|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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
|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.