THE Government is to proceed with its reform of the public sector pension system, on the basis of a new opinion expected from Attorney General Patrick Atkinson early next week.
Government members of Parliament's Pension Reform Committee yesterday rejected an appeal from Opposition members to seek a declaration from the Supreme Court on which of the opinions from the Attorney General's Department should stand, and have decided that the process would go ahead after Atkinson presents the new position at their next meeting.
Government's decision yesterday followed Atkinson's appearance at the committee meeting, at which he reiterated his position in the House Tuesday that the original opinion of his department that the current reform process breached the workers' rights and was unconstitutional was wrong. He also indicated that sanctions are likely against the senior officer of the department who had issued the opinion on June 8, but declined to say what action was being contemplated.
Committee Chairman Horace Dalley, the minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Finance and Planning and who has responsibility for public sector wage issues, welcomed Atkinson's decision and said that the committee looked forward to it in order to proceed.
Opposition members' concerns about the procedure, as well as their suggestion that the Supreme Court should decide between the two opinions, were rejected.
Opposition MPs Pearnel Charles and Derrick Smith felt that the episode was an embarrassment for the Government and raised doubts about the Attorney General's Department's credibility.
"The matter is on record having been done by your department and by people who have been trained to do it... and I personally feel embarrassed that the attorney general is coming here to tell me that his department has sent an opinion to us and he has come and taken it back," Charles said.
Minister of Justice Senator Mark Golding defended Atkinson, saying that the AG, after reading the opinion, was not satisfied that it covered all the legal bases for a sound conclusion.
"The only question to my mind is when can we expect that new opinion, to be delivered, because this committee has urgent work to be completed," Golding said.
Dalley, at the same time, said Cabinet had also instructed that the opinion be reviewed, and the attorney general would indicate that any opinion can be reviewed. "Those were the instruction of the Cabinet to the attorney general," he added.
"I have made it quite clear that not only did I review the opinion but I am of the conclusion that it is wrong in law," Atkinson told the House committee. He also indicated that this opinion, which will be present to the committee early next week, would indicate "quite the contrary" to the original opinion given by his own department.
Opposition spokesman on the public service, Senator Arthur Williams, recalled that, although he had some doubts about the validity of the opinion from the beginning, he was sticking by his suggestion that in order to avoid "lingering doubts" the matter should be referred to the Supreme Court for a judgement.
"It could very well leave doubts in the minds of the public servants as to what is right and what is wrong; and notwithstanding the AG giving a new opinion signed by him, I am of the view that there is going to be a lingering doubt in the minds of the very public sector workers themselves," Senator Williams said.
"It may still be in the best interest of all concerned for the Supreme Court of Jamaica to pronounce on this matter," he said.
He was supported by both Charles and Smith, but Government members opposed the proposal and instead agreed that the AG should bring his new position to the next meeting. On that basis, the committee will proceed to prepare a report to be tabled in Parliament.
Senator Golding, meanwhile, told the committee that the IMF had indicated that public sector pension reform was necessary for the availability of financing from them, as well as other multilateral institutions who will only disburse funds under a new IMF agreement. He urged the members to deal with the matter in light of the seriousness of the situation that faces the country and move forward.
Dalley said that there was no disagreement between the workers and the Government of the need for the reform to prevent the committee from proceeding.