Opposition MP Daniel Cummings has expressed concern about the quality of construction of some of the nation’s roads and has urged the government to be mindful to “remove possible conflicts of interests” in employing consultants who are also contractors.
However, Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves, in response, urged the opposition MP to be mindful of his statement, saying he could have been sued for defamation if they were uttered outside Parliament,
Cummings, addressing the issues in Parliament, said he wanted “to choose my words very carefully, adding, “I know people like to take offence”.
He said there are too many instances where people who are given contracts to execute roads, particularly concrete roads, and they “repeatedly demonstrate a lack of basic understanding of concrete, make a disaster of the project by using the wrong mix ratio, the wrong water content by not even screen in the aggregate”.
The West Kingstown MP, who is also a civil engineer, said:
“But what is troubling is that these same people are given additional contracts when they are so glaringly incompetent. I can speak of a company called Reliable Construction, whose work must be singled out as one of the biggest disasters ever seen in construction in this country.”
He said the company has demonstrated an “absolute lack of understanding of what concrete is and how it should be applied.
“But they’re still allowed to be given contracts in this country”
The West Kingstown MP said that before the last election, the Kuwaiti Fund was used to start-up projects all over the country, including in his constituency.
“They start; they slow down. I’m told they didn’t stop. They slow down. They didn’t do any work for nearly a year. And they’re starting up again. And we are told that we now understand the issues and we can solve them,” he said.
Cummings was referring to a road repair programme from which Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said his government was about to disengage the Kuwaiti firm that won the contract but decided to continue after a high-level intervention.
But Cummings said there was simply “a lack of an understanding of project management by this government” despite “several quality engineers, surveyors, technicians” employed by the Ministry of Works.
“… and the question you have to ask, what are they doing? What are they doing?”
He used as an example a section of road along the Nelson Mandela Highway, adding, “That gentleman must be turning in his grave to have his name associated with such poor job.”
The MP said that on many occasions, inside and outside of Parliament, he publicly spoke about the failure of the Ministry of Works to employ hydraulics engineers to resolve the problems of rebuilding the road only to find it breaking up with water bubbling up all over.
“We do not understand that you need to have a team of professionals in the design, understanding that it’s not just a matter of grading the place, putting some stones and putting a final layer.”
Cummings said that in road construction, one has to understand how water flows under the surface of the road.
“On the road from the hospital to the Gibson Corner, even now, you can see some of the consequences of the lack of adequate drainage, which allowed most of the fines to be washed from the base of the road resulting in the horrible, bumpy nature of the road,” Cummings said.
He noted that the government was borrowing EC$120 million from Taiwan for road construction and Taiwanese firm Overseas Engineering and Construction Company is managing the project.
“What I do not hear is how the professionals in the Ministry of works are going to relate to this company,” Cummings said.
“We have seen the disasters caused by, for example, the Kuwaiti project, where the consultants, all foreigners, are given total control of the project without understanding the need for local quality input, … without political interference…” Cummings said.
“You see, when you look at what is being proposed with this project, you have to ask yourself whether the government is concerned truly about fixing the roads in this country or looking like they’re doing something.”
He said he was not suggesting that there are not competent people in SVG to get these projects properly executed.
“The problem is the people who can make a difference are not permitted to function and that is a sad state of affairs. They are not permitted and their sound advice is not taken on board.”
Cummings further accused Gonsalves of “reluctantly giving the name” of an engineer who is going to oversee the roadworks.
He said that in the execution of public projects, “one has to be particularly careful”.
Cummings told Parliament that the Bailey family is well known to him adding that the late Ruben Bailey was the first engineer in the country and went on to become the chief engineer in the Ministry of Works, adding that there are other professionals in the family.
“But when you have a contractor doing work in the same area and being charged with management of projects in the same area, one has to be careful to remove the possible conflicts of interests. And that road has got to be threaded (sic) extremely carefully; extremely carefully,” Cummings told Parliament.
However, in closing off the debate on the loan authorisation bill, which passed with bipartisan support, the minister of finance spoke about issues that were “darkly alluded to by various members”.
Gonsalves noted that lawmakers have parliamentary privilege to say in Parliament things that could be potentially defamatory.
“But that is a privilege that we must exercise carefully,” he said, adding that there’s “countless learning on that”.
He said that not because in Parliament lawmakers could say anything means that they must say anything.
“And I was more than a little distressed to hear a member of this honourable house, get up and traduce a contractor by name in this honourable house, say that the person don’t know anything about concrete and can’t build concrete and you don’t understand how this person keep getting the work.”
Gonsalves said that if that was said outside of this house, it would be a defamatory statement.
“And it affects the prospects of this individual not just getting work from the government, but getting work from the private sector. If people in Parliament are saying the man don’t know nothing ’bout concrete and can’t build nothing. It is, in my humble estimation, reckless statement,” Gonsalves said.
“And I am urging that we don’t make those kinds of comments in the Parliament when we’re talking.”
He further said that Cummings had cast aspersions on Brent Bailey, “suggesting but never explicitly saying that some sort of hanky-panky could go on between Brent Bailey, and, and Bailey Contractors.”
But Cummings objected to Gonsalves comments, saying the finance minister was misrepresenting what he had said.
“I set out specifically to say, I know former engineer Ruben Bailey, I know his family, I know Brent Bailey and their capability. I urged the minister to be particularly careful when you’re engaging people who on one hand are contractors and on the other hand are involved in managing contractors.”
Cummings further said the finance minister had said that Bailey was involved in road projects with the government.
“And I am saying that when you’re working for public funds, everything must not just be right, it must appear to be right. And you have to be very careful to make sure — that’s what I’m saying. I never accused anybody. So don’t try to mess with me,” Cummings said.
But Gonsalves reiterated that it was “not that an accusation was made, but that aspersion was cast. And that’s the point…
“But I don’t think that we should go around traducing professionals and suggesting that professionals are engaging in a way that is unprofessional, without evidence,” the finance minister said.
He said the government has updated its procurement laws and tightened its procurement regulations and publishes in the newspaper the names of all the entities to which contracts are awarded.
“And if you read the names, you will see who is getting and who ain’t getting. I am simply saying yes, we have privilege to talk but not because you have privilege to talk you must talk so loose as to affect somebody’s reputation and livelihood,” Gonsalves said.
“Facts are facts but speculation is speculation and it’s speculation I’m talking about,” the finance minister told Parliament.