Leases had no Cabinet oversight – Shoucair
Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) Holdings has revealed that it enjoyed autonomy over the leasing of government land without Cabinet or ministerial oversight.
This admission from SCJ Holdings Managing Director Joseph Shoucair left Dr Wykeham McNeill, chairman of Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), struggling to understand the governance structure under which it operates within the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries.
“We are autonomous to the extent that all public entities are autonomous when the sum of money involved does not exceed $60 million, which, I believe is, the current threshold. Typically, leases don’t go to Cabinet; what goes to the Cabinet are sales,” Shoucair said on Wednesday.
Formed in 2009 to manage the divestment of sugar estates at Frome, Monymusk, and Bernard Lodge, its role has changed to include the offloading of all former state-owned sugar lands. However, SCJ Holdings has answered to one with regard to lease arrangements for these lands, irrespective of the size of the contracts.
As the PAAC probed the arrangements under which farmers were assigned plots at Holland Estate in St Elizabeth, through subleases from Holland Producers Limited, a baffled McNeill sought clarity on the operations of SCJ Holdings.
The Holland property has been the subject of controversy after it was revealed the de facto agriculture minister had demanded that SCJ Holdings hand over 2,400 acres of state lands to a company in which his common-law wife, Lola Marshall-Williams, is a director. Hutchinson’s son also operated a farm store on the lands.
A Sunday Gleaner exposé drove Marshall-Williams to quit her directorship in both Holland Producers and the state-run Rural Agricultural Development Authority.
Hutchinson was also stripped of his duties and transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister.
“You have the authority to move on matters of that magnitude, without sending it to Cabinet or to the ministry? In other words, you are autonomous, or you work under certain guidelines?” McNeill asked Wednesday in reference to the Holland lands.
“... Something like Holland wouldn’t typically go to the Cabinet. The board (of SCJ) would just determine, make a recommendation, firstly to the committee, (the) committee then considers management’s recommendation, and agrees to either recommend, or decline to recommend, a proposal to the board.”
The committee in question is the Land Divestment Committee, which is an internal organ of SCJ Holdings, Shoucair said.
McNeill: “You then do what? You don’t notify the ministry? Somebody wants to go on the land. If at some point you are saying, ‘Listen, we as a board are willing to move on, go, and take possession of this land while we are working out the details. You don’t inform the ministry?”’
Shoucair: “No, not of a lease; typically, not on an individual case-by-case basis.”
In fact, the answers from Shoucair triggered more questions from Charmain McNeil.
McNeill: “I am trying to get the procedure, though.”
Shoucair: “No, there is no procedure in place for the ministry to approve or ratify decisions of the board and Land Divestment Committee regarding the lease of sugar lands in SCJ Holdings’ possession.”
The SCJ Holdings managing director had earlier informed the PAAC that it was in the process of leasing two parcels of former sugar land, at Plantain Garden River in St Thomas and Long Pond in Trelawny, to the All-Island Jamaica Cane Farmers’ Association.
“The lease has not yet been executed, but All-Island has been given possession of the property, partly to prevent and to bring a halt to massive squatting that is taking place at Long Pond and partly to determine viability and allocation of the proposed lands,” said McNeill.
“The information that has been given to us by All-Island is that they will accommodate approximately 100 farmers initially. All sums collected during period, prior to lease, will be transmitted in gross to the SCJ.”