me turn to our available options. Mr. President, the Constitution is very clear on the role and function of the Auditor General who cannot be instructed to perform any function by the Executive. It is an impartial office. Section 116 is unequivocal and states that "it should be noted that in the exercise of her functions under the Constitution, the Auditor General shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority". The Government of Trinidad and Tobago cannot therefore direct the Auditor General, I am advised.

In the event that you are asking yourself why a Commission of Enquiry has not been appointed let me advise you that to date the Government has not received a single and I repeat, not a single serious substantial allegation or complaint that will give such a Commission specific direction upon which to adjudicate and investigate.

I must emphasize that those who purport to know of instances of impropriety by public officials are free to send such information to the Integrity Commission if they so desire.

Mr. President in my particular case I have been investigated on five (5) separate occasions by the Integrity Commission. Under the law, the Integrity Commission has its clear responsibility.

The Exchequer and Audit Act, Chapter 69.01 Section 4 (2) enables the Minister of Finance to institute a Special Audit of any State enterprise and this may be an effective mechanism to get at the truth of this matter. We know that some will argue that, if we took this route, it would be a case of himself to himself.

Mr. President, we have nothing whatever to hide but we are resolved not to be deflected from our pursuits of development by wild, reckless, uninformed statements by certain persons.

As a result, Mr. President, I wish to announce that the Government proposes the appointment of a Joint Select Committee of both Houses of the Parliament comprised of six (6) members as follows: from this Honourable Senate, one (1) Independent member, one (1) member from the Opposition and one (1) from the Government benches. From the other place: two (2) members of the Government and one (1) from the Opposition. We propose that the Committee be chaired by the Independent Senator. The sittings should be held in public and should be televised for the benefit of the national community with transparency and openness to satisfy all those who have genuine concerns. This approach allows any member of the public to come forward and make a complaint if he or she wishes to do so.

Mr. President, I must repeat that this Government is resolved to ensure the highest standards of conduct, propriety and accountability in all areas of the Governmental process. At the same time we must resolutely stand firm against the growing propensity of some who keep screaming about corruption without a scintilla of evidence in support thereof. The people have entrusted us with a heavy and serious remit which we shall discharge in a responsible manner in their interest.

Thank you, Mr. President.