Budget Debate 20132198 04 Apr, 2013
Mrs. Lawrence: I rise to make my contribution to the 2013 National Budget and Estimates as presented by the Hon. Minister of Finance, Dr. Ashni Singh on March 25, 2013.
The Minister’s presentation has outlined, once again, that several sectors have registered growth. It also tells us that in the areas of forestry, diamond and quarrying we have experienced negative growth. More significantly, the sugar industry, despite the injection of billions of dollars into a Skeldon Factory and a further four billion dollars in 2012 into the management of Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo), is ailing. The several attempts and promises made to turn around this sector have failed miserably and Guyanese taxpayers have had to bear this burden for yet another year.
At the end of the debate on the national Budget 2012, and passing of several proposed appropriations, there was an undertaking by this Government to continue talks with the combined Opposition on several issues. The discussions, which began before and continued during the passing of the 2012 Estimates, came abruptly to an end. We are now debating another budget presentation with no hint of the fulfillment of those promises.
This fact notwithstanding, the staff of the Ministry of Finance must be commended for their work in preparing this Budget 2013 as they are not responsible for the political blunders of this administration.
I note that many non-traditional sectors have recorded increased growth. Further, Sir, the increase of 20.8 per cent of tax paid by self-employed persons is also heartening. It is obvious that Guyanese are recognising their obligation to contribute to the national purse.
Despite all of the above, I am disappointed with other aspects of this Budget 2013. I am disappointed, Sir, that the Minister of Finance failed to utilise this opportunity to ensure that the budget confirmed with article 222A of the Constitution by listing amongst those entities under Local Subsidies schedule on pages 398 through 402, those entities which are listed in the Schedule to article 222A.
The Minister also failed to utilise this opportunity, Sir, to address personal income tax in a real way. Why, Mr. Minister, is personal income tax the same as the corporation tax? Perhaps Mr. Minister, you should inform the workers about the reasons why the Government is paying the 7.2 per cent employer contribution to the National Insurance Scheme as outlined in paragraph 6.13 on page 63
Address the increasing disparities between the haves and the haves-not within our society. The Minister failed to address his plans for job creation, and the employed poor.
He also failed to utilise this opportunity to address the spiralling cost of living and the reduction of Value Added Tax (VAT); to address the payment of $15,000 to old-age pensioners as promised last year of which $10,000 was given in 2012 as an interim.
Mr. Speaker, I speak to this Budget 2013 as a Member of the Opposition, whose mandate is to examine it with a critical eye, outline its deficiencies in meeting the needs of our people and, where possible, make proposals. With this objective in mind, Sir, I wish to state categorically that having examined this budget I have found it to be very anti poor. After registering several consecutive years of growth, as stated by the Minister of Finance, our Government has failed to share the wealth of the nation with those in our midst that fall within the poverty bracket or are falling through the cracks.
I am conscious that those in Government, who sit at the table, will fail to see the many that wait upon the crumbs, like Lazarus. Nevertheless, it is obvious that this Budget 2013, like others, continues to keep our working poor, unemployed and unemployable in a state of poverty.
The Minister, on page 4 in the penultimate sentence stated, “Prices for food commodities generally ended 2012 higher than one year ago…” Further on page 74, the consumer price index shows a ten per cent increase in food over the previous year and also a 10.3 per cent increase in medical and personal care. This critical situation begs the question: How are the people in the aforementioned bracket coping? What measures have been put in place to ease the pressure on the impoverished?
Food Prices: The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Report 2012, states that hunger remains a global challenge. The most recent report on hunger estimates that in the developing regions, children living in rural areas are almost twice as likely to be underweight than children in urban households. In the Caribbean, eight per cent of children in rural areas are underweight, as compared to a rate of three percent in the city.
Appendix one on page 70 under the caption “Health and Education” is a significant revelation. It shows. Sir, that despite a constant increase in budgetary allocation to our health sector we have been unable to:
• decrease the number of low birth-weight babies;
• to reduce the number of severely malnourished;
• and to significantly reduce those who are moderately malnourished.
Despite the Grow More Food Campaign, the cost of food items continues to rise. Plantains are $180 to 200 per pound; eddoes $120 to160 per pound; sweet potatoes $140 to160 per pound; and Sir, chicken foot is $300 per pound; chicken neck is $200 per pound. If we are to look at the cost for chicken, it is at $380; beef is for $460 and salt fish, Sir, is $560 to 600 per pound. Sugar is $90 per pound and flour, Sir, $120 is per pound. All these commodities, except for flour, are grown, reared and produced locally.
Let us imagine a policeman taking home a net salary of $51,000 per month. He is living at La Parfaite Harmonie and stationed at Alberttown Police Station, his wife, an untrained teacher on the TQM1 scale, receives a net salary of $58,000 per month and they have two children attending high school in Georgetown and a mortgage payment of $47,000 per month. I am sure that this family would like to be told how it can overcome the challenges it faces daily. Despite these challenges, the Minister told the poor within our midst that Budget 2013 is presented under the theme, Overcoming Challenges Together, Accelerating Gains for Guyana.
Allow me to highlight some of the other challenges which the poor in our midst would like to overcome.
Housing: The poor are asked to pay the following cost for house lots: $300,000, $400,000, $500,000, $700,000, $900,000 and $1.2 million. Payment of fifty per cent will get a buyer an agreement of sale; others are given a few months to come up with the money. Some of those who have paid, Sir, cannot begin to build due to their inability to meet the requirements of the banks to access a loan. Others have taken a loan to purchase the land and do not have enough collateral to have another loan, hence they must repay the first loan before obtaining another. Meanwhile, however, they are receiving several letters threatening them that their land will be taken away. Many of the persons who are asked to pay these sums are policemen and women, clerks, ordinary public servants, domestic helpers, vendors and teachers, to name a few. Their salaries range from $35,000 to $86,000 per month. Minister Ali, the Hon. Member, can attest to the several persons for whom representation is made daily to his office.
Despite talks about establishing an information centre to protect those who are first time builders from unscrupulous contractors and those posing as contractors and saw millers, to date, this has not materialised. This situation has resulted in many single parents and first time builders being left at the mercies of these devious con artists.
There has been much talk and propaganda about the thousands of house lots being allocated, but what provision is being made for the very poor who cannot afford to purchase those house lots?
We have not heard, to date, any plans by the Government to build homes for those persons who would never be in a position to purchase land much less build their own home. What about arrangements for building of low income housing schemes as was done in the past? Areas such as North Ruimveldt, Campbellville, Shirley Field Ridley Scheme, Tucburg in New Amsterdam and Wisroc Housing Scheme in Linden are useful examples. We cannot behave as though these people do not exist. For exist, they do and every effort must be made to address their concerns. I can assure this House that the saying “not everything that glitters is gold” can be otherwise worded “not every building with four walls and roof means that it is a completed house”.
These, Minister, are but a few of the many challenges which your government must seek to address so that this group in our society can overcome their challenges.
Value Added Tax: During the Budget 2012 debate, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) asked that VAT be reduced by two per cent in the year 2012 and a further two per cent in 2013. This was refused by the Government which continued to insist that the reduction of VAT would not help the poor. It is our belief that any increase in the spending power of the poor would improve their quality of life as well as that of their offspring. More money means more food available, more food available means children can concentrate in class. More money means payment for transportation for work and school and less absenteeism. Regular attendance at school means a chance of acquiring an education. Acquiring an education, Sir, means more employable persons and an opportunity to come out of poverty and enjoy a better quality of life. Indeed, more disposable income ensures a better standard of living for the family as a whole.
On page 11, paragraph 3.22, the Minister indicated that Government revenue inflows grew by seven per cent to $129.4 billion. Of these inflows 91.5 per cent represented tax revenue collections, of which VAT and excise tax collections increased by 7.2 per cent to $56.8 billion dollars. Had the Government accepted APNU’s proposal to reduce VAT by two per cent or $1.14 billion dollars, it would have resulted in an increase in attendance at our schools, more food on the table and more houses completed. Indeed, it would have had a direct impact on the ability of families to improve their lives.
In addition, the Government must be aware that a large part of home building loans goes towards VAT. Persons building must pay VAT on items purchased. Just as an example: Purchase of six hundred and forty-eight feet of corrugated sheet costs $199,422 plus $31,903 in VAT; purchase of one hundred and fifty-two lengths of steel cost $127,960 plus $19,486 in VAT; the purchase of one thousand two hundred and eighty-feet of lumber cost $230,400 plus $36,864 in VAT. On these three items alone, Sir, the consumer must pay $89,253 value added tax. With a two per cent reduction, the consumer would have had available thousands of dollars to accelerate their building programme. That is what the Government refused to give to the poor.
Allow me, therefore, Sir, to read to the Minister his own words on page 2, paragraph 1.6, of his presentation:
“I urge once again that, even after the most vigorous of debates, this House learns to speak more frequently with one voice inspired only by that which is good for Guyana.”
I trust that the Minister would understand that a preacher of the word must be a doer also. I, therefore, submit Sir, that our proposal of a gradual reduction of VAT by two per cent over two years would be good for the poor people of Guyana and Guyana as a whole. Would the Minister allow us to speak with one voice on this issue before this budget debate ends? We will certainly hear from him.
Senior Citizens: There is not one Member in this House who has not been adorned by thank you(s) from our senior citizens when they received $10,000 instead of $8,100 during the Budget 2012 debate. Likewise, Sir, I am certain that that our senior citizens welcome the increase of $2,500 more albeit this is still some $2,500 short of the $15,000 that was proposed by the APNU on the list of negotiations last year and this year.
I am at a loss for words, however, Sir, that the Minister reneged on his promise of $15,000 for old age pensioners this year; $10,000 being an interim payment in 2012. I beg the question of the Minister of Finance: Is it simply because you do not want to be seen…?
Minister of Finance [Dr. Singh]: Mr. Speaker, I believe I heard the Hon. Member accused me of reneging on a promise of a monthly old age pension of $15,000. I wish to state unequivocally that no such promise was ever made either by myself or by the Government and the Hon. Member is therefore misrepresenting the facts and misleading the nation, in relation to this matter.
Notwithstanding the gravity of the moment and the evident changed in every Members mood, given the falling ill of one of us, permit me, Sir, to draw your attention again to the concern I was expressing just before the very unfortunate medical episode. I invite you again, Sir, to consider asking the Hon. Member to withdraw the statement she made.
Mr. Speaker: Thank you for reminding me. Indeed Hon. Member, we were at that stage when the Member had raised a Point of Order that the words were that he reneged on a promise and the Hon. Member was saying that no such promise was made by him and or the Government, which he represents, and I believe you were to respond.
Mrs. Lawrence: Sir, something went wrong if what the Minister is proposing is true because we were informed that during the negotiations, as we began the last budget Estimates, that it was indicated that the $10,000 would have been given as an interim to our proposal for $15,000 for old age pension.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, what transpired by way of negotiations we are not sure. We lamented the fact last year that there is no record of these negotiations and statements made in the negotiation would not be the same or equated on the basis of being promises or undertakings given. There are expectations and those who were involved in those negotiations know better than those who were not on what transpired. If the Minister is saying that he made no such undertaking or promise, I believe that his Point of Order is in order.
Mrs. Lawrence: I am quite aware of the Government’s attempt to further provide assistance for some of our seniors with the introduction of the old age pension Electricity Assistance Programme of $20,000 per year. I was quite impressed until I read paragraph 6.11 which states:
“This assistance will reduce the electricity charges that will have to be met by each pensioner who is a GPL customer”.
May I repeat Sir?
That is the Old Age pension Electricity Assistance Program of $20,000 per year
“…will reduce the electricity charges that will have to be met by each pensioner who is a GPL customer.”
This does not cater for the forty-two thousand pensioners of whom the Hon. Minister spoke of in his budget presentation, nor does it speak to all the pensioners as the Minister Human Services and Social Security yesterday, in her presentation, let this House and the nation to believe. Rather it does cater only for some twenty-nine thousand five hundred of the forty-two thousand pensioners registered. When we look at it I hope that the Minister will say to this House that this $20,000 will not be aggregated over the twelve months and thus the senior will only get the portion for the next eight months. I hope that the senior citizens will get the full $20,000 in this year.
Further, that it discriminates against those pensioners who are not customers of GPL but do pay for light. In this regard, I penned a letter to the Hon. Minister of Finance Dr. Ashni Singh.
Whilst I find the intent commendable and one that surely will bring a measure of relief to pensioners, nonetheless allow me to point out the inequity that this proposal, in its present form, creates. Yes, it is true that far too many of our pensioners are burdened with the high cost of electricity. It is also true Sir, that several thousands are not customers of the Guyana Power and Light. Therefore many pensioners will be disqualified, from the goodly intention of the Budget 2013, for the following reasons:
• Many pensioners who reside with family members, in many instances, are required to contribute to the electricity charges but are not customers of GPL.
• Many pensioners, who are tenants, are often charged one rental amount which includes rent, electricity and water.
• Many pensioners, due to their inability to pay the high electricity costs, as well as make available the several documents demanded, and the visits imposed by the Guyana Power and Light, whenever there are conflicts, have severed their relationship with the company and instead have a younger higher income earning family member replaced them as customer.
• Many pensioners, Sir, who are residents of indigent homes, are not customers of GPL.
• Many pensioners who reside in some of our far-flung regions, for example Region 8, do not have access to GPL, but they are supplied with electricity by private businesses.
• Many pensioners, Sir, who live in our villages, outside of the city, are, in most cases, provided with electricity to their small cottages by family members. We see them so often as we leave the city.
These, Mr. Minister, are but a few examples of those pensioners who will never enjoy the benefit of the proposed assistance. I recognise that in the Minister’s planning he may not have taken account of the above mentioned realities which apply to many of our existing pensioners.
It is with the above in mind that I ask that consideration be given to add this assistance to the monthly old age pension of $12,500, thus bringing the total pensionable age to somewhere around $14,100 per month.
In this way, Mr. Minister, each pensioner would definitely benefit from the electricity assistance programme outlined in your 2013 Budget. To provide the $14,100 approximately to each pensioner, the Government needs to add a mere $18 million more to the allocation of $590 million. Can the Government do this? I believe, Sir, that the resounding answer will be “Yes, it can.”
Guyana’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper 2011-2015 identified that almost half of all children age 16 and below are poor. It further indicated that this group represents more than a third of the population. Poverty, many times over, persists over generations and Government’s effort to provide a decent life for its citizenry must be a priority.
We note that despite the increased spending through our Child Welfare Division, the attacks on our children continue unabated.
In 2012, we saw some 2,030 cases of abuse as against 1,860 in 2011, coupled with a high increase of neglected cases in 2012, totalling approximately 2,252 against 1,877 in 2011. During the second half of 2012, we were told by the Hon. Attorney General that the purchase of furniture and advertisement for the staffing of the Family Court was on track.
We are now some four months into 2013 and the Family Court, which we have heard so much about, is still a white elephant. We believe that notwithstanding the use of the Magistrate Court for some family matters, the urgent establishment of the Family Court is necessary. So, I urge this Government to get on with the business of having our Family Court operational.
It is with much concern that I note the high incidence of abuse and neglect in Regions 3, 4, and 6. The numbers in Region 10 are also increasing. It is hoped that as we flag these Regions, some special attention will be given to the welfare of our children there.
What is more disturbing is that mothers are listed as the number one abusers, with father following closely behind. This brings me to the sore issue of violence against women. The UN Secretary General, in his message on the One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women and girls, said:
“The global pandemic of violence against women and girls strives in a culture of discrimination and impunity.”
It is my humble belief that women and girls are now endangered species. It is time for our Government to rise off their seats and give life to the many laws passed in this honourable House and assented to by the President, as well as the several international conventions.
Last Saturday, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television carried an insight into what is being done by the police in Strathclyde in the city of Glasgow in Scotland. Viewers were told that a reduction in domestic violence and violence as a whole was achieved by the Police identifying those persons who, during the weekend and holidays, perpetuate violence on others. These persons are visited on Fridays and through the weekends and given warnings by the cops. This may not necessarily work in Guyana but it illustrates the need for innovative approaches to the problem. I hope the Police and the Human Services Agency will strive to be more innovative in dealing with this serious problem.
Further, I believe the time has also come when men and boys in our society should be our primary focus in the reduction of violence against our women and girls, since 99.9 per cent of the time they are the perpetrators. Let us seek out new approaches in this national scourge. Violence seems to become the Guyanese population these days. I wish to take the opportunity, Sir, to invite the House to support the Motion by the Hon. Member, Mrs. Deborah Backer entitled ‘Interpersonal Violence’.
Our younger girls are also in trouble and are in need of our assistance. I bring to the debate the several adolescent mothers across the length and breadth of our beautiful country, Guyana. In every community, they can be found. They face the normal challenges of adolescence as well as early pregnancy and motherhood. They live in a world which makes several demands and conflicting expectations of them. In almost every case, the problems of adolescent mothers lead back to their childhood experiences. If one should investigate further, he or she will find that many may have been born themselves to an adolescent mother. So the cycle continues.
After a few minutes of chatting with many of these adolescent mothers, one comes to establish that many of them were never exposed to self-development nor told of the need to establish boundaries in relationships, the influence of attitudes on behaviour, sexual and reproductive health or abuse. Many adolescent mothers drop out of school before they acquire a level of education that would enable them to function effectively in society. In many cases, their illiteracy leads to them being ill-treated by health care and social workers and other persons in our society. Regrettably, time does not permit me to elaborate further but it is sufficient to emphasise that the relevant Ministry has to do more to alleviate the situation. I, therefore, would like to suggest to the Minister of Human Services and Social Security that a policy paper on adolescent mothers be presented and that some interim measures be put in place to assist this vulnerable group within our society.
It is my belief that sufficient is not being done for the differently abled in our society. The David Rose School in Thomas Lands is a neglected place. Most unfortunately, it houses most of our differently abled children. Yet, year after year, budgets are brought to this House and there is no mention of rehabilitation works or upgrading of equipment. I expected the Minister, in her presentation, to tell us that these students at the David Rose School and those at other schools for the differently abled have benefited from the One Laptop Per Family Project, and further that special technology programmes were acquired for the differently abled children in our midst. My information, however, is that this has not happened to date.
The disability legislation speaks to buildings having access for the differently abled in our society. A check at all the newly built schools, however, would reveal that no such provisions have been made. It is obvious that the talk about integration of differently abled students into our regular school system is nothing more than talk. The Government must lead by example.
There is no doubt that we have a far way to go in addressing and bringing long-term relief to the vulnerable in our midst. Having heard the Hon. Minister of Human Service and Social Security, in her presentation which indicated that her Ministry has taken on board many of the suggestions proposed by me during several budget presentations in this House, I am encouraged.
In concluding, I wish to suggest the following to the Government:
• Seriously consider paying the public servants a living wage;
• Upgrade the schools which provide special education to the differently abled;
• Establish a national centre or division for children with disabilities, aimed at facilitating early diagnosis and detection by timely intervention and support services to such persons and their families;
• Consider providing assistance for our young adolescent mothers, which will provide them with counselling, skills training and employment;
• Construct housing units for those in our midst who are in the extreme poverty bracket;
• That the Minister of Public Service and Social Security seeks to provide training and scholarships for our social workers; and
• That the Minister of Finance gives due consideration to the points I made in my letter to him about the old age pension/electricity assistance programme and give the old age pensioners the additional money on their pensions.
Mother Teresa said, “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [Applause]
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