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Why our politicians need tighter briefs

There must be some other way, Mr Editor, and of course there is.

It is just a matter of will and reorganisation on the Hill. We just need Government to lead the way and Ministers to start by tightening their briefs. Say what?

I am, of course, referring to the recently concluded annual Budget Debate, which actually very rarely resembles debate and all too often, if you happen to tune in (good luck), sounds more like remedial reading, parliamentary style naturally.

Ministers still take to reading these interminable briefs that are anything but. They tend to go on, and on, and on, and listeners, if there are any, in and outside the House, must wonder whether the real aim is to stifle rather than stimulate debate.

Of course, it’s useful and helpful to hear what each Ministry has planned for the coming financial year, but short, sharp summaries would do very nicely. This is actually meant to be the Opposition’s debate, an opportunity for our MPs on the backbenches to zero in on our behalf on two very important fronts: (1) how money was spent last year and (2) how it is proposed to be spent this year.

It is about the detail and illumination of the devil lurking there - or at least is meant to be.

By tradition and the rules, the Opposition gets to set the time allotted to debate of each department or the heads of expenditure, as they are also known. But what is lacking is agreement on how much time each Minister should get, then the Shadows, and other members, reserving as well a set time for Ministers to reply and answer questions.

You wouldn’t think that too unreasonable or hard to arrange. True, it requires some degree of cooperation and collaboration between the parties. But, please, enough has been enough.

The alternative is what we got on immigration: three and a half hours worth of reading from the Junior Minister and less than half an hour for comments, questions and answers.

Ditto for what occurred on health and the hospitals. My records show (and no, I didn’t listen: I checked the tape) the Minister spoke for almost three and a half hours. The Opposition, and other members, had maybe another hour. As it turned out, there was little time for answers.

This is not good on any view. The public are short-changed. The transparency and accountability that is meant to come about through vigorous examination of planned expenditure simply does not occur. Shame.

I don’t mean to pick on the hospital, but I will, to make the point.

The Royal Gazette headline (and news report) following debate was enough to make heads snap: BHB cash “running out”. This, after the headlines about “Granny Dumping” at the KEMH and how the cost of running rest homes may not be sustainable at $10,000.00 per patient per year.

Bells should be ringing on and off the Hill.

The Minister shared some of the steps that are being taken:

• A 15 per cent reduction in operating expenses has been put in place for this year, following a ten per cent cut last year.

• The introduction of “smarter and more effective” procurement practices as part of an ongoing review of vendor contracts.

• A “Modernisation Project”: the establishment of a “Project Office” and identification of as many as 80 different “opportunities” where changes can be made to save money and improve delivery.

• Reorganisation at the top with the Senior Management Team reduced from 13 to seven members.

This, Mr Editor, is serious stuff. Inquiring minds might want to know not just why now, but why not before?

What we are told is that:

• There’s a very real risk if cost-saving steps are not taken the Bermuda Hospitals Board “will not be able to honour its contractual commitments including the new Acute Care Wing which is subject to a Government guarantee”. Oh.

• The goal, the hope, is to turn BHB to a positive cash position by 2018 but still with debt of around $70 million. In the interim a financial facility of up to $150 million will most likely be required, approved and backed by Government. More oh.

There is plenty of scope here for questions: about how we got to this position, where those in charge went wrong and where they have got it right.

The public need to be let in on that debate, particularly in respect of the new Acute Care Wing. Voters should know how that public private partnership is working out for us and what lessons have so far been learned, the good and the bad, and how those lessons apply to what Government is planning for the airport.

The Budget debate won’t necessarily provide all the answers. MPs only get to ask questions of the Minister who isn’t the person in charge day to day on the ground. There is a job here too, for the Public Accounts Committee which can call in and question those who are in charge. Or alternatively, by a specially commissioned parliamentary committee to tackle not just the hospitals but the wider issue of healthcare and spiralling costs.

That’s how transparency and accountability can truly be brought to bear - not by closing off debate, Mr Editor, and shutting down questions and answers.

Budget debate: The recent sessions in the House of Assembly had many potential and worthwhile debates shut down by Ministers' overlong briefs that leave no time for thorough questioning