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Minister of Information and Development, Hon. Donald Buchanan has emphasized that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller’s overseas trips, the size of her accompanying delegations, and related expenditure have been “consciously” kept to a minimum.
The gains to the country for such trips, he further stressed, are significant and irrefutable.
Mr. Buchanan’s statement comes against the background of recent concerns raised in the media of the costs associated with the Prime Minister’s overseas visits.
The Minister explained that the selection of hotels for Mrs. Simpson Miller “is approached, among other things, with due consideration for the most economic cost”.
This, he said, took into account critical factors such as ensuring that special requirements relative to infrastructure and security are met; facilities befitting the Office of the Prime Minister are in place, that is, a suitable suite for high level, confidential meetings with Heads of State, and officials.
Departures from the usual procedures are occasioned at intervals, due to unavailability of preferred accommodation; choice of conference hotel; security specifications of the host country; and fluctuations in hotel rates and other extenuating circumstances.
“The Prime Minister wishes for it to be known that she has personally expressed preferences for hotels where the cost is potentially lower. However, decisions are made on the considered advice of the host country and their agencies, as well as the recommendations of the Jamaican missions, whose knowledge of the local environment must be valued,” Mr. Buchanan said.
Turning to the matter of the number of persons comprising the Prime Minister’s delegation, the Minister pointed out that Mrs. Simpson Miller travels with the minimum of delegates to any of the forums to which she has been invited. The core delegation, as outlined by Mr. Buchanan include: the Permanent Secretary, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, the Press Secretary and Security Officers. “Depending on the nature of the meeting, the Prime Minister may have, in addition, other technical officers accompanying her. It is important to note that of the 10 trips for the period under review, the largest delegation comprised a total of six persons,” he informed.
Speaking to the roles and responsibilities of the delegation travelling with the Prime Minister, Mr. Buchanan said each member had a specific role and responsibility that is consistent with their substantive position. Outlining these, he said the Permanent Secretary provides technical advice and support to the Prime Minister during official visits; implements policies through follow-up with commitments, decisions and outcomes; facilitates intervention amongst the stakeholders within the government’s administration; interfaces with technical officers from other jurisdictions; liaises with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade and respective missions, locally and overseas; and signs agreements on behalf of the government in the absence of portfolio Ministers.
The Special Assistant to the Prime Minister meanwhile, develops the itinerary for the Prime Minister and her delegation; manages the delegation’s land and air travel arrangements; arranges high-level meetings and overseas hospitality details; co-ordinates all logistics and hospitality on the trip; liaises with hosts, other delegations and Jamaica’s missions in the host country; and performs sensitive administrative functions.
Citing the Prime Minister’s two-night, three-day visit to New York in October and her receiving US$4,200, inclusive of US$1,500 for contingency, Mr. Buchanan explained that it was standard for the Prime Minister to be allowed a contingency of up to US$1,500, to allow for unforeseen circumstances.
“Whilst it is accounted for under the provisions of the Prime Minister, it is used to meet any incidentals connected to the business of government. This money has to be fully accounted for and receipts provided, and where any amount is not utilized, it is returned to the finance department of the Office of the Prime Minister, along with the receipts,” Mr. Buchanan informed.
He further explained that, “an accountability mechanism is in place to report on contingencies received for travel overseas. On each occasion, upon return from overseas visits, a report on the monies spent from the contingency is submitted to the Finance Department and unspent funds are returned”.
Continuing, he said that the rates over the years have been inadequate and there is provision for per diem in excess of the listed rates, with all contingencies accounted for and the relevant returns made. “As a consequence of the recognized inadequacy of the currently listed rates, proposals utilizing the United Nations World Cost of Living indices are currently being considered by the Ministry of Finance and Planning and it is anticipated that revised rates and related procedures will be issued shortly,” he said.
With respect to allegations of the members of the Prime Minister’s delegation receiving more than twice the stipulated sum, Mr. Buchanan said, “it is important to note, that any variance in per diem rates allocated to the delegation, was consequent on the hotel rates prevailing at the specific time during the year”.
Commenting on the trips, Mr. Buchanan said that the Prime Minister was invited by the President of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to be the featured speaker at the bank’s seminar in June, themed: ‘Building opportunities for the majority: Redefining the possibilities and improving opportunities for those who live and work at the base of the economic pyramid’.
“The Prime Minister brought to the fore, questions surrounding the role and relevance of the IDB as a development institution,” he said.
At the 27th conference of Heads of government of CARICOM in St. Kitts and Nevis in July, Mr. Buchanan pointed out that Mrs. Simpson Miller updated Heads on the progress of external trade negotiations and issues arising out of the 19th meeting of the Prime Ministerial Sub-Committee on External Trade Negotiations.
Meanwhile, in July, during her visit to Brazil to address the Second Conference of Intellectuals of Africa and the Diaspora, Mrs. Simpson Miller also held a bilateral meeting with the President of Brazil, in which it was agreed that co-operation, particularly in the rehabilitation of the local sugar cane industry, would continue.
Mr. Buchanan noted that to this end, the Prime Minister negotiated a line of credit in the sum of US$100 million in the first instance, through Brazil’s National Bank of Economic and Social Development (BNDES), to finance the importation of machinery and agricultural equipment, mainly for harvesting sugar cane, as well as for the production of sugar, alcohol and ethanol.
In relation to the Prime Minister’s visit to Cuba to attend the XIV Summit of Heads of State or Government of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in September, the Information Minister said Mrs. Simpson Miller in her address challenged her fellow leaders to place people at the centre of their political strategies. She also underscored the importance of NAM’s commitment to the implementation of the outcomes of the major conferences and summits in the field of development.
Mr. Buchanan further emphasized that it was on the initiative of Jamaica and supported by other ACS states, that the summit supported the efforts of Caribbean states, particularly the efforts made to have the Caribbean Sea declared a special area in the context of sustainable development.
Bilateral meetings of note that the Prime Minister held during her visit, included meetings with President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki; President of Namibia, Hifikepunye Puhamba; Prime Minister of Tanzania, Edward Ngoyai Lowassa; Vice President of Cuba, Raul Castro, and Vice President of Colombia, Francisco Santos. The discussions ranged from those aimed at strengthening relations with Jamaica and co-operation in the area of trade, education, health and sport, to potential air linkages, which would see Jamaica becoming a regional hub.