April 11, 2012
Mrs. Lawrence: Thank you Mdm. Deputy Speaker. I must say to you that it is always a pleasure when I see a woman sitting in that chair.
I rise to record my views on this Budget 2012 debate. Given the laying of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), 2011-2015 in this National Assembly, in August 2011, one would have thought that Government’s agenda would have clearly embraced this document. Page (iii) of this document states that:
“Steadfast commitment to policy measures elaborated in this PRSP is likely to set free the country’s vast potential in human and natural resources.”
Further, page 1 outlines the seven-pillared strategy around which these goals would be realised. Yet, the non-reference to this document in this Budget 2012 presentation is rather surprising. The reality is that the Minister of Finance’s budget has little or no sound provision to fulfil those objectives. No mention has been made to three of the four pillars. I refer to pillar number two – “good governance”, pillar number three – “improved social services, including better provision of safety nets” and pillar number seven – “special intervention strategies for vulnerable populations.”
I would first like to address the issue of poverty with reference to the PRSP, 2011-2015. The Minister of Finance’s performance during the reading of page 7, section B, titled “Sectoral Performance” was hilarious. He broke out into a melodious crescendo and his body began to bounce in a dance-like fashion as he sung of the twenty-one sectors, outlined on pages 7 through 9, where only three of those sectors experienced negative growth in 2011, while the remaining eighteen sectors had growth ranging from two to nineteen per cent. No doubt, the men and women who worked to make that possible must be congratulated for their sterling performance and A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) so congratulates them.
This Budget 2012 can be likened unto an inflated balloon for the eighteen per cent of Guyanese who fall within the extreme poverty bracket and the thirty-six per cent who fall within the moderate poverty bracket. Further, the Hon. Minister of Finance indicated in paragraph 3.2, page 7 that, and I quote:
“Indeed, in 2011, the domestic economy achieved real growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 5.4 percent, within which non-sugar GDP grew even more rapidly by 5.6 percent. Significantly, this represented the sixth consecutive year of positive growth in Guyana.”
Yet, the Hon. Minister did not indicate how this growth would impact on the realisation of the seven-pillared strategy. One would have expected the Government to address, in a comprehensive manner, the seven pillars set out for the economic and social transformation of Guyana to at least remove the very real perception amongst Guyanese that the Government would have penalised those who did not vote for it or those who just did not vote.
I now turn to the issue of poverty. Amongst our poor - working poor, single parents, elderly, powerless and disabled - there was hope that with the increased growth, which the Minister gleefully spoke about, there would have been some new measures to address the way additional income was distributed. That the Government would have sought to reduce the high degree of inequality in the distribution of income, thereby setting Guyana on the way to attaining rapid reduction in the number of those persons living in poverty, but this expectation was short-lived. The Minister did not at any time, during his sixty-nine-page presentation, mention the amount allocated in his estimates to address tangibly the inequalities which exist between the haves and have-nots. Rather, a glance at page 15, table 7 of volume 1 of the Estimates of the Public Sector Current and Capital Expenditure subscribes to the view that this budget is anti- poor, anti-ordinary citizen and anti- vulnerable group. More than ever, it is one which only takes care of the boys.
At page 39, paragraph 4.67, the Minister spoke of his Government’s commitment to invest in the social sector, but as the old adage states: “The taste of the pudding is in the eating.” The Minister should tell this nation, given all that he said, why the allocation for the Ministry of Labour Human Services and Social Security was reduced by $214 million and, more particularly, why the allocation to social services, under “Other Charges”, decreased by $210.4 million as against the allocation for 2011. Is this the strategy to reduce or lessen the burden on those in the poverty bracket? Perhaps, the Minister will tell us in his response.
Now I will address the case of the elderly and pensioners. Family members, individuals and public institutions must meet the challenge for survival of our elderly each day. The long-term care that is necessary for these individuals more than ever in Guyana is regarded as a responsibility of the family, even as life expectancy continues to rise and greater demands are made. Having spoken of the six consecutive years of growth, the Minister, in addressing our most vulnerable groups, made three profound statements for which he deserves three awards. Those are: $600 per month or rather $20 per day increase for the elderly; $400 per month or rather $13 per day increase for the vulnerable; $10,000 on the tax threshold for persons working for $50,000 a month and below. The Minister has proceeded without paying any heed to the shifts in age distribution in Guyana, given that our population aged sixty-five and over have exceeded ten per cent of it.
The World Bank 2009 Report reveals that the number of persons sixty-five years or older have been steadily increasing during the past decade. Is the Minister unaware? When is he going to address this issue? Not many elderly persons in Guyana fall into the category of those who use their wealth and financial capability to head households. The majority of those who are found in this category would be spending their remaining days somewhere in North America. This, therefore, leaves a large percentage of our elderly dependent on family members for support. Those who depend on pensions to survive must face the high cost for food, medical attention and transportation, amongst others, and most often live below minimum standards. This budget offers no hope for them to be relieved from their impoverished conditions.
The figures for those who apply for old-age pension tell a sad story. There has been a steady increase from some two thousand five hundred plus every year from 2006 to the first half of 2008. There was a substantial increase of two thousand nine hundred from the last half of 2008. In 2009, there were three thousand and nine applicants. In 2010, there were three thousand five hundred applicants, and for the first quarter of 2011, some 800 new applications were made. These figures highlight the plight of the elderly in our midst, more so, of our elderly seeking old- age pension and those who continue to work. This is surely a dire situation for our people. Where have the rewards of increased growth been placed, Mr. Minister? The APNU proposes that this budget be amended to offer a minimum of $10,000 per month to old-age pensioners. That is to $420 million, Mr. Minister. Today, we are spending $315 million, and as of May, 2012, it will be increased to $340 million. All that has been added is $25 million which works out to a miniscule percentage of the trillion dollars which was allocated to the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and to Guyana Power and Light Inc. (GPL). Would this huge allocation to GPL mean a reduction in GPL bills to consumers every month? Would it increase its efficiency and reduce losses to the company which are indiscriminately passed on to the consumers? This is indeed questionable, given its performance over the years. Its track record reveals that this large subsidy will have no impact in relation to the burden placed on consumers.
This Government, despite a collection of $47.2 billion by the Internal Revenue Department, refuses to give our pensioners $420 million. I guess the Minister is proposing to make a reality of the saying, “who ain’t dead, badly wounded”. Does the Government find no discomfort in doling out $3 million to one person, as pension and benefits, every month, or $100,000 per day? The people who must face the high cost of survival in Guyana with their shrinking income must look to this Government for assistance. Many of them are children and persons with disabilities.
On page 7, paragraph 3.1, the Minister spoke of the Government’s decision “…to make the Guyanese economy more robust and resilient,… to withstand external shocks, and be less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of domestic single industry upheavals.” While the Government speaks of robustness and resilience, it seems it is not aware of the increase in applications for public assistance from persons who have to grapple to withstand the shocks of survival in Guyana.
The continuous increase in the number of applications for public assistance is reaching alarming levels. Is our Minister oblivious to the number of our people who are suffering? One needs only to look at the figures coming out of the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security. The number of applicants for public assistance has increased tremendously over the last three years. In 2009, there were one thousand three hundred and ninety-nine applications and there were nine thousand one hundred and eighty-six recipients. In 2010, the applications were five thousand three hundred and the recipients were seventeen thousand eight hundred. In 2011, some six thousand four hundred and seventy-two persons made applications for public assistance while some sixteen thousand four hundred received public assistance. Yet, the Minister of Finance, in sharing the national pie, has boldly flaunted in the faces of Guyanese, particularly those in need of assistance, the meagre increase of $13 per day or a monthly increase of $400 for them. In reality, it is the cost of one sweet per day for our vulnerable group.
Age of Retirement: The number of persons seeking pension and public assistance is alarming and the facts representing longevity cannot be ignored. The World Bank 2009 Report highlights that the aging index was nearly eight elderly persons to every one hundred children in 1970. By 2002, it had risen to twelve elderly persons, accounting for an annual growth rate of 0.82 per cent, in contrast to a decrease of 16.3 per cent in the number of children aged less than fifteen years in 2006. The number of people aged sixty-five years and over increased by 23.6%.
Guyana, like other countries, must therefore review its age of retirement, and look at the emerging picture of the elderly group. With the increase in the number of elderly people, our pension schemes would be unable to support the large number of pensioners who make demands on them. This discourse on the review of the age of retirement in Guyana has been going on for too long. The typical retirement age is fifty-five years in the public sector and sixty to sixty-five years in the private sector, yet this does not entitle one upon retirement to receive pension from the two main state institutions. Persons must acquire the age of sixty years to receive pension from the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) and sixty-five years for old-age pension. What happens in the interim? Given the increase in the number of persons living above sixty-five years, the strain on our pension schemes and the inability of families to cope with the cost of taking care of their elderly relatives, it is imperative that the situation be brought to an end and a firm decision is made to increase the retirement age in the public service to sixty-five years. Alternatively, there may be the need to reduce the age of eligibility for NIS pension to coincide with the age of retirement.
It is lamentable that nothing has been forthcoming from the Government regarding the report from the Committee, which was put together by the Government, for the review and reform of the National Insurance Scheme. There is urgent need for restructuring this pension scheme. In November 2007, the Committee produced its final report which entailed several recommendations. At that time, the People’s National Congress Reform - One Guyana (PNCR-1G) had some reservations over some of the recommendations made, particularly one which suggested raising further the age of eligibility.
On 3rd March, 2008, the Hon. Member, Ms Manickchand, told this honourable House, and I quote: “It is presently engaging the attention of Cabinet where these recommendations that were examined and considered and are going to be looked at with the view to making the scheme, as the terms of reference said, more financially viable and efficacious”.
The retirement age of fifty-five years, indeed, places a greater strain on the ability of the National Insurance Scheme to meet its obligations to the large number of persons who are forced into retirement. Apart from support from family members at home or remittances from those abroad, the elderly depends, to a large extent, on the NIS for financial support. The NIS, as we have been told for some time now, cannot withstand the pressure to provide benefits for the large number of pensioners in our midst. Despite the Stabroek News newspaper article by Professor Clive Thomas, last April, under the caption, “Downside Risk and Upside Potentials Facing the Economy”, the Minister 69- page presentation made absolutely no mention of the Government’s intentions for this institution. According to Professor Thomas, “The NIS is at a risk of turning to the state for bail outs with which to fund its outstanding liabilities”.
In fact, this institution which helps to bridge the gap between the ability of pensioners to meet their survival needs and living in poverty did not find favour in the distribution of any of the revenues which the Government raked in last year. Instead, the NIS management is left to face the many complex problems including, but not limited to, resources tied up with the Colonial Life Insurance Company (CLICO)/Sanford debacles, an aging workforce, humongous and burdensome financial arrears, over-abundance of bureaucratic and administrative problems and high administrative cost estimated at about one-sixth of its income.
Despite the comments by Hon. Member Ms. Manickchand, the Government’s reluctance to act on the recommendations put forward for this institution is another blatant disregard for the many pensioners and workers who, by compulsion, must continue to have their earnings paid into this scheme. Is this not another deprivation of the rights of the workers who, on retirement, expect to receive a pension for their hard years of service only to be faced with another CLICO fiasco, if nothing is done in the near future to secure their benefits? The Government must recognise that many of the past and present contributors to the National Insurance Scheme gave a mandate to the A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance For Change (AFC) on the 28th of November, 2011 to represent them and address their concerns in this House. This is therefore one of those issues which we will have to undoubtedly address as we review this Budget 2012.
Women: There is a paucity of female representatives in this honourable House. The need to have more women in our Parliament is greater today, given the number of issues pertaining to our womenfolk. In this Tenth Parliament, women are outnumbered by a ratio of two to one. Political accountability for women begins with an increase in the number of women in decisions making positions. It is a fact that wherever women voices are heard policies will better reflect their concerns. The many concerns which affect their lives, such as equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, gender equality, gender base violence and rape, are more likely to be better heard, expressed and dealt with by women working with men to formulate policies, parliamentary process and law. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between women’s empowerment and the growth of the national GDP. How can we not afford to give women as many equal participation in the building of stable and peaceful societies?
Today, there are twenty-one women representatives in this honourable House. However, there are more than two hundred women outside this honourable House who do not subscribe to any form of abuse by any person in our society. This view permeates every class, colour and age group and does not vindicate those who would use their status, office or wealth to abuse our women. One case in point is a call for the removal of the Commissioner of Police Henry Greene, forthwith from office. The constant abuse of one’s office must stop. Our women, boys and girls must be free from those who have hidden predatory instincts for sex and sexual favours. I must congratulate the Guyana Women Lawyers Association (GWLA) which held an informative and interesting session two Saturdays ago on the topic of abuse. I wish to make it clear that the APNU is committed to reviewing the Sexual Offences Act to ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice through any loopholes this Act may now contain.
Today, women have broken the gender barriers which once existed within the labour market. We have shown that we can hold positions at every stratum, be it at an executive level, in the laboratory or in the factory. Notwithstanding our achievements, there is a growing concern that work is equal, but pay is not. This behaviour is more prevalent in the private sector and we must guard against it and stamp it out whenever and wherever it is found. This, undoubtedly, calls for more women to get involved in the trade union movement. Women must not see themselves merely as bench warmers, but must seek to run for higher office within those organisations. With women in leadership positions in our trade unions, equal work will equal pay, and the resurgent of sexual harassment in the workplace will be more adequately addressed.
The time has come for a more radical step to be taken on domestic abuse and all other forms of abuse. No more stamp it out and no more black and blue. I call on this Government to take firm actions against those in our midst who believe that they can abuse other persons, go to jail and spend time on taxpayers’ money. This action continues unabated. I am quite sure that Suresh Parabunauth, the attacker of Simone Ritchie, knew of the attempt to stop domestic violence. Also the attacker of Eureka Garraway, hammer beating - “Woman hammered in her head.” In the case of Kelvin Depleager, I am quite certain he also knew about the Act against domestic violence when he slapped Ms. Marcia Gordon, because of a mosquito coil zapper; also the perpetrator of Leroy Edwards, stabbed to death and Herman George who chopped to death Michelle Williams. Guyanese, irrespective of where they reside, must have heard of the campaign to stop all forms of domestic violence in our society.
Guyanese, irrespective of where they reside, would have heard of the campaign to stop all forms of violence in our society, especially domestic violence. Every organisation, religious, social and educational, has spoken out against violence. Yet, this reckless behaviour continues unabated in our society. The time has come, now, for us to address this issue in a comprehensive manner, taking into account modern, social work intervention techniques, including counselling by trained professionals. It is believed that energies must now be focused on repairing the young minds in our society through social programmes in the education system. That data must be gathered and analysed to prepare a realistic approach for addressing this scourge; that greater emphasis must be placed on the owners of the many, or too many, bars who sell alcohol to anyone, irrespective of that person’s level of intoxication; more persons must be trained in counselling; that we should seek to establish counselling centres in those areas where there are high incidences of abuse and that continuously we should seek to provide information and education on abuse for our citizens.
Child labour: Sooner, rather than later, some organisation will report negatively on Guyana’s continued breach of the International Labour Organization Convention 182 - the worse forms of child labour. The laws of Guyana state that no child under fifteen years old must be employed and that persons fifteen to eighteen years can work, however, this work must not be injurious to the health and safety of the worker. Yet, Mdm. Deputy Speaker, today as you traverse the streets of Georgetown and those areas where there is a high degree of economic activities you would observe that a great number of children who ought to be in school are working as shop attendants, porters, vendors, with entertainment bands, restaurants and on construction sites, to name a few. The depressing reality is that in most instances the parents or guardians are well aware of the child’s working life and benefits from the rewards. Apart from breaching the Convention, many of these children become uncontrollable and find themselves in conflict with the law, bringing undue pressure to the already choked social system. While it is my belief that no representative of this honourable House would condone such an infringement on the rights of the child, it does not in any way release that representation from taking action whenever he or she comes into contact with such situations. The Ministers responsible for both the Ministries of Human Services and Social Security and Education must act remedy this situation.
Children and families: In 2009, there were almost nine hundred cases of child abuse reported. In 2010, there were three thousand four hundred cases. In 2011, it surpassed four thousand cases. Of those cases, more than fifty per cent have been committed in Regions 4, while Regions 3, 5, 6 and 10 ranged between six to sixteen per cent. This is a tragedy. What is more mind-boggling are incidences which have been reported and those that continue to take place and go unreported, given the geography of the other Regions. Our children have fallen victims to various types of abuse: physical, sexual, verbal, neglect and abandonment, to mention a few. The statistics reveals that the majority of our children who are abused are of primary school age followed by those of the secondary level, particularly those who are not attending school. Many of these children are taken out of their homes and sent to live with other family members since the perpetrators, to a large extent, are parents, relatives and step-parents. Even with the passing of specific legislation to address the plight of our children, the abuse continues unabated. This leaves us with a task of finding other mechanisms whereby we can successfully address this crime inflicted upon our future generation.
This brings me to the point of parents and parenting: That is, that old adage that “Every male can father, but not all males can be a father.” Similarly it is believed that every woman has the ability to bear a child, but not all women can be mothers. The values which we are made to embrace as a people have changed dramatically. We are obligated as leaders to ensure that those who are given the opportunity to be mothers and fathers are given the knowledge and understanding that they are responsible in the upkeep and upbringing of their offspring. While some will make mistakes, there are those amongst us who will seek to neglect their responsibilities and we must ensure that they are dealt with in accordance with the law.
No parent must send a four-year-old onto the street without someone accompanying him or her. Children must not be kept from attending school because they must babysit the younger ones, or should parents be allowed to spend the public assistance on clothes, beauty parlours or on their paramours. On the other hand, Government must be willing to give assistance where a legitimate need exists. Specific efforts must be made to ensure that equal opportunities exist for all section of our society. Discrimination must never be encouraged. There must be equitable distribution of the national wealth to our people. Regrettably, the Budget 2012 falls woefully short in addressing this issue.
The yearly increase of persons using the night shelter tells a story. In 2010, there were five thousand five hundred persons and almost six thousand in 2011. This tells the dismal story of the inability of persons to cope on their own. Further, the almost three hundred residents at the Palms institution remind us that families are at their breaking point and cannot carry the burdens of taking care of their senior relatives. It further reminds us of the ever widening gap between the few who have and the many who have not.
In concluding, Madam, the Budget 2012 does not begin to address in any tangible way issues which I have just outlined.
As we sit in this honourable House in the Tenth Parliament I want to publicly declare that the issues which our people face each day must be addressed. A Partnership for National Unity believes that Budget 2012 must be the beginning of this process. Hon. Minister of Finance, we cannot accept nor can we consent to the past President receiving approximately $3 million in pension and benefits, while our seniors are given a mere $20 a day increase, or that our most vulnerable must be grateful for $13 a day increase. This is an affront to Guyanese. We will not accept the reductions in the appropriations for the social services, while the Government boasts of six consecutive years of positive growth and revenue of 12.1 per cent over the previous year, yielding some $120.9 billion. We, of the A Partnership for National Unity, cannot, and will not, allow the Minister to give the spoils of the sweat and hard work of our ordinary citizens to friends and families of this Government. We, therefore, will carefully attend to the appropriations as allocated in the estimates of this Budget 2012 and ensure that justice is served. We hope that the Government, which boasts of continuous concerns for the ordinary people, will be like-minded and make the necessary adjustments to ensure the smooth passage of this budget.
Thank you Mdm. Deputy Speaker. [Applause]