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The Uff Commission

Published Thursday 18thJanuary 2009

The Commission of Enquiry into the Construction Sector in Trinidad & Tobago and UDECOTT is chaired by Professor John Uff QC, hence its title. The Uff Commission held its first public hearing on Monday 12th January and these have been anxiously awaited by those interested citizens and construction industry stakeholders.

The original calls were for an Enquiry into the conduct of UDECOTT’s operations, but the terms of reference of the Uff Commission are far broader. Some have accused the government of using its discretion to dilute the possible effect of a concentrated enquiry into UDECOTT. I was one of those who held that view, being of the opinion that it would be detrimental and possibly time-wasting to have those extensive terms of enquiry. The misgivings are contained in Property Matters of 31st July 2008. Since then, I have come to see that the expanded terms in fact offer us a rare opportunity to re-examine a key area of how our country is being developed. To paraphrase Walter Mosely, in the title of his latest book, it may be a case of ‘The Right Mistake’.

The daily transcript of the Commission’s proceedings is put up the next morning on the website www.constructionenquiry.gov.tt and that is a huge step forward in terms of accessibility. The hearings are being televised on Channel 4 and also streaming live at the Commission website.

Readers need to understand that some perturbing moves are being played out in the Commission. I attended the entire first day’s hearing and heard for myself the proposals of the lead attorneys for Mr. Calder Hart and UDeCOTT, Frank Solomon SC and Andrew Goddard QC. The Uff Commission was established by the government to enquire into the public Construction Sector with a special focus on UDeCOTT. These attorneys, representing Mr. Hart and UDeCOTT both tried to have allegations against their clients made in writing with the authors subject to cross-examination. After those 2 stages, they were seeking to reserve the right to not make any statement at all or to decide which allegations, if any, they would reply to.

One would think that the Uff Commission was seeking after the private or personal business of UDeCOTT and its personnel. The UdeCOTT is a State-owned company and its officers are public servants, yet they started with the stance of being ‘economical’ with their assistance to the Uff Commission. It is difficult to imagine a less-cooperative or more disdainful stance from a party under investigation. The strong objections from the attorneys for the JCC and Dr. Rowley were met with the approval of the Commissioners and the proposals failed.

It was also astonishing to hear strong statements from UDeCOTT’s lead attorney that they did not ‘…take instructions from any Ministry…” I could scarcely believe what the headlines said.

State-owned companies such as UDeCOTT are subject to the State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual, published by the Investments Division of the Ministry of Finance in January 2008. That Manual requires, at para 1.3.10, State Enterprises to publish their audited financial statements within 4 months of the end of the financial year. The Manual lists UDeCOTT amongst those State Enterprises to which it applies. No UDeCOTT accounts for 2007 yet. No explanation yet.

Let us touch on the scope of the enquiry.

The Performing Arts Centre at the ‘Princes’ Building’ site on the Queen’s Park Savannah is now a strange focal point in this unfolding debate. The Minister of Works and Transport, in his statement to Parliament on 10th January, cited that complex as an example of the benefits of the Design-Build procurement method. The Uff Commission visited the site on Wednesday 14th and the Chairman was quoted as saying he was impressed by what he had seen. We have recently been informed, by reliable sources, that that complex is unsuited for theatre, dance or music. We are also told that an alternative site has been identified at the John Donaldson Technical Institute at Wrightson Road. Yes, that’s right, yet another mega-project. I am sure that the people with the information and the authority will correct me if this is an error. My question would be, D&B or no, what is the justification for paying a contractor for works which are not ‘fit for purpose’? More to the point, who carried out that design? We do know that no local artists were consulted. Was that design approved? Who signed off on that? We need to have the input of the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad & Tobago (ACTT) on all this.

I have heard the Chairman’s statements which seemed to be saying that the transportation network/raid rail were beyond the scope of this Enquiry. The terms of reference for the Enquiry do not limit it to buildings and I have even gone so far as to include the transportation network proposals, the NHA/HDC programme and the Tobago Hilton in my submissions. Any Enquiry into the Public Construction Sector must include the largest schemes and those would include the National Housing Programme and the transportation network proposals. Granted, they are less advanced than the UDeCOTT programme, but that is the very point of including them since we can learn from the UDeCOTT experience to avoid another fiasco.

My final concern is with the layers of public servants in between this entire process. By that I mean the EMA, Town & Country Planning, Ministry of Finance, ex-UDeCOTT civil servants who can all give actual evidence of how the entire huge, enterprise operates. If the enquiry is to have the necessary level of detail put before it, we need to hear from those people. The Uff Commission should give serious consideration to calling those people in to testify.

 

Afra Raymond is a chartered surveyor and a director of Raymond & Pierre Ltd. Feedback can be sent to afra@raymondandpierre.com.

Afra Raymond - Property Matters

An Ambush Agenda?

Regular readers will know of my long-standing, serious concerns on the activities of our public construction sector and UDeCOTT in particular.

In response to the Uff Commission’s advertisements calling on interested parties to advise them of their intention to give evidence, I wrote on 19th December to do so. Before the official reply and quite casually, I was told that my written evidence needed to be submitted by close of business on Monday 5th January. Please note that I was told that very same day. The first time one could make allowances for some kind of teething problem, but there was more.

The Uff Commission held its first public hearing on Monday 12th January and again, I was only told the evening before that I was carded to make an opening statement at that hearing. This is the second time and one’s patience is growing thin. Please note that on neither occasion was it the job of the person advising me – on both occasions it was just a friend letting me know. Oh yes, that day, Monday 12th, is when I finally received replies to my letters of 19th December and 5th January (both written on the same day!).

On Saturday morning – the 17th – I was told by another friend that I am first on the list to give evidence on the morning of Monday 19th. Please note again, no official notification at all.

Of course these episodes have caused severe dislocation to my busy schedule in trying to comply with the last-minute and unprofessional notice which I managed to obtain. Maybe that was the intent. This is shabby treatment and you can spare a thought for those who may wish to give evidence and may not be lucky to get a ‘tip-off’ like I did. One can only wonder at whether this is sheer inefficiency, a deliberate lack of resources or the State influencing the conduct of Commission officials. I say wonder, because there are indeed mixed signals, but it is up to the Chairman and his fellow Commissioners to ensure that these ambush tactics are ended. To carry on like this is to run the grave risk of discrediting the Uff Commission, its Commissioners and their findings.