Farrell’s government was able to push through the amendment to the Social Security Act which increases the pensionable age to 65. Buffonge and other members of Cabinet agreed and signed off to other adjustments to the social security act in Cabinet on January 27, 2022 (SRO 7 of 2022 and SRO 8 of 2022).
Minister of Agriculture Crenston Buffonge on Tuesday voted against his government’s Social Security (Amendment) Bill 2022 to increase the pensionable age from 60 to 65.
While the bill still passed, his negative vote was met with audible gasps on the recordings and later caused much discussion online, with pundits questioned whether this signalled a rift in the party to be followed by a walk to the other side of the floor.
During Wednesday’s sitting of parliament, the minister apologised, adding he had come to parliament “fully prepared to support the social securities bill.” However, after hearing some of the matters raised during the discussion, he “thought it needed a second look. On this basis I made my vote,” he explained.
Montserrat’s Social Security Fund is in jeopardy of running out of money by as early as 2025, according to officials at the statutory body.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Premier Joseph Farrell said the fund continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate as payments into the fund have decreased while employment and injury benefits continue to rise.
“Since 2012, the fund has seen yearly deficits at an average of $2.4 million a year for eight years. This increased to $3.6 million in the past three years annually,” revealed Farrell. Without an intervention the depletion of funds will continue to accelerate, he added.
These adjustments included increasing the pensionable contributions annually for employed persons between the ages of 16 and the pensionable age from April 2022 to December 2025. From April 2022 until December 2022 it will be six percent (6%) and go up by point five of a percent (0.5%) in 2023. Thereafter, it will increase by one percent (1%) in 2024 and by January 2026 and after it is to be at eight percent (8%). Employer contributions are to increase as well, by point five percent (0.5%) annually from April 2022 from six percent (6%) until it reaches eight percent (8%) in 2026.
Opposition member Claude Hogan said the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was that to save social security a massive injection of funds was needed. He added that the government had not discussed the possibility of finding a cash injection for social security. The increased contributions alone will not save the social security fund, the member declared.
Leader of the Opposition, Paul Lewis said the 2021 PAC report stated that to save the fund, the island needed to increase employment. He added that the employment level needed to be at a minimum salary of $4000 per month and at least 925 workers at this level were needed. He questioned whether there was a plan to attract these workers or increase local wages.
Lewis said a joint request from both sides of the house should be submitted to the Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) for a cash injection to stave off the current deficit, while also ensuring that the management of the social security fund implemented the recommendations which are on the table.
Minister Buffonge admitted that his negative vote “was unprecedented and my only regret is that I have given the impression to many that I have crossed the floor or intend to cross the floor.”
He said he wanted this statement to put and end to the conversation that he was against the premier. The minister said he has no intention to cross the floor and he intent was not to embarrass his premier or his colleagues and so apologised. The minister of agriculture said he was still fully in support of the MCAP government and their desire to work for the good of the country.