National Assembly starts voting on budget heads • Approves four By Elsie Pointe |26 February 2021
The National Assembly yesterday entered into committee stage to start questioning and debating each budget head in the Appropriation Bill, 2021.
This comes after the Assembly had approved the merits and general principles of the budget the day before.
Departments that were cross-examined by the members of the National Assembly (MNA) yesterday were the Office of the President, department of legal affairs, department of defence and department of information, communication and technology (DICT).
All of these budget heads were approved in their totality, even with the absence of the majority of United Seychelles (US) MNAs who walked out earlier in the morning (see story on page 5).
- Office of the President – R65.2 million
A total of R65,220,000 was yesterday approved by the National Assembly for this year’s expenditures for the Office of the President, which also includes the Vice- President’s office.
The figure is a slight increase from the R62,300,000 budgeted for Office of the President in 2020.
For the first time, the budget for the Office of the President also comprises a budget line of R5 million dedicated to the running of the Office of the Former President.
R1,127,000 out of the R5 million will go towards ‘compensation of employees’ while the remaining R3,873,000 is for goods and services.
Meanwhile the Office of the First Lady will only receive funding to start running in 2022, and this is to a forecasted amount of R436,000.
Cognizant of the country’s financial state, the First Lady and President agreed that she will make use of the resources presently made available through the Office of the President.
“Salaries [in the Office of the President] have decreased from R26.7 million to reach R26 million this year. Goods and services has increased slightly, from R36 million to R39 million. The most significant increase in goods and services is found under office expenses which went from R12.8 million to R13.8 million, and other use of goods and services which went from R14 million to R16 million,” detailed Vice-President Ahmed Afif yesterday.
The vice-president was accompanied by the principal secretary for finance Damien Thesee – who is to be present throughout the entire budget process – as well as the principal secretary for administration in the Office of the President, Yvonia Richardson.
A total of 95 staff are covered under the office’s payroll, including staff of the former president.
“But, as it has always been the case, expenses for a former president will have to pass through a bill. Such a bill is expected to be brought to the National Assembly which will make provisions for maintenance of a former president’s budget. This will comprise its staff and addition to what the law already makes provisions for,” explained VP Afif.
A former president is already entitled to security personnel and a driver.
According to the vice-president, the government is making an economy of R2000 since it fixed up several of the government cars that were not in service and reduced the number of hired cars used.
“We have ensured that our cars are operational, as much as possible, so that we do not have to rent cars. This is why I can safely state that almost all ministers are making use of official state cars, and none are being hired. We took the cars at the State House that were gathering dust and that were left in a state of disrepair, had them repaired and now they are in service,” said the VP.
Another area in which the Office of the President is hoping to save money is travel expenses. VP Afif noted that President Wavel Ramkalawan is “only travelling when necessary” and is undertaking the majority of his meetings via Zoom calls.
“Each time the president travels, he does so with a slimmed-down team – only the key personnel needed such as his security, a minister, an advisor maybe and that’s it. This is so as to reduce the cost of his travels as much as possible. This had not been the case with past governments […]” said Vice-President Afif.
The cross-examination of the budget head reached a breaking point when leader of the opposition, Sebastien Pillay, made a query about the supposed lack of maintenance at the State House, most especially in the office of the president and vice-president.
Hon. Pillay called on Mrs Richardson to explain exactly what the Office of the President had been doing with the maintenance budget in previous years, given claims made by the new heads of the executive on the messy state of the State House.
With VP Afif opting to explain the issue, and noting that he felt he had responded satisfactorily, Hon. Pillay and US members staged a walk-out after asserting that a technician should be allowed to provide information when queried by the National Assembly.
Hons. Churchill Gill and Audrey Vidot remained behind however to finish the cross-examination for the US side.
Nonetheless, given that Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) holds an absolute majority in parliament, the budget head for the highest office in the country was approved with 24 votes in favour.
- Department of Legal Affairs—R166 million
The department of legal affairs has a combined total of R166,045,000 to spend in 2021, which is separated between the Attorney Generals’ chamber which has a budget of R148,269,000 and the Registration Division with R17,777,000.
The department’s budget received the green light with 22 votes in favour and one abstention.
Although people tend to be more familiar with the works of the Attorney General’s Chamber, the registration division is the custodian of a number of registries for land titles, business names, companies and associations among others. Additionally, the registration division provides access to these different registries and it collects revenue from different statutory fees provided under a number of laws.
“In 2019 and 2020 we realised that this division needed to review its operations so as to become more efficient. We identified some of the constraints which included a lack of electronic documentation and this is one of the projects that the division is undertaking in 2021,” explained VP Afif.
The government is estimating that the division will collect more revenue in 2021, particularly in registration fees, mortgage registration fees and company registration fees, because the electronic system will result in faster registrations.
Similarly, it is also planning to see an increase in stamp duty fee collection because it will be able to process more transfer applications.
In total the division is forecasting a collection of R142 million compared to R129 million in the 2020 budget.
To make this happen, the division requested R17,777,000 compared to the R13 million last year.
The registration division this year notes an increase of R2 million (from R9.9 million to R11.9 million) for wages and salaries, to go towards recruitments of registration officers to improve the processing time of documents.
Increase in the division’s budget can also be seen in goods and services which has gone up by about R3 million.
The registration division was yesterday represented by its Registrar General Wendy Pierre while the Attorney General Frank Ally came to defend the budget of the department of legal affairs in general.
Ms Pierre noted that the registration division has also been undertaking reforms not only in its processing system but also in regards to its structure and which staff is supposed to do a certain work, instead of its previous ad-hoc system.
The questioning also veered towards the presence of fungus in the Attorney General’s Chambers at the National House, mainly caused by its old, archived documents.
The chamber has been promised a new building funded by the Indian government and the foundation stone was expected to be laid in 2020 but this has yet to materialise.
“When I was appointed, I entered into a contract with Pro Archives to store our documents, especially the old ones, outside of the chambers. We encouraged staff to place the documents in a box to transfer them in a more appropriate place. Eventually we figured out that there might be a fungus issue and closed the office for a week in December 2019 and contracted a company to fumigate the building. Public Health Authority made a report and will be discussing the issue with the President, who is the minister for our department, to see if the government will redirect funds for the renovation of the building or if we will move,” explained Mr Ally lengthily.
“As we know, the government does not have any building to accommodate us which is why we were pushing for our new building,” he added.
No budget line has been provided to the Attorney General’s Chambers to deal with this problem at present.
The AG’s office employs 61 staff, of whom nine are expatriate workers. The office also has three foreign consultants but the government is not bearing the cost of their placement there.
- Department of Defence – R694.7 million
Compared to 2020, the budget for the department of defence has more than doubled in 2021, going from R327,053,000 to 694,784,000.
In 2021, the department of defence is planning to acquire a new military vessel under a grant from the Indian government and the cost for this vessel has been placed under the heading of capital expenditures in its budget. This amounts to R340.2 million.
“The R340.2 million is part of the R366.4 million set aside in the ‘building and infrastructure’ heading in capital expenditures,” explained VP Afif.
Taking the grant of over R300 million out of the equation, VP Afif observed that the military’s budget has significantly decreased.
Wages and salaries for the defence department have decreased from R175.2 million in 2020 to R174.3 million, same as good and services which have gone down by R11.7 million this year.
Present to defend the budget were Chief of Defence Forces Colonel Michael Rosette, Chief of Staff Colonel Simon Dine and Simon Dupres, senior accountant.
The department of defence’s R694.7 million allocation was approved with 23 votes in favour and two abstentions.
- Department of Information, Communication and Technology – R63.1 million
The Department of Information Communications Technology (DICT), responsible for the formulation of and implementation of Information Communications Technology (ICT) related policies nationally, yesterday brought a budget of R63,155,000 for the National Assembly’s consideration.
In 2020’s revised budget, the department received a sum of R60,031,000 for its expenditures.
The increase in 2021 is seen in wages and salaries which has gone up to R21,237,000 from R20,363,000, and goods and services which stood at R39,667,000 in 2020 but now stands R41,918,000 for 2021.
Some of DICT’s new spending initiatives for this year include new recruitments and transfers to implement various cyber security policies.
DICT’s budget was approved with 21 votes in favour, all from the LDS side.