Minister refuses to explain Education Access Fund comments

As the 2012/2013 Budget winded down, Opposition members did not appear to lose any steam heading into the final leg of Debate on the Policies of the Government.
Parliamentary Representative for Micoud South, Arsene James opened the Debate on Thursday with his usual calm and well-structured arguments sometimes for and against the government’s plans and in some cases, made recommendations to the proposed plans of the Kenny Anthony Administration.
James began by pointing out that there are no stipulated measures to indicate sustainability of the promise of jobs. He further accused the government of neglecting his constituency for political reasons.
James agreed with the Prime Minister’s statements indicating that there is indeed contraction in Agriculture, Tourism and the Manufacturing sectors, however, he blamed Hurricane Tomas for the affected Agriculture sector and a global crisis and increase in oil prices on the latter two while adding his government specifically stimulated the construction sector to keep the economy afloat.
While the MP for Micoud South agreed that the implementation of VAT on September 1st is an important step in the right direction, he clarified the misconception that the Opposition is now against the implementation and adds that the Opposition’s plea is that VAT would be implemented in a conducive economy.
“The introduction of VAT within a sluggish economy will render the vulnerable even more vulnerable because if things are bad, then it will become worst for persons who are not working —we need to grow the economy and if the economy has a growth then we can introduce the VAT,” he said.
The next speaker was the Representative for Castries South, Dr Robert Lewis. Addressing first the issue raised by Arsene James with regards to Early Childhood Development and the Roving Care Givers Program, Lewis stated that his government is committed to the continuity of the program until the introduction of Universal Preschool Education arrives.
Lewis announced that Secondary School choices will be reduced to three as this move, according to the Minister, will help reduce the amount government spends in transportation subsidies. Children, he says, will be allowed to attend schools in close proximity to their homes rather than travel far to other schools that he claims have the same structural programs and potential to allow a child to excel.
The Minister for Education also announced plans of his government to return the sixth form to secondary school. He argued that the secondary schools are equipped with teachers who have obtained graduate degrees and are more than capable of teaching the 6th sixth form program. With the sixth form returning to secondary schools, the minister also stated that it will automatically be removed from the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College’s A-Level program to make way for better programs that will create the avenue for higher learning opportunities for St Lucian students.
Lewis also announced that discussions are ongoing with UWI to reintroduce a program that will allow students to go through two years in St Lucia and the final year at St Augustine Campus.
“We will make sure that that students only spend two years at Sir Arthur and one year at St Augustine. I want the Honourable House to know in discussion with UWI, this program will get back a firm footing at Sir Arthur to ensure the cost of Education of our young people remains minimal.”
As he closed down on his presentation, Lewis took a swipe at the former Minister for Education, Arsene James, who appeared to have enjoyed listening to the plans of the Minister before he accused the former Administration of using Education funds for political aspirations.
“It is a crying shame how the money that was put under the Education Access Fund for 2011/2012 was used for political campaigning in this country—we ought never to use the funds that are allocated for education towards political sensitization in terms of party politics,” said Lewis.
The STAR met with Dr Lewis outside parliament but he did not want to comment further on the matter but stated that the proof is there. Where is “there” he did not say. He reitereated that funds were misused and the former minister knows about it.                 When the STAR contacted the former Minister of Education, he too did not wish to comment on the matter but said he is yet to be presented with any facts proving such accusations.
Next up was Guy Joseph who shared his assessment of a zero conviction in the presentation of the Appropriations Bill by the Minister of Finance. Joseph, who delivered a fiery Debate on the Estimates two weeks ago, was more than careful how he presented his arguments. He argued that the Prime Minister has assumed that the citizenry do not read and therefore, according to Joseph, the PM believes that the country can be easily fooled.
The Member for Castries North-East continued his presentation by pointing out during the years 2006 to 2007, the country had gained a deficit of 6.1 percent and the average deficit over the last four years was at 5.2 percent.
Seemingly baffled by such figures, Philip J Pierre stood to request clarification and a reference for such figures. Believing that the figures were made up perhaps, the Members on the Government side all laughed as Joseph struggled to find the referenced quote. Eventually he did and he was able to continue with his head held high as the laughing ceased almost instantaneously.
Joseph continued: “The Minister for Finance tried to paint a very bad picture of the economic situation in St Lucia to justify the introduction of VAT as the only savior to take us out of where we are.”
He further explained that the world’s economy was growing during the first four years of the last decade from 2001 to 2006 and added: “During that period of growth in the world economy, this Labour Administration could not have grown the economy sufficiently to wipe out the deficit, how could I expect, in this global situation that these same people can come in and do something extraordinary, something special to take the country out of the situation that it is in.”
Philip J Pierre could not wait to deliver his fifteenth Budget Debate as a member of the House. He began by saying: “The Prime Minister presents optimism; hopefulness within the framework of this reality. We have put forward a budget which shall build a more productive economy and a fairer society. A budget aimed at unleashing the creativity and ingenuity of all Saint Lucians but framed within the context of the extra-ordinary socioeconomic challenges we face.”
Pierre took a different path by blaming the former Administration for placing the country in a very bad economic situation.
“The SLP since returning to office on November 28, 2011 inherited the following: From the fiscal year 2009/2010, recurrent expenditure has exceeded recurrent revenue. In their last year in office the UWP Government was forced to borrow $33 million to meet recurrent expenditure, while the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 21.2 percent at the end of 2011. Foreign direct investment is at an all-time low.
“Our country has not gotten into this situation by accident. We are at a watershed moment in our economic development as a result of the ill-conceived policies and programs of the former government; as a result of wastage and scant regard for the opportunity cost of the misuse of our scare resources; as a result blatant corruption and general incompetence,” he said.
He reassured the House that his government will over the next fiscal period work assiduously to restore confidence in the economy.
“We are in a crisis. The most severe and debilitating crisis since Independence. Yet the former government could not identify the policies to respond to the mess that they created. As if bad governance was not bad enough, Hurricane Tomas dealt us a lethal blow and left behind a battered infrastructure. Now we face a huge construction bill.
“Operating in that scenario, the Minister of Finance could choose to look inward; he could recoil into a gesture of austerity. He could increase taxed, he could become insular, he could retrench public workers or he could even cut back drastically on capital expenditure.”
He explained that his Prime Minister is not encouraging reckless spending. According to Pierre, the PM is requesting constraint and asking for fiscal consolidation without the onerous burden of taxation on individuals or business.
“The government is recommending one major tax policy—VAT. The SLP had the trust and the confidence in the people to tell them before the elections that we had no choice but to implement VAT! We are the last Caribbean country to do so. The good news is that there will be the removal of some taxes such as consumption tax. VAT will be delayed on utility bills. We are putting safety nets to protect the poor and we are attending to the concerns of the hotel and other business sectors.
“We are reducing the debt burden to WASCO and the public hospitals. We are providing a stimulus to the economy by reducing prices of building materials. Bank of Saint Lucia has agreed to provide loans for construction at a rate of five percent per annum for a five-year period for new residential and business construction,” he announced.
Each Member of Parliament was allowed one hour to speak except for the Leader of the Opposition who was allowed an unlimited time at the discretion of the House to present his arguments.

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