PM speaks to Chamber about modernizing public sector

Prime Minister Stephenson King was in the hot seat on Tuesday, October 25 at the Royal St Lucian Hotel Conference room where the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture hosted the second Chamber Election Forum.
The forum was part of the Chamber’s continued effort to inform and provide members with information to make their critical business decisions. The first forum was held on September 20 with opposition leader Kenny Anthony.
The format of the political forum on Tuesday involved the use of a moderator (Adrian Augier) with a series of pointed questions. The prime minister gave a 15-minute general statement before moving on to answer specific questions on issues which the Chamber had identified as critical policy matters affecting the business community, economy and society at large.
The first 10 questions posed to both party leaders were similar, and one of the first questions for the prime minister was what the private sector could expect, in terms of crime reduction and prosecution. To that King said it was a long road ahead in terms of dealing with issues of law and order. He said dealing with crime wasn’t about the number of pieces of legislation passed, but enforcement. What was necessary King said was the strengthening of personnel in judicial system and the police force. The prime minister noted the problem of issues languishing in court for months and sometimes even years.
“We need to ensure we provide a level of confidence in people,” he said referring to the policing issue. In the last few months we’ve seen a level of suppression in criminal activity. We took the bold decision to deal with criminals head on and apologize for the collateral damage [that occurred as a result]. There’s still more work to be done, in terms of the cleansing of corrupt cops, who tarnish the reputation of those officers who’re genuinely committed to the cause, who must be upheld. Government must ensure in cleansing that we give them the necessary hardware and manpower to undertake their work.
“Most officers on duty are armed,” King said. “That is a deliberate effort by government. We can’t put officers on the street to deal with crime against armed individuals who are better armed than them. We’ve taken deliberate measures to provide protective clothing. Every officer on the street wears a bulletproof vest and we continue to invest in those sort of initiatives.                 We’re engaged outside of St Lucia with other governments, Trinidad and Tobago and in recent times, St Vincent and Grenada.
King spoke about the installation of two radar systems in the north and south of the island for the purpose of boarder protection.
“We’ve already began to see fruits in the intercepting illegal vessels,” King said, “Last year and this year we also engaged the government of Israel who are committed to working with us, providing support services and educating officers. We continue our efforts with the Americans, British and Canadians. We cannot do it alone.
The crime fighting battle was indeed a tough one, and private sector representatives wanted to know how the government intended to protect the tourism product, while keeping people safe on the island. How did government intend to deal with criminals with force, yet maintain the St Lucia’s profile as a romantic and safe tropical getaway?
“Sirens at all hours of the day cannot be of any peace to visitors,” moderator Adrian Augier said as he posed the question to the prime minister.
“The sound of sirens doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as a consequence of criminal activity,” King said. “There’s ambulance and other emergency responses, incidents of officials clearing traffic, however, there will be introduction of CCTVs around the island.”
King said government had already identified key areas for installation in order to eliminate the visible presence of police yet place community under the constant watchful eye of police. Sunny Acres, Vigie, Castries, Rodney Bay, Soufriere and Vieux Fort were some of the areas identified, and the prime minister said that development had already begun in some areas and was a work in progress in others.
“I believe for the next generations coming, the way we model the education system will model the type of society we have going down the road,” King said. “We need to change our attitudes and behaviour.”
When asked, King expressed that he felt the whole idea of regional integration was being hampered on the altar of political expedience.
“They do it when it suits them and when it doesn’t there is a different tune,” he said. “We’ve seen that in more recent times, when a particular prime minister at the local level took a particular posture and on the regional level found it quite difficult moving forward.”
In terms of functional cooperation at the local level—banking, court, education and other areas King said the OECS had led the way, but now found it difficult to move to the next level—achieving a single economic space, and being able to see the region as one economic space.
“Decisions taken at regional level are not often carried out on the national level,” he said. “There is need for a genuine commitment to regionalism and whole integration movement.”
The prime minister spoke of the Castries redevelopment plan progress, diversifying the type of education provided at secondary schools on the island. Value Added Tax, King said would likely be implemented in April 2012. On the VAT issue, the prime minister said there was need to iron out the issue of moving from the existing system to a new system without harming operations of businesses in St Lucia. He also spoke of a basket of goods that would be “zero rated” to ensure an added burden was not placed on the less fortunate in implementing the new tax.
Public sector modernization King said had to be tackled head on. He said one of his new policies to be introduced had to do with the introduction of a unit or ministry committed to public sector reform or modernization.
“The individual [in charge] must not be a politician,” King noted. “Rather someone who is prepared to take the bold and unpopular decision of dealing with what presently exists within public service.”
Politicians had been giving “lip service” to the issue, according to King but the issue had to be taken to the next level to arrive at a logical conclusion.
“How do we monitor the movement of public service officers to ensure they give us a fair day’s work for fair day’s pay?” King questioned. “The time book, the swipe cars no longer work.”
King said perhaps it was time to move into a new type of technology, biometrics, where personnel could be detected coming in and out of the building, so at the end of the day, government would be in a position to access work performance based on individual presence at work. King also spoke of a British style public sector worker contract that would only be renewed based on performance.
“To me that is the only way we can go,” he said. “Performance based appraisals. I’ve seen situations when I entered in 2006, of individuals who I received numerous complaints about for non performance, who’ve done things out of this world, being requested to be severed. It goes on for years, but why are they still there and being rated highly on appraisals? No one has the fortitude to make a recommendation for the termination of these individuals. I don’t believe the public service commission should be involved with administration issues, but focus on policy responsibilities and ensuring it operates according to law and does what is necessary in the execution of its duties.”
In terms of the Labour Code, which was passed in 2006, King said government had “rolled it back and conducted quite a bit of consultation.”
King hesitated slightly before informing the curious business people when the labour code would finally be passed. “There is no date yet,” he said.
In terms of the Hewanorra Airport development one business woman wanted to know why people were being forced to pay an airport development tax for something for which construction had not even begun.
King’s response: “The airport development charge is not only for redevelopment but the maintenance for both airports. The mechanism which has been put in place is a lock box, an account that will be used to service the loan eventually for Hewanorra airport.
“I understand you asking why you have to pay for something that hasn’t started yet,” he said. “It is inevitable. Airport development is part of broader vision plan. . .the development of St Lucia beyond ten years from now, modern infrastructure being developed and the expansion of tourism product and even commercial and residential infrastructure.”

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