By KHRISNA VIRGIL
Deputy Chief Reporter
FOREIGN Affairs Minister Darren Henfield has suggested that the government plans to streamline the operations of his ministry, as he pinpointed key areas where there was apparent overspending, among them travel expenses.
The minister was also adamant that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will no longer be a place of "free lunches" where there are people ill-equipped to carry out duties related to foreign policy.
Speaking to the operations of his ministry yesterday in the House of Assembly, Mr Henfield said all of the overseas offices have been experiencing budgetary short falls because of an increase in staff.
As a result, he said a review will be done to determine whether employees in each office hold the necessary skill sets and have undergone the needed prerequisite training to ensure the Bahamas obtains its goals and objectives.
In line with this move, Mr Henfield said there also will be a rotation of skills and experiences. This way, the minister said, persons who have been posted abroad for three years or more will return to headquarters and others who have met all of the requirements for service oversees will get an opportunity to be posted internationally.
He told Parliament that there were many talented young people who had invested greatly in their education, only to be made to sit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while contracted workers were sent to foreign missions abroad.
The ministry has a budget allocation of $36,738,190 for the 2017-2018 budget cycle and of this figure, $8,221,412 is earmarked for contributions to international organisations, the minister said.
"Mr Speaker, less I am misunderstood by anyone I truly appreciate the inevitability that the minister and officials at the foreign ministry will have to undertake a considerable amount of travelling during any fiscal year," the foreign affairs minister said.
"(But) you know I say to my PS (permanent secretary) and director general that I represent (the constituency of) North Abaco and I am not interested in flying all over the world unless it is absolutely necessary. And so we do not have to attend every meeting that takes place in every corner of the globe.
"Instead we will make better use of modern technology to participate in meetings by video conferencing and so on to cut down on the cost and the waste that we have seen."
He added: "Moreover, Mr Speaker in determining travel plans during the fiscal year, I have instructed that when we do travel to meetings there will be several criteria that I've put into place.
"We don't have to travel in first class and so the meetings that we attend, they must accord to our national development and strategic goals. Mr Speaker, the delegation must have a critical role to play and we must ensure that Bahamians are getting value for their taxpayer dollars."
While in opposition, the now governing Free National Movement repeatedly criticised former Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell and former Prime Minister Perry Christie for travel expenses.
FNM leader Dr Hubert Minnis at one point described their traveling habits as "extravagant".
Speaking to the issue of staffing and skills, Mr Henfield suggested a clampdown in this regard.
"We have a lot of young people sitting in the Ministry of Foreign affairs who invested greatly in their education burning the midnight oil and we found it prudent to contract individuals and send them oversees while our young people, bright individuals, just sit languishing. Not on my watch, Mr Speaker.
"These offices and appointments will no longer be used as a place where persons who do not even possess the basic education requirements to lead in a foreign service office (are allowed to serve) at the expense of those who worked hard to qualify themselves for the service, no more."
The minister said he has also ordered a comprehensive review of ministry owned properties abroad to ensure resources are being used effectively.
"Looking at the funding for overseas offices I was struck to note that the budget for the consular annex in Washington, DC is higher than that of the embassy. The budget for the annex in the 2016-2017 fiscal year which is $490,000 is in fact higher than that for all of the other offices with the exception of the offices in Geneva and in London.
"Half of the budget for the annex is for the rent of the consular premises while an entire floor sits unused in the government owned embassy building in Washington. I am advised that it was determined that the annex was needed because the government of The Bahamas was not meeting the needs of the Bahamian diaspora and often missed critical opportunities to promote culture and economy and the people of the country with a critical diplomatic help.
"Mr Speaker, I have asked my technical officers to advise that if those resources were reverted to the embassy (if) they would be able to meet those critical needs," Mr Henfield said.