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Conditions of employment for Public Servants

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12.MAR.10

by Hans King
Press Secretary, Office of the Prime Minister

ISSUE IN FOCUS

The recent commencement of disciplinary proceedings against Ms. Anesia Baptiste, Communications Manager in the Ministry of Tourism, has brought into focus the conditions of employment of public servants. I shall not comment here on the “Anesia Baptiste” case since it is winding its way through the relevant legal and administrative processes/procedures. My central interest is to comment on the wider issue.{{more}}

As I understand it from the lawyers who have discussed this issue with me, there are seven sources which provide, legally, for the governance of the public servants’ conditions of employment: (i) the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines; (ii) Statute law, if any; (iii) the Public Service Commission Regulations; (iv) the Civil Service Orders; (v) the common law as interpreted and refined by the Law Courts; (vi) International Treaties or Agreements of relevance to which St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a State Party; and (vii) Collective Bargaining Agreements between the Government and Public Sector trade unions.

I list these sources of legal governance to rebut the fallacy that there is a legal “free-for-all” for the public servants since the repeal in October 2005 of the Public Officers (Conditions of Employment) Act of 1971 (Chapter 208 of the Laws of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Revised Edition). Indeed, both Prime Minister Ralph E. Gonsalves and Sir Vincent Beache, emphasised in the House of Assembly on October 11, 2005, on the occasion of the parliamentary debate on the repeal of the 1971 Act, that public servants, teachers, police officers, and nurses would still be governed by a legal framework after the repeal of the 1971 Act.

THE 1971 ACT AND ITS REPEAL

The Public Officers (Conditions of Employment) Act came into effect on October 12, 1971. It existed for thirty-four years until October 2005 when the ULP government secured its repeal in Parliament. This Act was first introduced by the former SVG Labour Party administration and survived seventeen years of the former NDP government from 1984 to 2001. In the 1998 and 2001 Election Manifestos of the ULP, it was pledged to be repealed. As always we keep our promise.

The Public Officers (Conditions of Employment) Act of 1971 was overly broad and went way beyond the Civil Service Orders and the body of existing law at the time. The ULP indeed felt that several of its provisions were unconstitutional in that they were not necessary for certain constitutional requisites of good governance and were unreasonable in a democratic society. Basically, the 1971 Act was a “shut your mouth” law; a public servant was thus unable to say anything publicly touching and concerning politics and government without official permission. Its repeal, however, does not mean that a public servant can say anything and everything publicly about government and politics. Clearly, there is a zone between “shut your mouth” and “free for all” which is permissible. The body of law earlier enumerated governs that zone, I have been advised.

It is a matter of record that from very early in the ULP government, the Prime Minister publicly stated the government’s intention to repeal the 1971 Act, and that for practical purposes it advised the relevant authorities that they ought not to discipline any public servant under that Act. Indeed, in his speech in the parliamentary debate on the repeal of the 1971 Act on October 11, 2005, PM Gonsalves recounted this history. At the same time the Prime Minister stated:

“This Act which we are repealing here does not mean that there are no regulations remaining. The Civil Service Orders are part of the conditions of the employment of a public servant.”

THE OPERATION OF THE 1971 ACT

It is well-known that several public servants under the former SVG Labour Party and former NDP administrations suffered by reason of the 1971 Act. Some were dismissed from their employ; some were simply pressured into leaving their jobs; and yet others were denied advancement in the public service. They never permitted public servants to speak or write on things political. The NDP government was harsh on that matter. They forget, too, that it is the ULP government that negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the Teachers’ Union to permit teachers’ participation in electoral politics. In fact, before this agreement, the ULP government acted unilaterally in giving back the teaching jobs to Mrs. Woods of the NDP and Mrs. Daize of PPM who ran unsuccessfully for parliamentary seats in the 2001 general elections.

It was most interesting and revealing to read the contribution of Ralph Gonsalves in the said parliamentary debates on the repeal of the 1971 Act, in which he gave several examples of the NDP’s attempts to silence him, even though he was not a public servant. The PM listed the following:-

(i) The banning of Ralph in 1984 by St. Clair Leacock (then Chairman of the Board at National Broadcasting Corporation) from doing commentaries on the state-owned NBC.

(ii) The banning of Ralph by Allan Cruickshank (then Minister of Education) from delivering a lecture at the Teachers’ College. In fact, the then Principal, Chester Rogers, of blessed memory, was threatened with disciplinary action.

(iii) The banning of Ralph to lecture or tutor public servants (including persons like Godfred Pompey, Claudia White and Alma Dougan) at the UWI Centre in respect of university courses delivered at the Centre and paid for by the Government. Ralph Gonsalves delivered unofficial classes to the public servants, for free, on Saturdays and Sundays. These were courses which Ralph had taught at the University of the West Indies.

(iv) The institution of contempt of Court proceedings against Ralph Gonsalves in the High Court, to jail him, for his answer to a journalist after the preliminary inquiry in a murder case. His answer was: “The decision to send my client on for trial is a travesty of justice”. Ralph was vindicated when in the criminal trial at the High Court he made a successful “no case” submission on behalf of his client. The Attorney General who brought this action against Ralph was also acting DPP, Carl Joseph. By the way, Joseph ran in the following elections in 2001 for the NDP and lost. Shortly after, Ralph as PM supported a recommendation for Joseph to be appointed as a Senior Magistrate by the Regional Judicial and Legal Services Commission.

(v) The public threat on radio by Oscar Ramjeet, Solicitor General and Acting Director of Public Prosecutions, to charge Ralph Gonsalves criminally under Section 64 of the Criminal Code for speaking an alleged falsehood that the amendment to the law of theft (the so-called “wild law”) amounted to a deprivation of citizens’ property rights. This, Ramjeet and the NDP government claimed, caused fear or alarm in the public. In the event, good sense prevailed when Ramjeet realised his folly, but not before Ralph’s 76-year old mother nearly had a heart attack when she heard on radio that they were going to lock up her son.

SUMMATION

The ULP government opened up the way for an enlargement of freedoms for public servants. This is undeniable. Where the NDP government was controlling and totalitarian, the ULP is liberal and open. However, there cannot be a “free for all” and a condition of everything or anything goes. There is a legal framework which must be respected and followed.

And never forget, Ralph and others suffered under NDP!

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