The government’s flip-flop on the move to hire private security firms to complement police patrols during the national shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for greater transparency and accountability in all government’ spending on measures aimed at mitigating COVID-19.
In less than 24 hours of the decision being made public, the government was forced to rescind it, following widespread criticism and concerns over:
- The lack of transparency and accountability over the use of taxpayers’ monies from the Heritage and Stabilization Fund (HSF);
- The role of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force and Police in particular, the under-use of the former— in providing security for citizens at this time;
- The legal implications/jurisdiction of the initiative which could result in abuse of power against citizens;
- The apparent ongoing lack of communication among key national security agencies, in light of the police commissioner’s statement that The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) did not make such a request of government;
- The use of HSF funds for such initiatives, instead of being used to provide increased financial and social support for citizens and small businesses during this time of unexpected mass unemployment and loss of income.
The explanation given by national security minister Stuart Young that citizens feel safe and there is no need for additional security does not hold any weight and it is clear that no one believes that this is the reason for the about-turn.
The government must be transparent and accountable to the citizens, especially when it comes to national security decisions and state spending. Issues of national security should never be so ad hoc that you could rescind a decision overnight.
Usually, the parliament is where citizens, through their MPs seek to hold the government accountable, clarify and explain all of its decisions regarding public policies and spending.
A pandemic does not erode the need for these checks and balances in our democracy.
I, therefore, recommend that the Cabinet:
- Adopts a policy of clearly informing citizens at its daily news conference on ALL its decisions relating to the spending of the $10 billion accessed from the HSF fund and the $10 billion in borrowings under the Development Loans Act;
- As far as possible, use the various technological platforms to consult with all relevant stakeholders in a timely manner with regard to any proposed emergency measures it intends to take, to get necessary feedback and consensus;
- Utilizes the monies accessed from the HSF to focus on providing much needed social, medical and financial assistance to the very large segment of the population which now faces unemployment and loss of income as a result of the current crisis;
- Undertakes to, as best as possible, remove the bureaucracy in the relief grant process, which is currently preventing many citizens from accessing the programme.
The citizens of Trinidad and Tobago must be commended for their vigilance in upholding our democracy at this crucial time in our nation’s life.
I also urge all to continue to support the police, army and the many essential public servants who are courageously and selflessly risking their own lives and safety to ensure that our country remains functioning at this time.
In addition, I continue to ask that all citizens follow all precautions in protecting themselves and their families during this time. Follow all sanitization procedures as well as all social isolation rules set out by all of the various international health organisations.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP
Political Leader of the United National Congress (UNC), and Leader of the Opposition, Trinidad and Tobago.