Baptism by fire for Ming over Blu controversy
The Government was accused yesterday of withholding information about a controversial dinner party that cost two Cabinet ministers their jobs.
MPs heard yesterday that an application for 130 guests at Blu Bar&Grill Restaurant, dated June 26, was sent on June 30 by the MEF Group, which runs the Warwick restaurant.
Crowds of more than 50 have to get an exemption from the Ministry of National Security under Covid-19 regulations.
Renée Ming, the new Minister of National Security, released the details after parliamentary questions from Craig Cannonier, the Opposition leader.
Mr Cannonier asked about the event’s status as a charity fundraiser for Meals on Wheels, where Wayne Caines, the former national security minister, Zane DeSilva, the ex-tourism and transport minister, and others, were caught on camera in breach of Covid-19 health restrictions that require social-distancing and masks.
The charitable nature of the party was not mentioned in the original letter received.
But Ms Ming said that a follow-up letter, from MEF dated July 1 had indicated that the event was for a charitable cause.
The incident on July 3 spread quickly on social media and led to the forced resignations of Mr Caines and Mr DeSilva three days later.
Ms Ming, who was sworn in as Mr Caines’s replacement on Thursday, said the event was approved by the former Minister of National Security on July 2.
She added that officials would have vetted the application before it went to the minister.
Ms Ming told Opposition backbencher Michael Dunkley that the Ministry of Health would also have been consulted.
She added the first letter mentioned only “reservations for 130 people” for a “general gathering” with no specific purpose.
The charity was not contacted about the event and Ms Ming said she was unaware if Meals on Wheels had been given a donation.
Peter Smith, the president of Meals on Wheels, said that the charity had requested that the donation go to another organisation.
Mr Smith said: “The board of Meals on Wheels decided that since we were not a party to this event in any way and given that the circumstances surrounding the event put us in an awkward position with our clients, volunteers and our donors, due to the misunderstanding of our role, that the appropriate response to the organisers was to say thank you, but to request that they direct the funds to another needy charity.”
He added: “The organisers stated that they understood our position and would be happy to donate to another charity.”
Mr Dunkley asked for an update on the Government’s inquiry into the Blu incident. David Burt, the Premier, said that he had committed to an inquiry, not the Government. He added: “We all know what the action was.”
Mr Dunkley repeatedly asked Ms Ming to yield to Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health, so Ms Wilson could tell the House if she had opposed the event.
But Ms Ming refused to give way and Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House, explained that the rules did not require the health minister to speak instead of the national security minister.
Mr Lister said: “The rules allow for other ministers to answer if the minister has yielded. We haven’t had that.”
Ms Ming was asked by Susan Jackson, the Opposition whip, if the Ministry of Health had been in agreement with the application. Ms Ming said there would have been a discussion between the health minister and Mr Caines, but she was not aware of the details. There were repeated questions from the Opposition for Ms Wilson to respond.
Mr Dunkley said the lack of detail made it seem there was “something underneath the surface”.
Mr Cannonier asked if it was unusual for the restaurant to apply for an exemption when “they were not the ones hosting this dinner”. Ms Ming answered: “No, because they would have needed to ensure that the health precautions were followed on behalf of the restaurant.”
Mr Cannonier claimed later that the Government had not allowed the minister to answer questions on whether she had objected to a licence for the party.
He added: “Doing so raises serious questions about what is the Government trying to hide?
“The rules of the House say that if a minister cannot answer a question, they can refer the question to the relevant minister. Time and again, the new Minister of National Security refused to do this. Why? Why not allow Ms Wilson to clarify her position? If she did not object, why not just say so? It’s seems quite clear that Ms Wilson must have objected.”
Mr Cannonier added: “If that is the case, why was the event allowed to take place? We, and the public, are not being told everything about this event.”
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