Perspective

Travel benefits increase for ministers

As part of the Minnis administration’s new travel policy for ministers implemented by Cabinet last year, ministers’ spouses will be afforded additional trips and a $100 daily per diem; ministers receive a 25 percent and 67 percent per diem increase for domestic and international travel respectively; and ministers are to be afforded membership to the American Airlines (AA) Admiral’s Club which enables access to its premium passenger lounges in airports around the world.

The $100 per day per diem for spouses is equivalent to the per diem paid to technical officers in the public service.

The ministerial per diem for domestic travel was increased from $80 to $100 per day and from $150 to $250 for international travel.

Additionally, a special pre-paid debit card will be issued to ministers for use on all official trips and paid spousal trips have been increased from once to twice per year.

For airline travel, business class tickets are to be purchased for all trips less than 10 hours in duration per leg and first-class tickets are to be purchased for all trips 10 hours in duration per leg.

A 24-hour travel desk through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also been established “in the event ministers encounter any unforeseen circumstances”, according to Cabinet’s conclusion on the travel policy.

To seek to determine what some of the new policies might amount to in terms of cost to taxpayers, Perspective contacted Finance Minister Peter Turnquest for comment on several of the new allowances.

On establishing membership for ministers with the Admiral’s Club, he advised that this has not yet been done.

“If I am not mistaken, annual membership is $350 per year although I’m not sure what the corporate membership may be, hopefully less than that,” Turnquest said.

According to the American Airlines website, membership with the Admiral’s Club requires a membership with the AAdvantage frequent-flyer program, and the annual club membership fees are based on one’s frequent-flyer status.

Individual club membership fees range from $550 to $650 annually, which for 19 Cabinet ministers would cost taxpayers between $10,450 and $12,350 per year.

Though Cabinet’s conclusion did not indicate whether club membership for spouses would be sought, it is expected that ministers traveling with their spouse would want their spouse to have the same access, which, according to AA, would require an upgrade to one’s membership.

Household membership fees meantime are double the cost of individual membership.

First-class and business class customers on qualifying departing international or transcontinental flights are automatically granted access to the Admiral’s Club according to AA, which, based on the new travel policy for ministers, raises questions on why Cabinet agreed to seeking paid membership to the club.

In response to our questions on how the new pre-paid cards will be managed, in whose name they will be opened and through which banking institution, Turnquest, who said the cards have not yet been issued, explained that, “Cards are loaded with the minister’s travel allowances, which is the limit on the card.”

He continued, “The card is in the name of the minister to be loaded when the minister travels much as they receive check payments now for per diem.”

He offered, “This is a policy adopted by the IDB also. They no longer give check or cash reimbursements but gave us an RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) Visa card that they load with the per diem whenever we travel for IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) meetings.”

The debit cards will likely be with RBC, he advised.

In response to our question on how implementing the debit card system might address internal complaints by ministers about not receiving their per diem checks in sufficient time before travel, Turnquest pointed out that “it will not change late submission challenges but it is possible that [the] card can be charged up even with [the] minister en route to [the] destination so there’s a bit more flexibility there.”

Travel and accountability

In a national address on July 26, 2017, just over two months after coming to office, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis stated: “The former administration was addicted to luxury travel, often spending extraordinary sums of money on delegations traveling the world at great expense. We will reduce the amount of money spent on foreign travel by government officials.”

Expenditures for overseas travel continue to be a controversial issue.

Though the current administration lambasted its immediate predecessors for travel excesses, it has gone further to formalize by way of policy marked increases in travel benefits for ministers.

The new policy stipulates that at least one technical officer should accompany ministers on overseas trips.

The decision by Cabinet to have taxpayers furnish ministers’ spouses with a $100 daily per diem though those spouses are not in the government’s service is eyebrow-raising to say the least.

The decision by Cabinet to increase its travel benefits comes as accountability reports on ministerial travel repeatedly promised by the prime minister have failed to materialize.

We understand that ministers generally have not been compliant with furnishing their travel expense reports at the end of official trips.

Last November, Perspective highlighted that the government’s budgetary allocation for travel and subsistence for the 2019/2020 fiscal year was set to increase by just over $4 million, according to its 2019 Fiscal Strategy Report.

Acting Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson told us the increase in its entirety was associated with domestic travel and subsistence for public officers and medical personnel in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, and for travel by customs officers for clearance of hurricane relief supplies in South Florida.

Helicopter travel, according to a document we obtained, included costs to a U.S.-based firm at a rate of $110,000 per day for six hours of flight time per aircraft, per day.

But the following month, Minnis made a statement that differed from Johnson’s explanation, saying the over $4 million travel allocation increase would “in part” be used for overseas travel “to boost international investment”.

As we put forward in a previous piece, the reporting mechanism of the country’s annual fiscal budget changed last year, and consequently does not enable parliamentarians and the public to track specific line-item allocation and expenditure increases for travel by ministries and departments.

It is yet to be seen whether the government’s upcoming mid-year budget statement will include a full and detailed breakdown of travel expenditures.

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