Palace clarifies: Duterte to fire officials, not abolish urban poor commission

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Story updated to include statements of PCUP chair Terry Ridon and Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 12) — Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque clarified on Tuesday that President Rodrigo Duterte will not abolish the 31-year-old commission tasked with addressing the plight of the poor, but just fire its commissioners.

"With sincerest regrets, I would like to correct the statement I made on the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor (PCUP) during this morning's press briefing," Roque said. "It is to fire, and not to abolish the Commission."

Roque earlier said Duterte would abolish the commission, headed by former Kabataan Partylist Representative Terry Ridon.

"The President stated two grounds behind his decision to abolish the commission," he said at a palace briefing. "Number one, it is, according to him, a collegial body and they have not met as a collegial body. And number two, that the Commissioners are notorious for junkets abroad."

Roque added that although the filing of charges against PCUP officials is a "logical conclusion," the official memorandum on the officials' firing has not yet been issued.

Ridon, the PCUP head, thanked Duterte for the opportunity to serve the nation, but said the agency's record "can speak for itself."

"We had implemented with full integrity the presidential promise of no demolition without relocation," Ridon said in a statement issued following Roque's announcement.

"We had represented government and given voice to the urban poor in international conferences on public housing, poverty alleviation and climate change, which was unprecedented in any administration," Ridon added.

The plan to sack PCUP officials comes after Duterte said on December 8 that he would fire an entire commission due to alleged corruption.

"On Monday, I will fire about one commission," Duterte said in a speech at the Labor Department's anniversary celebration.

"Lahat sila," he added. "Wala akong pakialam kung nakisali lahat o dalawa, tatlo, you have to go out because I do not think that it will exist without your knowledge. At bakit hanggang ngayon?"

[Translation: All of them. I don't care if everyone or just two or three are involved, you have to go out because I do not think that it will exist without your knowledge. And why is it still ongoing?]

Duterte reiterated that he will kick out officials with even a "whiff" of corruption.

The PCUP was created in December 1986 under Executive Order No. 82 to serve as a "direct link" of the urban poor to the government.  It was tasked to draft policies and programs for this sector.

To strengthen the agency, former President Benigno Aquino III transferred the PCUP to the Office of the President in March 2012.

In August 2016, President Duterte appointed Ridon, a left-leaning former student leader of the University of the Philippines, to head the agency.

Roque said the President's decision had nothing to do with Ridon's affiliations.

"Maski left-leaning naman si Terry Ridon, alam kong hiwalay naman siya doon sa grupo na makaliwa dahil hindi na nga siya kinuha bilang nominado ng party list na Kabataan ng pangalawang beses," he said.

[Translation: Even if Terry Ridon is left-leaning, I know that he is separate from leftist groups because he was no longer taken as Kabataan Partylist's nominee for a second time.]

Urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay), however, has criticized Duterte's order. It said it is not against the firing of officials based on corruption but, accused Duterte of having "ulterior motives" in removing Ridon from the commission.

"Top government officials are mostly responsible for corruption and lavish trips abroad, but Duterte chose to go after one that has in some cases a hand in shedding light on the struggles of the urban poor," it said.

Kadamay said the PCUP led by Ridon had made "positive steps," including recognizing the need for mass housing, and helping halt "unjust demolitions" in some areas.

It said while there were some "weaknesses" that could have been improved under Ridon's leadership, removing an official "sympathetic to the plight of the underprivileged" would only "aggravate" these problems

"Ultimately, this proves yet again that the Duterte regime has no intention of heeding the cries of the country's poorest," Kadamay said.

Roque said the President will find a "more workable" arrangement so that the PCUP's functions can be exercised.

"There is a pending bill in Congress creating the Department of Housing," he said. "So perhaps, the functions of the PCUP will be undertaken by the proposed Department of Housing, which is also part of the legislative agenda of the Palace."

Roque was referring to House Bills 449, 1518, 1721, 3639 and 5114, which were all approved by the House Committee on Appropriations in October 2017.

The measures call for a Department of Housing that would formulate a national and urban development and housing policy.