THE PREMIER REMAINS RESOLUTE IN RESPONSE TO QUESTIONS BY OPPOSITION LEADER

The content originally appeared on: The Anguillian Newspaper

In a formal response to questions posed by Leader of the Opposition and Honourable Member for Sandy Hill, Mrs. Cora Richardson-Hodge, the Premier and Honourable Member for Island Harbour, Dr. Ellis Webster, held firm to his decision – not to continue the 15% salary reductions for Legislators, Ministerial Assistants, and Special Advisors, or to consider applying the monies from the 15% salary cut to help decrease the high cost of health fees that have been imposed by the government in 2021.

Dr. Webster’s response to the questions posed, came at the Twelfth Anguilla House of Assembly meeting on Tuesday, February 15, where he noted that the questions were poorly constructed. He stated: “In accordance with House amendment rule, entitled ‘Form of Questions’, it states that a question shall not contain arguments, inferences, opinions, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions, or hypothetical cases.” He observed that the wording of questions one and three “contain language that is argumentative, makes inferences, gives an opinion, and therefore, were deemed to be improper.”

He also noted that the preamble to the questions started with a false premise, and observed that the former Honourable Member for Island Harbour and Opposition Leader, Mrs. Palmavon Webster, was not a member of the previous AUF administration. That being noted, Dr. Webster answered the questions as posed to him. In part, the text of the Premier’s response to the posed questions is as follows:

Opposition Leader’s Question #1. Why was the decision made at this time not to continue the 15% salary reduction for Legislators, Ministerial Assistants, and Special Advisors?
Premier’s Response: The Public Services Reduction Act was passed in May 2020 – two months after the borders were closed and the hospitality workers were out of work but, curiously, just before the House was dissolved for the General Elections.

The Act included a 15% salary reduction for Government Ministers and Ministerial Assistants, and a 5% reduction in salaries for public servants and statutory bodies’ staff, which the Minister of Finance could make regulations to implement at any time.
The APM administration came to office on June 30, 2020, and continued the 15% salary reduction for Ministers and Ministerial Assistants until December 31, 2020. We further extended the salary cuts through 2021.
The APM did not implement the 5% salary reduction for public servants and statutory bodies’ staff – which was passed by the AUF administration – knowing that this reduction would have been detrimental to the social fabric and the economic well-being of Anguilla. Of note, the 15% salary reduction in 2020 did not apply to members of the opposition. Therefore, following the election of 2020, the AUF members of the House were not assessed the 15% salary reduction.

At no time from June 30, 2020 to December 31, 2020, did the Member from Sandy Hill – who is Leader of the Opposition – or any other Member of the Opposition, request that the 15% be cut from their salaries. It was only when this administration amended the Act in 2021, to include the salaries of all Legislators, that the Opposition participated in the salary reduction.

The 15% salary reduction was made after the AUF administration closed the borders and shut down the economy. All hospitality workers were unemployed. The fiscal position of the country was dire. The debt had ballooned over EC$600 million due to the banking crisis and an unpopular Banking Resolution. The effects of Hurricane Irma, and now the Coronavirus pandemic, had further crippled the economy.
The salary reduction showed solidarity with the workforce. This would have been the time for the Opposition Members to request the 15% salary reduction be applied to them also, …and extended into 2020. Why didn’t they want their salaries reduced when the economy was at its worst?

However, the Member for Sandy Hill is now in favour of continuing the 15% decrease in salaries as stated in her question. This administration continued the salary reductions from June 30, 2020 through Dec 31, 2021. The money remained in the consolidated fund and was used to cover general expenditure.

This administration reopened the economy and put people back to work. We have been able to pay public servants half their deferred salaries as the economy is rebounding and the fiscal position has improved. We were able to contribute EC$4 million to the Water Corp and to ASPA to cover some of their arrears to ANGLEC, and increase government’s contribution to the public service pensions fund.

At this time, we have decided to let the salary reduction expire as the 15% can be utilised by each legislator to fund specific needs’ requests and obligations rather than remain in the consolidated fund. We continue to work for the people of Anguilla and the economy is on an upward trajectory.
Dr. Webster acknowledged that he had not communicated with any member of the opposition with respect to adding back the 15% to their salaries.

Opposition Leader’s Question #2. Why was the special fund for social purposes, as discussed with the Leader of the Opposition in January 2021, not set up to help the people of Anguilla?

Premier’s Response: It is correct that, as Premier and Minister of Finance, I discussed with the Member for Sandy Hill – the Leader of the Opposition – this administration’s desire to continue the 15% salary reductions in 2021 and include all elected legislators. Also, I proposed a further 5% salary reduction which would form a special fund for social purposes such as a school feeding programme. The Leader of the Opposition suggested that the Opposition may have other ideas for such a fund, which would be open to discussion.

On Jan 13, 2021, a Paper was submitted by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance for Executive Council to extend the 15% salary reduction to include all members of Parliament, and propose a further 5% salary reduction to be placed in a special fund to finance programmes for vulnerable citizens. The Paper was deferred after discussion since there are specific rules in the Financial Administration and Audit Act regarding allocation of money from the consolidated fund. This requires that specific use of the fund had to be determined and specified prior to setting up the fund, then regulations drafted in a supplementary budget passed. Otherwise, there could be a charge of misappropriation of public funds.
The Paper was resubmitted on January 26, 2021 for Executive Council’s consideration. The Paper was withdrawn and deemed incomplete since there was need to address governance arrangements for the fund – and specific legislation and regulations to be drafted by the Attorney General Chambers.

An amended Paper was submitted on February 1, 2021 with a proposal for the additional 5% salary reduction to be removed. Given the backlog in the Attorney General Chambers, the main drafter was on extended leave, and increased workload to draft COVID regulations on an almost weekly basis, the draft legislation and regulation for the additional 5% were not finalised. Therefore, the 5% could not be removed from the consolidated fund to set up as a special fund for social purposes. Members were encouraged to exercise their discretion and use the 5% to help as needed.

Opposition Leader’s Question #3. Did this Government consider applying the monies from the 15% salary cut to help to decrease the high cost of health fees that have been imposed by this Government in 2021 instead of adding it back to the salaries?

Premier’s Response: I would like to note that the Health Authority of Anguilla is a statutory body subject to rules which require a balanced budget.
Under the former AUF administration, the Health Authority and other statutory bodies were allowed to incur significant arrears which became contingent liability on the government of Anguilla. One of the conditions of the MOU for financial aid for COVID relief signed by the former AUF administration, in June 2020, stated that the statutory bodies had to provide balanced budgets, reduce arrears, and limit contingent liability.
In order to produce a balanced budget, the Health Authority proposed fee rate increases – the first since 2008 – to meet the necessary expenditure to provide access to modern healthcare. The upkeep of the upgraded and new facilities, as well as the cost of the added services, increased recurrent expenditure. The Health Authority rates are significantly less than those of private physicians on Anguilla and comparable to those of public healthcare systems in the region.
The expenditure of the Health Authority is covered by government subvention, grants, and fees collected. Since there are no guaranteed grants, the budget reflects revenue pledged by government and that expected from fees. The government subvention comes from taxes paid by the people of Anguilla. Therefore, taxes would have to be increased to increase the subvention to the Health Authority. To alleviate this increased tax burden, this administration approved the relatively small fee increases submitted by the Health Authority so that persons accessing the healthcare system paid a little more at the point of care service.
There continues to be avenues to help those who need assistance with covering the cost of healthcare – government subsidises healthcare for those who cannot afford it, and covers medical treatment overseas. This administration continues to work hard to restore the economy and considers all initiatives to improve the well-being of the people of Anguilla – especially the vulnerable.
Dr. Webster acknowledged that healthcare assistance for the elderly can be accessed through the Department of Social Development, to which funds are budgeted. However, since monies from the 15% reduction in salaries could not be specifically allocated, no consideration was given to moving those funds into the Social Development Department. Instead, the government made the decision that allows individual legislators to use that money for need purposes as they chose.