Friday, July 16, 2010

(HERALD) Biti under fire

Biti under fire
Herald Reporters

Members of Parliament yesterday grilled Finance Minister Tendai Biti for failing to consult them before coming up with his Mid-Term Fiscal Policy Review Statement while various sectors of the economy also criticised him for the same reason.

The minister was yesterday at pains to defend his fiscal policy which he presented on Wednesday before the Budget and Finance Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, which criticised him for ignoring them.

Committee chairperson and Goromonzi North House of Assembly Member Cde Paddy Zhanda (Zanu-PF) accused Minister Biti of breaching provisions of the Public Finance and Management Act.

He argued that Minister Biti failed to submit quarterly general account reports as required by the Act.

Cde Zhanda said this during debate on the Finance Bill and Appropriation Bill, which sought to give legal effect to the financial adjustments announced by Minister Biti.

The two Bills sailed through the House of Assembly yesterday after a long debate. They now await transmission to Senate, which is expected to debate them this morning.

Kambuzuma House of Assembly Member Mr Willias Madzimure (MDC-T) sat as Speaker of the House of Assembly in the absence of the incumbent, Mr Lovemore Moyo.

In his contribution, Cde Zhanda said the committee had met yesterday morning and noted with concern a growing tendency by Minister Biti not to consult the committee each time he brought fiscal policy statements to Parliament.

"My committee feels that budget statements and policy reviews are important documents that need consultations. While the minister said he had consulted stakeholders, the committee was not given an opportunity to consult those that were consulted on whether they were consulted. Even us as a committee we were not consulted because we also need to consult people — the poor, the voiceless — and not to give our personal views as MPs," said Cde Zhanda.

Minister Biti admitted he did not consult the committee, but said he could not do so since legislators were preoccupied with the constitution outreach programme.

"Because of the fact that the committee was participating in Copac, we failed to get time to consult with them. We, however, consulted virtually everybody including all labour bodies and in some instances I had personal meetings with them. We met labour movements, the University of Zimbabwe’s Faculty of Commer-ce and we also used our website where we had thousands of hits," Minister Biti said.

"I want to apologise that we failed to consult with the committee because it was at Copac, but we will improve our consultation on next year’s budget, which will start in August."

Cde Zhanda accused the minister of adopting "a business as usual approach", the same attitude he urged people to desist from.

Cde Zhanda, however, said the committee applauded measures introduced by the minister to bring economic stability but castigated him for nominally raising the tax-free threshold from US$160 to US$175, saying he should have at least raised it to US$200.

He urged the Government to desist from wanting to rely on donors when it had resou-rces and non-performing parastatals.

Cde Zhanda said failure to sell parastatals on the pretext that they were strategic did not make sense when the entities were not performing.

Muzarabani South House of Assembly Member Cde Edward Raradza (Zanu-PF) said Minister Biti should first identify priority areas and address them rather than trying to please everyone.

He urged the Government to finance farmers saying it was the responsibility of the State to ensure food security.

Cde Raradza called for a legal instrument compelling financial institutions to provide funding to farmers to stimulate growth in agriculture.

Minister Biti had argued that the 99-year leases Government had given new farmers were not bankable and could not be used as surety to secure loans from banks.

Civil servants have also expressed displeasure at Minister Biti’s fiscal policy statement, saying it was silent on improving their conditions of service.

The civil servants said most of them were disillusioned because there was no prospect of a salary increase before the end of the year.

Minister Biti ruled out a salary increase for civil servants, but increased the tax-free income threshold by US$15 from US$160 to US$175.

Traditionally civil servants salaries are

adjusted in July.

The civil servants, however, believe proceeds from the sale of the diamonds would enhance revenue generation.

Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association president Mrs Tendai Chikowore said the Mid-Term Fiscal Policy Review Statement confirmed the Finance Minister’s statement in April that Government had frozen civil servants’ salaries.

"There is no light at the end of the tunnel and this is a big blow to the workers as it is equivalent to a wage freeze. They said our grievances would be addressed in the near future but it is clear there is nothing for us. We now feel insecure, dumped and down because while our concerns are not addressed, utility bills continue to skyrocket," she said.

She said the Apex Council, a body that brings together all civil servants, would meet early next week to decide on the way forward.

The lowest paid civil servant earns US$135 a month while the highest paid gets US$250.

The workers want their salaries reviewed upwards in line with the Poverty Datum Line, which currently stands at US$492.

Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe executive officer Mr Manuel Nyawo said Government should brace itself for "any eventuality".

"We usually get increments every July but this year there is totally nothing significant since January. Technically, Minister Biti was correct on the salary freeze and to the politicians out there, it’s time to fight for the selling of our minerals in order to solve our bread and butter issues," he said.

The Government insists it is broke and Minister Biti has also said he is hoping for some relief if Zimbabwe is allowed to sell its diamonds.

The tourism and hospitality industry also reacted angrily to Minister Biti’s decision to withdraw suspension on duty to vehicles bought for the tourism industry, saying the minister was misled by Zimra and his inexperience in Government had been exposed.

At a Press conference in Harare last night, Zimbabwe Tourism Council president Mr Emmanuel Fundira and Zimbabwe Tourism Authority chief executive Mr Karikoga Kaseke urged Minister Biti to reverse his decision.

"I see a very serious problem with what the minister has done. The minister was completely misled and misguided by Zimra.

"ZTA is the regulatory authority but was never consulted about this issue. It took us more than seven years to come up with this statutory instrument that was beginning to breathe life into the tourism product that had become weak.

"ZTA is not a junior partner to Zimra and will not take lightly this kind of behaviour. Zimra cannot define what tourism is. We know what is good for the tourism industry but we get worried when one minister decides to change things without our consent. He has killed the tourism industry,’’ said Mr Kaseke.

He added: "Another point is that he misrepresented the correlation between tourist arrivals and revenue created in hotel occupancy. Arrivals do not necessarily translate to hotel occupancy because even our own people who have stayed outside the country for more than a year are classified as tourists but they do not go to stay in a hotel. They stay with relatives. If only he had consulted we would have told him."

Addressing the same Press conference, Harare businessman Mr Philip Chiyangwa said the minister was inexperienced.

Mr Chiyangwa, who owns Glory Car Hire, said Minister Biti was "blindly pushing the MDC-T agenda, without looking at the pros and cons."

"I don’t care who else was involved but Minister Biti is inexperienced and never consulted because he does not want to listen to other people’s views.

"This is the danger of entrusting the special Ministry of Finance, which is the centre of Government activity, under one political party. Minister Biti needs a Co-Minister of Finance to assist him get the history of this country and acquire the knowledge and the art of consulting others. These are MDC-T things, they want to destroy everything Zanu-PF did, even when that thing is good for the country. Tell him openly that I said it,’’ said Mr Chiyangwa.

Mr Fundira said Minister Biti missed the point by scrapping the statutory instrument that allowed stakeholders in the tourism industry to import cars and equipment without consulting the industry.

"It came as a shock to us in the industry that a whole Government minister can do that. We are dismayed by that action because Zimbabwe as a tourist destination needed such a duty-free facility because we are coming from a liquidity crisis and we want our industry to match others in the region.

"At least there was supposed to be consultation with the ZTA if there was any problem. He has misled himself and we hope that he will correct it as a matter of urgency,’’ he said.

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