An important issue seems to be emerging at the Education Facilities Company Ltd (EFCL), the State-owned company involved in the building and maintenance of schools.EFCL uses public money in its functions, so it is important to put these points now.Our country has a high level of white-collar crime-bribery, corruption, fraud, over-billing, "back-fitting," tax-evasion, asset-stripping and so on. White collar crime is a growth industry, since the rewards are very high, while the risk of being caught or punished is extremely remote.Due to the size of the State, a great deal of that white collar crime can be found in state institutions. Once public money is being spent, we must demand a high standard of accountability and transparency.There needs to be an appropriate balance between the long-established "Right of privacy" in commercial transactions and the growing "Right to know" which is part of the emerging social order.In doubtful cases, the right of the public to information should prevail, since we are the ones paying the costs-that position forms part of the Freedom of Information Act.
In early 2009 the then PNM government tried to amend the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA) so that people reporting breaches of that Act would have been forced to give their names and addresses. That proposal would have given even greater protection to corrupt officials, since virtually no one would want to make a report. Of course people are strongly encouraged to report crimes like rape, robbery, murder and so on-even anonymous reports via 800-TIPS, for example. Those proposals, which were piloted by then attorney general, Bridget Annisette-George, were strongly opposed in the Parliament and in the wider society, eventually being withdrawn. One of the strongest protesters in the Parliamentary debate was Dr Tim Gopeesingh, who accused the then government of trying to intimidate people into not making reports.
The normal good governance provisions for annual accounts, board meetings, minutes and so on are very important. But those provisions must be supplemented by an atmosphere and a series of institutional arrangements which facilitate whistle-blowers.
Without the assistance of whistle-blowers, we would not have known of the Piarco Airport or Udecott fiascos and somebody leaked the file on the Heights of Guanapo Church just prior to last year's election. The JCC has been active with its partners-TTMA, the Chamber of Commerce and the Transparency Institute-in making public procurement proposals to the Joint Select Committee. An important element of those proposals is the creation of proper channels for whistle-blowers.
I recently received a copy of some EFCL documents, which were stated to be their new Confidentiality Policy Statement and a Staff Confidentiality Agreement for the signature of employees. I was also told, separately, that EFCL staff are being required to sign that agreement, under threat of dismissal. What is more, the agreement contains a specific clause which forbids revelation of either the existence or the terms of that agreement.If those documents are genuine, there are serious grounds for concern, so I made an e-mail query:
I am reliably informed that EFCL staff were recently directed to sign a "Confidentiality Agreement,"the rationale being that it is the new company policy.Before taking this any further, I am requesting your written response to these questions:
• Is there a new EFCL onfidentiality policy?
• When did that come into effect?
• Would you please provide a copy of that policy?
Assuming a new confidentiality policy is in place, these are my queries:
• Was that policy approved by the Board of Directors?
• Is the Ministry of Education aware of this new policy?
• I would appreciate a timely response.
With best wishes,
That e-mail was also copied, purely for information, to the Minister of Education. At the time of writing, there was no acknowledgment or reply.This is a serious development for these reasons:
Staff were unable to obtain any advice, which is a breach of good labour relations, at the very least.The unilateral imposition does violence to the proper meaning of the word "Agreement."The "Guiding Principles" refer to "privileged information" and "EFCL's right to privacy," both of which detract from greater transparency and improved procurement procedures.
This administration promised, both on the campaign trail and post-election, to make new public procurement legislation a priority. The Joint Select Committee on Public Procurement was chaired by Dr Tim Gopeesingh, Minister of Education. EFCL is the principal state enterprise within the Ministry of Education, so what is Dr Gopeesingh's position on all this? Is this taking place with Dr Gopeesingh's knowledge and/or approval?This kind of sneaky restriction on the possibility of staff becoming whistle-blowers is incompatible with the high-profile public statements of support for a new, effective public procurement system-see either page 18 of or numerous speeches by the present Prime Minister Expenditure of public money – accountability – transparency = CORRUPTION.