Author: Hon Paul J. Lewis | Date: 24 February 2021
Listen to Audio of Hon Lewis' Speech Below:
Full Text of Speech Below:
After a concerted demand from your Opposition Team, and also from you the residents of Montserrat, the Premier announced his government’s package of relief for residents and businesses who have been struggling throughout this most recent lockdown, and indeed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The package as we understand it includes:
1) Unemployment benefits of EC$900 for one month.
2) Child support benefit for all children on Montserrat under 18, of EC$150 for the month
3) Repairing of the roof at the Golden Years Home for quarantine facilitation.
4) Payment of water consumption charges for a month
5) Payment of fuel surcharge from ALL utility bills for a month
6) Cash grants for small businesses on island to assist with bills for a month.
Whilst the Opposition is happy that the Government has decided to act, in putting together this package of assistance for the residents of this island, I am compelled to make this presentation to further outline to the Government how they could have gone even further and helped the people more.
Hardship for the residents and the business community of this island did not just begin with this second national lockdown. This COVID-19 pandemic and its effects have rattled our lovely island for the better part of a year. So, it was very heartbreaking to hear the Premier state, when asked, that only since this recent lockdown that he asked his Financial Secretary to look at budget lines to see where he can find monies to assist you the people. This is not good enough! What this demonstrates is that the response given was not based on a realistic or proper assessment of the needs of the people, and our struggling economy here on Montserrat.
The Government of Montserrat have a duty to present a realistic picture of the hardship being faced on the ground to our funding partners at FCDO in the United Kingdom. This is necessary so that a compelling case can be made to get the full share of funding required to truly ease the pain and suffering that people are feeling, beyond a single month of support.
It is good and well that this Administration stated that they found monies from the recurrent side by cutting and moving funds around from other budget lines.
However, when the Opposition met recently with FCDO Officials from the Financial Aid Mission, the ED11 COVID Support tranche of monies to help the people was one possible source of funds to be used to help provide financial assistance to the people and businesses. That funding as we know sits to the value of 900,000 Euros, which is equivalent to roughly EC$2.9 million. The Premier in his presentation made no mention of these monies that he has the capacity to draw from and would have been able to give even more support to you the people.
The Opposition is therefore calling on this Government to go even further and access these ED11 funds and come back to the people with more levels of support beyond what was announced. There is still EC$2.9 million that can be accessed to assist the struggling residents and businesses of this island. The government’s presentation of the true picture of the needs on the ground, supported by evidence, will go a long way in convincing FCDO to provide the additional funds required beyond the funds available locally.
Another area that concerns me as I listened to the Premier, was the lack of salary support for workers. Whilst EC$900 is being provided for one month only, it would have been better for the Government to have considered an 80% salary support measure instead of the $900.
Private sector business owners have expressed concern over excluding legitimate business expenses such as loans and mortgages from the business support assistance scheme, and are calling for these to be included.
During his press conference yesterday, The Premier admitted that COVID would be around for a while, and that the mainstay of our economy, which is tourism, would be closed off for the foreseeable future. Thus, if he actually believes as he stated, then what support would his Administration be providing for businesses and residents who earn their living from this sector and its spinoffs, who would be without employment for quite a while. This concern is shared by workers of other sectors similarly affected.
A salary support measure would have been better suited for this situation.
There are private members of our community who recognise the struggles of our small business community and are doing their part to assist. At this juncture, I offer my profound thanks and congratulations to Basil Chambers and friends for their EC$1000 business support drive. This will be a huge help to 16 small businesses on island.
I must also commend the Montserrat Football Association’s initiative of EC$500 per single child in a household; $750 for two children; and $1000 for three or more children in a household.
Many of you have expressed to me that while the government’s effort of $150 per child is welcomed, it is still considered to be inadequate.
The Opposition is making a call once more for some financial assistance, a token of appreciation, for our front-line workers who are always without complaint, taking risks to deliver essential services to all the residents of this island. However, it seems they are always pushed to on the backburner when it’s time for them to receive any measure of financial support.
The Premier was at pains to further highlight that data supports cases for funding. This, he mentioned to justify why the UK has been tardy in its response to his Government’s request for additional help for Montserrat since last year.
It begs the question of who presented the impression to the FCDO that our economy is now performing well, despite the COVID impact being so harsh on so many businesses? That was a disingenuous representation of the true state of affairs on island.
This question must be asked, as it is confusing to know what the Premier actually believes. He stated clearly, that for more funding which he requires from the UK, then the surveys must first be done. Many are wondering if the misleading perception of the economy doing better than expected is one of the reasons why, that now Montserrat needs help for its people, the UK is delaying because of poor judgement and a misrepresentation of our true state of affairs from this Government.
I am calling on the Government to do the right thing and recognise that this one-off package of assistance, whilst welcomed, will not be enough. I equally call on the UK government to provide the additional funding to make adequate assistance to the people and businesses possible, to alleviate the ongoing stresses that residents and businesses on island are undergoing.
Hon Paul J. Lewis
Leader of The Opposition, Montserrat