– Ramjattan, Gaskin break ranks, abstain from vote…empty Govt seats shift power balanceBy Jarryl BryanThe coalition Government has held a one-seat majority since 2015, but in a series of unprecedented events in the National Assembly on Monday, its own motion was defeated when a division of votes was called.This was as a result of the absence and even abstention of several Members of Parliament (MPs) from the Government side, which ultimately doomed the motion to grant duty-free concessions to two Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) officials.The Opposition argued that the motion, in Social Cohesion Minister Dr George Norton’s name, should be withdrawn and the benefits be granted across the board. It was argued that even though the qualifications of the two officials were similar toOpposition MP Irfaan Aliseveral Attorneys or accountants in the State’s employ, others did not enjoy duty free concessions for 2000-cylinder capacity (cc) vehicles.“The fact is the appointments committee wants to bring a benefit to two employees within that unit. To do this, they have to amend the law and make it part of their benefits in the law,” Opposition parliamentarian Irfaan Ali said.Ali also noted that the granting of these concessions should reside with Finance Minister Winston Jordan and Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) Commissioner General Godfrey Statia.“We can’t adjust based on the committee. We have to adjust based on principles and on position. So, we have to say here we are going to create a new category of posts that would benefit from such concessions. For example, you will have other persons appointed by the committee that will now say, we are of the same qualification. We were appointed by the same committee, on the same level. Why is it we are not considered for the granting of such concessions.”“So, I want to propose he bring an amendment to the Act to deal with this issue, or we take a holistic position dealing with all positions in this category, that we will now give equal treatment. And that we cannot direct the Minister of Finance or Commissioner General,” Ali argued, noting that this would breach existing laws and principles.CriteriaMeanwhile, Opposition parliamentarian Adrian Anamaya argued that certain criteria have to be used before a public official should be granted a duty-free concession. He noted that such persons should not only have a need for the vehicle, but also should have put in years of service.“It is only conferred on you depending on your posting, if where you’re posted requires a vehicle of a certain kind and then you’re qualified. For example, if you’re a prosecutor in a particular district and you’re required to travel a lot, then you understand that rationale. Similarly, if you’re a Police Officer at the level of ASP, you are automatically qualified. But you would not have reached here unless you put in your dues.”Former Minister within the Finance Ministry, Juan Edghill, also raised concernsOpposition MP Juan Edghillover the motion. As a member of the Committee of Appointments that Dr Norton had chaired, he made his disagreement with the motion clear.“I sat as a member of the Committee when the terms of reference and qualifications were set for all these positions. The qualifications for the Attorney at the FIU were the same as a State Counsel at the AG Chambers and the Director of Public Prosecutions chambers. Do the State Counsels enjoy duty-free vehicles of 2000 cc? The answer is no!” Edghill said.“The criteria for the accountant are the same as the accountant for any ministry or agency. This is not a super person. And do any public servants with ACCA or bachelor degree in accounting enjoy a duty-free concession of 2000 cc? The answer is no!” Edghill added.A division was subsequently called, but even though the Chambers rang bells calling all members to take up their seats, it was evident that several seats, including Finance Minister Winston Jordan’s, would remain empty for the vote. By the time the dust had settled, 26 voted for the motion to be carried and 28 voted against. There are 65 seats in Guyana’s Parliament.When their names were called, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan and Business Minister Dominic Gaskin both announced they were abstaining. A few members, including Jordan, reappeared following the vote.If passed, the motion in question would have granted the newly-appointed accountant and Attorney-At-Law for the FIU duty-free concessions. The FIU is an agency that acts under the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) laws. The powers of the agency – which is intended to liaison with other agencies in the AML fight – when dealing with judicial arms of the State have already been criticised by the Opposition.