Following two days of spirited debates the 2023/24 Appropriations Bill for the Government of Montserrat was passed on Friday, Apri 21 at the Montserrat Cultural Centre.
Premier and Minister of Finance Joseph Farrell presented the annual Budget Speech on Monday, April 17. This was followed by marathon presentations by ministers and the parliamentary secretary of the executed programmes and future plans and the Opposition’s response.
Minister of Agriculture Crenston Buffonge said his ministry is focused on cutting Montserrat’s food import bill. He note that the island’s annual food import bill is estimated at 32 million and 13 million of this is from crops that can be grown here. One of the intentions is to ensure that there is adequate sources of water to all farming areas and that every household is able to store water for use in backyard gardens.
The ministry has also committed 300,000 for supporting the construction of a race track for the Motor Sports Association. The current location in Cork Hill is in an area designated for farming.
Minister of Health and Education Charles Kirnon told the house that his ministry is working with the Ministry of Agriculture to identify more land for cemeteries. The newest cemetery in Lookout is filling up quickly and the church cemeteries are also full, he explained. The reopening of the Salem cemetery is under consideration and the Carr’s Bay cemetery is to be fenced to better protect it. The ministry is also considering mausoleums to ensure adequate space for burials as well as a crematorium.
On the matter of disability, Minister Kirnon said there is the need for a disability policy as they cannot ask donors to support without the requisite framework. He added that there is to be a review of the mental health policy as much has changed in this sector and the island must adapt to this. Psychiatric support for residents is also a growing need in Montserrat, as is the issue of recidivism, which is the tendency for offenders to reoffend once they are released from prison.
Minister of Communications Dr. Samuel Joseph in his remarks stated that Montserrat was moving in the right direction with the increased support from the UK Government. Montserrat received an additional 30 million pounds for the Little Bay Port Development Project, the extension of the capital programme CIPReg, to purchase critical equipment such as a mammogram machine and CT Scan, and an increase on the recurrent budget for the new financial year.
During the course of the coming budget year, Minister Joseph said MCWLE will continue to explore the development of the island’s existing geothermal resources both as a source of energy and other direct uses which can enhance Montserrat’s economic attractiveness to businesses and people. Construction of a surface plant is projected to commence at the end of 2023.
“We will also explore harnessing wind energy again in order to diversify our renewable energy sources and ensure resilience in our energy sector. We will also continue our thrust to maintain and greening of our buildings in order to minimise our energy consumption,” Dr. Joseph added.
Under the RESEMBID EU-funded project, the ministry will be conducting energy audits of twelve public sector facilities to implement energy efficiency retrofits based on the recommendations. The bulb exchange programme is expected to benefit 1,200 homes to improve the lighting energy in the residential sector.
The digitization of government business is also a key priority area for the ministry. Working with the Department for Information Technology and E-Government Service (DITES) the ministry, will roll out an online payments portal to allow for more convenience and access to government services.
Member of the Opposition Claude Hogan called it a “fluffed” budget as it did not speak to how the government aimed to deliver on its theme of ‘roadmap to prosperity’ for the people. He chided Premier Farrell and his ministers for not standing up for the seven police and fire officers who he said were unceremoniously “fired by retirement”. Hogan said members of the public service no longer has security of tenure and that every effort needed to be made to prevent the replacement of workers by technical consultants (TCs).
“You have the political mandate to stand up against that and represent the people.”
He added that currently only one job is designated as only for a Montserratian, that of the deputy governor. Hogan called for the government to make key positions available only to Montserrat nationals, such as financial secretary, attorney general, permanent secretaries and directors.
“They elected us to lead and look after them even they don’t know how to look after themselves,” he declared.
Hogan also stated that as Montserrat is a British nation it should not be under the FCDO but rather the Home Office so it can be treated like a part of Britain rather than a foreign country.
Leader of the Opposition Paul Lewis said the budget reflected “no prosperity for our people, only TCs.” He questioned why TCs who were already earning several times their local counterparts were being offered cost-of-living adjustments when the same was not given to local workers. He said Farrell’s “reset” budget lacked a minimum wage increase for the private sector and no tax relief for workers of the business community.
Lewis noted that St. Helena had received a similar budget increase as Montserrat. However, its leader of government Chief Minister Julie Thomas said the amount was actually a reduction in the budget based on the current inflation of 5.4%. He said Montserrat should have done the same. Montserratians he added, were tired, losing hope and leaving the island.
The Opposition Leader also noted that Montserrat’s access situation was not a priority for the current government as it only merited five lines in the speech with no confirmation of how they will adequately support the growth and travel possibilities for the tourism sector et. al. He questioned the plans for the six million made available through the EU economic recovery programme, as no details were shared on how the funds will be used and whether individuals and businesses would be able to qualify to receive assistance.
In his rebuttal, Premier Farrell said the goal of his administration was to grow the economy, protect the environment, and improve the quality of life for the people of Montserrat. He said the new budget sort to bring dignity to the people with the lowest salaries and to increase the pay of nurses and teachers which the opposition had not seen fit to do while in power.
“Our job is to put together the best case to get the country running,” the premier added.
Premier Farrell told the house that this is the first time that the MOU with the Foreign & Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) or its predecessor DFID includes the ability for Montserrat to hold on to any remaining funds from the previous year. He said the FCDO will allow for any unaudited surplus funds from the previous budget year to be used for key priority areas as identified in the document.
He encouraged all ministries and departments to project and properly spend the quarterly allocations rather than the ongoing practice of massive spending in the final quarter.
Financial Secretary Lindorna Lambert shared that the previously Montserrat was just getting enough aid to pay salaries and keep operations as business as usual. There has been nothing to help to take the country anywhere. She said the intent is to wean the island off aid but first there needs to be a big injection of funds to do backlog maintenance so things don’t fall down around us. This, she added will lay the groundwork to go forward and ask for more development funds.
After adjustments, the final approved amount for the Appropriation Bill is XCD 246,352,600 which includes an XCD 95,804,600 development fund.