Mid Ocean News (24 June 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'
Pensioner Otti hits back as the Opposition Leader says seniors are taking a beating
HO-HUM, Mr. Editor, just another Friday in the House on the Hill, two small pieces of legislation, both of which were agreed, a take note motion, and we’re done.
That’s not to say there wasn’t any debate. There’s always some, Mr. Editor, and last week it started on the proposed new increases for contributory pensions - benefits up 3.5%, contributions up 4.75% - and ended on the motion to adjourn.
The Minister of Finance and her Shadow got us off to a good start on contributory pensions, and with pensions the spotlight fell once more on Bermuda’s seniors.
The increase is annual, and while Finance Minister Paul Cox said that she didn’t want to make “more of this than it is”, she then went on to describe the increase as yet another indication of what the PLP Government is doing to improve the lot of seniors in Bermuda. Them’s fighting words to MP Louise Jackson, Mr. Editor, who could not be restrained from speaking, ever, on the plight of seniors, and we’ll come to what Mrs. Jackson had to say in a couple of paragraphs.
But first let’s be fair to the Minister of Finance. Ms. Cox did concede the increase wasn’t that great - “miniscule” was a word she used at one stage – but also said that the PLP weren’t just mouthing “empty political rhetoric” (her words, Mr. Editor, not mine) and pointed to the absolute exemption on land tax for seniors, the roll back on stamp duty on death for the primary family homestead (not that they could take it with them), and increase to $1,000.00 worth of prescription drugs free annually under HIP.
Her Shadow, Opposition Leader, Dr. Grant Gibbons, wasn’t too impressed.
The increase of 3.5 per cent was already falling behind the rate of inflation and it was below the rate of increase which Government gave parliamentarians in February when they pegged their increase to the rise the BPSA had obtained for swivel servants under the PLP.
Dr. Gibbons also reminded members of the 13.5 per cent increase in HIP premiums which had been approved during the February Budget debate as well, and the year before that the increase was 11 per cent.
“These increases are three, four times the rate of inflation”, said Dr. Gibbons,” and our seniors are falling behind the eight ball. In fact, they are taking a real beating”.
Such criticism was not taken lightly by the Government.
PLP Whip, Ottiwell Simmons, himself a pensioner, was first to the defence. The Government pension scheme was only intended to be supplementary assistance and he doubted that many seniors – or as many as Dr. Gibbons was suggesting – looked to the pension as their sole source of income.
He speculated that there were more like him, who do not. “I don’t know exactly how many”, he said. “But I know at least one who gives generously to charity [read himself] and you can multiply that by many more seniors”. But Mr. Simmons also conceded: “If I had to live on the pension, I couldn’t.” For those who have to, there’s Financial Assistance.
It was Mrs. Jackson’s turn to be unimpressed. Too many of our seniors are too proud to go cap in hand to Financial Assistance, and too many were looking to the pension as their only source of income. Mrs. Jackson referred to the findings of the recent report, Aging in Bermuda, which suggested that almost half of seniors were living on an annual income of less than $12,000.00 a year.
“I can only cringe”, said Mrs. Jackson when considering the size of this increase. “It is just another body blow to our seniors”.
The squeeze is so bad, Mrs. Jackson reported that some seniors have decided to no longer pay their HIP premiums. It was time to take a fresh approach to the issue and the problem and Mrs. Jackson pledged to continue to “harass and harangue” the PLP Government until something was done for those of “our seniors who suffer in silence” (her words, Mr. Editor, not mine).
Again, the PLP didn’t take a shine to such criticism.
Backbencher and BIU President Derrick Burgess admonished Mrs. Jackson – “the same speech, the same paper, she always gives” – as he sought to remind members of the difference betweens salaries and pensions: “salaries are what you work for”, “a pension is to assist you when you retire”.
The UBP had 30 years and they didn’t get it right, said Mr. Burgess, adding: “We are good, but as good as we are, we are not God”.
It got a little too personal too. Where was Mrs. Jackson’s voice back in the seventies, the BIU President wanted to know, when the unions in Bermuda were pushing for pension?
“We’d loved to have had you then”, he said.
Sure thing, Mr. Editor, but doesn’t it bug them that Louise is making up for it now. You go, girl.
ONE of the best lines of the day came during the pensions debate.
Finance Minister Ms. Cox told us an actuarial study done started in 2002 and just recently completed, suggested that the Fund (from which pensions are paid) is in “pretty good shape for years to come”.
Another study is about to begin.
The Minister’s Shadow, Dr. Gibbons, was nonetheless concerned. People were living longer and healthier lives and the fertility rate was declining. There could be a strain on the Fund, maybe not immediately, but in ten or fifteen years time, and in view of the increases which were required by some seniors, the time had come for a major review.
He thought a good place to begin was with the actuarial review which should be made public “so we can get a clearer sense as to the health of the Fund and where it stands now”.
It was a request that was rebuffed by Government Whip – and pensioner - Ottiwell Simmons: “Let’s not be fooled by the details”, he said. Really – and what? Forget them instead?
Not so simple
BELIEVE it or not, a simple amendment to the Bermuda College Act followed which. took all of ten minutes: the Minister (Terry Lister) to introduce, the Shadow (Neville Darrell) to agree, and members in attendance to grunt their approval. Now, Mr Editor, legislative drafting is both a skill and an art, but this amendment was not complicated. Pretty straightforward, in fact. But here’s the rub: the need for the change was highlighted in a report dated October 2003 and a full year and a half later we get the Bill. You wonder.
PACE picks up
BUT things on the Hill are about to pick up, Mr Editor. Finally. Two major and long-awaited pieces of legislation were tabled last Friday: the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE for short) and Bail Act.
They have been a long time in the making and they are no simple read. PACE numbers 108 pages alone and its explanatory memorandum at 27 pages is longer than any legislation which we have seen in a while.
Each will make for tough reading and should warrant close scrutiny by MPs. Here’s how that is supposed to happen: Members are expected to read and understand the Bills over the next two weeks. Precedent is not to take bills up until they have been on the Order Paper for two weeks. On the day they are taken up MPs are expected to go through them clause by clause, after first debating the principle of each Bill. I don’t know about you, Mr. Editor, but I have always thought there must be a better way: like a Public Bills committee comprised of members from each side who would have to roll up their sleeves and scrutinise the Bill with the aid of those who both proposed and drafted the legislation, and who would in turn report their recommendations and their findings to the House for debate. Similar to the work performed by the Private Bills Committee.
And yes, Mr. Editor, the work of each committee should be open to the public – like the House. But that requires some real reform …
No standing Pat
NO way was it going to be an early day notwithstanding agreement on the legislation and a take note motion on women in sport. The Minister responsible Dale Butler spoke for just about an hour and his Shadow Jon Brunson for just under half of that. They were both agreed that more needed to be done to promote women in the male-dominated world of sport. Mr.Butler said his Ministry had drafted an “action plan” drawn from the committee report “Women In Sport”.
He shared with us a copy of the plan dated January 2005. It simply listed all the recommendations with no timelines, and no firm commitments. Meanwhile, no day ends without the motion to adjourn and Pat Gordon-Pamplin led the charge; this time on the new Berkeley Institute and the Government’s repeated failure to stick to budgets and timelines and commitments. It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it, Mr. Editor?
A four-letter word
Bermuda’s newest Dame received her share of congratulations on her recent appointment.
Finance Minister Paula Cox reminded everyone the new title was just another four-letter word except that this one begins with the letter “d”, although she thought some people might think she was talking about another word.
“What might that be?”, asked one Opposition member out loud. “Diva”, shouted out another.
Sorry, Mr. Editor, but Ms. Cox didn’t actually mention the word which she had in mind. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, I guess.
But leave it to Opposition leader Dr. Grant Gibbons to have the last word on this. He extended his congratulations to Dame Jennifer, adding that in view of “all the flak” which she had taken over her appointment, perhaps she should also be congratulated “for having he courage of hr convictions to accept the award”.
Ouch, Doc – and out, Mr. Editor, for this week.