KINGSTON –– Stung by an $8-million cellphone bill ran up by his finance minister over a one-year period, Prime Minister Andrew Holness yesterday ordered an audit of the cellphone bills of all senior and junior ministers, ahead of putting a cap on such bills.
Holness, describing the situation as “unacceptable”, gave the order at a hastily arranged meeting with Cabinet Ministers to discuss and review the issue of communication costs and high phone bills, amid a social media storm over the disclosure by Radio Jamaica (RJR) of the unusually high bill of Audley Shaw.
For his part, a chastened Shaw issued a separate apology in a Nationwide Radio interview acknowledging that the bulk of the cellphone bill was caused by data usage of which he was largely unaware while roaming on legitimate business overseas.
RJR dug up the information on Shaw’s cellphone bill through the Access to Information (ATI) provision. The information revelaed that between April 2016 and March 2017, the minister’s total phone spend was $8.34 million from a range of overseas visits, but also including some personal calls for which he has since paid.
“Coming from the meeting, it was acknowledged that there was no standard, clear and consistent policy being applied across government regarding the treatment of communication expenses for ministers and ministers of state,” the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) said in its statement.
“The prime minister has, therefore, directed the Ministry of Finance to review and report on the respective policies for the provision of communication services including cellphones, operating in the various ministries. This is to allow Cabinet to make a comprehensive decision on how communication services and expenses for ministers are treated,” the statement said.
“During the meeting at Parliament, Prime Minister Holness ordered an audit of all cellphone bills of ministers and state ministers. This is to confirm the accuracy of information in the public domain. In the interim, the prime minister directed that cellular phone expenses be capped.
“The Ministry of Finance has been tasked to advise the prime minister, within a week, on the appropriate amount for the cap to be paid by each ministry for the minister’s cellular phone bills. Any amount exceeding the cap should, therefore, be the responsibility of the respective ministers, unless otherwise approved by the permanent secretary,” said the OPM.
Sensing public outrage over the high phone bill, Cabinet members conceded that “public concerns about the level of some bills are valid” and committed to ensure that “the greatest care is exercised in the discharge of their duties and the use of public resource”.
A similar firestorm of criticism hit the previous Government when some ministers reported unusually high phone bills, including one for $1 million by a junior minister.
The OPM added: “In furtherance of their ministerial responsibility to be frugal with the public purse, notwithstanding that most of the costs incurred would have been in pursuit of the Government’s business, they have committed to reimburse the Government retroactively the difference between actual bill and the capped amount to be determined and imposed.
“In the meantime, the minister of science, energy and technology is being mandated to enter into discussions with telecommunications providers to devise standard cellphone and data packages for government ministers,” said the OPM statement.