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Govt to challenge Speaker’s ruling that Finance Minister must face Privileges Committee on spending

Attorney General, Anil Nandlall

Attorney General, Anil Nandlall on Thursday signaled that government would move to the court to challenge House Speaker, Raphael Trotman’s decision to send Finance Minister, Dr. Ashni Singh to the House’s Privileges Committee for spending money from the Consolidated Fund.

Nandlall, in a statement, argued that the Speaker erred because the action by the Finance Minister was hinged on constitutional authority and powers and so they were matters of law and constitutional interpretation.

The Attorney General also contended that the Privileges Committee already reeks of bias because its members are politicians who have already stated that the Finance Minister was guilty of an offence.

“In the circumstances, over the next few days, Government will be considering its options. Resort to a legal challenge of this ruling is one of them,” said Nandlall.

Shadow Finance Minister, Carl Greenidge had requested that Singh be sent to the Committee because he had no authority to spend GUY$4.5 billion on a range of items, most of which have been already disapproved by the combined opposition during consideration of the estimates of expenditure for the 2014 National Budget.

Following is the full text of the Attorney General’s statement:

I have reviewed the ruling of the Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly dated 24th July, 2014. In that ruling, the Speaker has found that the issue has raised sufficiently serious questions of privilege, to be inquired into by the Committee of Privileges.

While I am bound to be guided by the Speaker’s ruling, I do not consider myself restrained from expressing a view on the ruling, even a critical and outspoken one.  The issue raised in this Motion is purely a legal one. It concerns the interpretation of several provisions of the Constitution, including Articles 217 and 218. Article 217 essentially provides when, and in what circumstances, monies can be withdrawn from the Consolidated Fund.

 Article 218 provides for monies to be drawn from the Consolidated Fund outside of the strictures imposed by Article 217. In short, Article 218 is but an exception to Article 217. In other words, Article 217 sets out the general rule and Article 218, the exceptions to that rule. That is precisely why the wording of Article 218 succeeds the words of Article 217. These very two Articles were examined by the Honourable Chief Justice in the Budget Cut case and interpreted along the same vein that I have articulated above. The Chief Justice did so in both his interim as well as his final rulings. The Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition and all the lawyers in the National Assembly for the Opposition participated in this case, either as parties or as attorneys at law. I presume therefore that they have read the two rulings. Indeed they have appealed. 

Therefore, essentially what has been referred to the Privileges Committee by the Honourable Speaker is hardly a matter of   “privilege”.  Rather it is a matter of law and constitutional interpretation. The simple truth is, that, a Member of the House cannot act in conformity with the Constitution and at the same time violate a privilege. Constitutional supremacy, which is the cornerstone upon which our constitutional democracy rests, mandates that the glories of the common law, statute law, by-laws, standing orders, rules and regulations and indeed administrative policies, must bend and bow to the provisions of the Constitution. 

Under the doctrine of separation of powers, the Court, and not the Privileges Committee of the National Assembly, or any other forum for that matter, is exclusively vested with the constitutional responsibility of interpreting and determining matters of law, whenever there is any controversy. The Speaker, therefore, fell into error in determining that there was a serious question of privilege and transmitting same to the Privileges Committee. The Privileges Committee is without jurisdiction to deal with the matter for several reasons. 

In addition to what I have outlined above, the persons who will constitute this Committee will come from the membership of political parties that have an interest to serve and have indeed said publicly that the Minister has violated the Constitution and the law; in short they have made up their minds. It will be impossible for the Minister to get a fair hearing at this Committee. The persons who will sit on this Committee are simply unqualified to determine the legal issues which will arise therein. Significantly, this very issue is subjudice and is the subject of an appeal pending before the Guyana Court of Appeal and therefore ought not to be the subject of any consideration either in the National Assembly as a whole, or in any of its Committees. 

In the circumstances, over the next few days, Government will be considering its options. Resort to a legal challenge of this ruling is one of them.