KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace wants his proposals for National Insurance Services (NIS) pensions reform to be considered outside of the partisan political debate.

He made the point during his weekly radio programme earlier this month as he suggested that workers who fail to make the 500 weekly contribution needed to qualify for NIS pension on reaching 60 years should be given a pension proportionate to their contribution and not just a one-time lump sum payment.

“We have to see what can be done to improve the position of persons who have worked for many years but will never reach the 500 because they are not full-time workers,” he said.

An NIS official told I-Witness News earlier this month that a person must make 500 contributions — equal to working full-time for 10 years — before reaching 60 to qualify for an NIS pension.

A worker who does not make 500 contributions may qualify for a one-time lump sum payment or a full refund of all their contribution, depending on the number of contributions made before retirement age, the NIS official said.

“To the extent that they go up the ladder, give them a percentage of the pension,” Eustace said as he reiterated his intention to write the NIS about the suggestion.

“But the minute you raise anything here …, even though it is aimed at improving the well-being of people, it’s politics,” the former NIS chair said.

“Instead of sitting down and seeing whether you can find some mechanism to improve the situation, they are attacking me.”

He said there is “no point” in “attacking” him.

Those concerned, the former prime minister and minister of finance said, should “try and see if there is a way that can be found to make sure that people who have made such large number of pension contributions can get a part pension rather than giving them some lump sum payment which they finish in a year or two and then for the balance of their lives they don’t know what they are getting”.

“But we can’t get this political thing out of our heads,” Eustace said and added that if they suggestion was made from someone within the ruling Unity Labour Party “it would be a different story”.

“Because it comes from Arnhim Eustace of the NDP (New Democratic Party), something is wrong with that. I am talking about the livelihood, the wellbeing of people in our country. And, in most cases, these are the same poor people that they like to talk about. So, what is wrong with having a look at it?” Eustace said.

Media debate

Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves said that Eustace was “speaking a lot of rubbish, absolute rubbish” on the issue

“… and I saw Luke Browne responded quite well to him,” said Gonsalves, adding that his office will issue a set of information notes to help journalist understand the issues.

(Read also: Gov’t issues media notes on NIS pensions)

A discussion in the media about NIS pension qualification criteria has arisen between Eustace and Browne, a government economist responsible for pension reform.

The exchanges included Eustace’s radio and political platform utterances and Browne’s letters to the editor and media interviews.

They ensued when Eustace expressed concern earlier this month after one of his East Kingstown constituent was told on retiring at age 60 that she will only receive a one-time lump sum payment because she did not make 500 contributions to the NIS.

“[There is] no point writing and saying I was chairman of the NIS and I should know better. All that is a lot of foolishness. It’s lives we are dealing with here; people’s livelihood,” Eustace, also an economist, said in an apparent reference to Browne.

Eustace said about 22,000 persons — about one-fifth of the Vincentian population resident here — contribute to the NIS but said he is not sure how many of them will qualify for pension.

“And I am very annoyed that people are taking this thing in this light. All of us should have an interest … in seeing that those who can least afford it don’t all get pushed aside into a lump sum payment,” Eustace said.

He added that the nation would be better off if a smaller pension is paid to these persons for the rest of their lives.

“… Let’s be real, deal with the real world. … And I am very annoyed with some of the foolishness that I am hearing and seeing written. Those were the scheduled that were there. I am saying it is causing some hardships. Review it. Get the actuary to come and review it. You may come up with a completely different solution, a portion of the pension. It makes sense to me but I am not an actuary,” Eustace said.

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