Minister in the Ministry of Finance [Bishop Edghill]: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Guyana is a good example of a country that has done some of the right things. “They have come a very, very long distance in terms of their fiscal situation”, Caribbean Development Bank, 24th February. It is a fact that cannot be refuted. It is a reality; Guyana has become the envy of our CARICOM brothers and sisters.
The inconvertible evidence is visible to all and sundry. For eight consecutive years, Guyana has recorded and enjoyed uninterrupted economic growth. This phenomenon could best be described as a democracy dividend. This is not a result of a fluke or happenstance, as I would put it. This was realised as a result of prudent physical management, responsible decision making, visionary thinking, innovative action and bold initiative. This confirms the saying ‘with the right approach, any challenge can be overcome’. I would like to remind this honourable House that the future comes one day at a time.
This Budget of 2014 provides another building block towards ensuring that we secure Guyana’s future. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my Colleague, the Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh, and our team at the Ministry of Finance for a job well done in crafting Budget 2014. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” We know the potential that lies in our people and we are prepared to unlock that potential. This Budget is designed to unlock the potential of our people.
The Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh, when he presented the Budget, at 4.4, page 17, said:
“Mr. Speaker, when we strive to achieve the lofty ideals which we hold dear for a better Guyana we must pay equal head to the details that often bedevil the achievement of the higher goal. As a responsible Government we make policy and allocate resources across all sectors to meet the national objectives but Government policy and budgetary allocations alone will not take us to the desired destination. Of equal importance are the efforts of the teacher who ensures that he or she is in the classroom on time and delivers the right material to ensure a well educated child. The efforts of the doctor and the nurse who are attentive to the standards of quality care will meet or exceed the patient’s expectation, the efforts of the public servant who is focused on results and improving the way we deliver services across Government, the efforts of the employee who goes the extra mile to be productive at work, recognising, as he should that the profitability of his employ will determine the security of his job, the efforts of the citizens who take care not to litter but instead to maintain his or her surroundings.”
Quite nicely put, it emphasises the importance that there is a role for Government and there is a role for the citizens, and what Government is seeking to do is to ensure that there is partnership at all sectors to ensure that the beauty of our dreams are realised.
In this Budget, we focus on three things: creation of employment, creating business opportunities and, thirdly, equipping our citizens to take advantage of those opportunities. This pro-poor, pro-people, pro-growth budget ensures personal prosperity of our citizens and it ensures our collective wellbeing.
Let me provide the evidence to prove that this Budget caters for the personal prosperity of our citizens. Let us look at the Government’s Housing Programme. We heard from the Hon. Minister of Housing and Water about the tens of thousands of Guyanese who are now living in their own homes. Guyanese are no longer looking for a bottom house to rent. They are looking for a mortgage to build their own homes. That shows that attention is being paid to their personal wellbeing.
Let us look at what is happening on our streets and while I am very concerned about the spate of accidents that we have been having, the reality is that we have more people driving today. We have more vehicles on our streets than we have ever had in the history of this country. Last year alone, 15,793 vehicles were registered; for personal use were 6,800.
Mr. Speaker, when we speak to the personal prosperity, I would like to draw your attention to what a number of my Colleagues have already alluded to with what is happening in education. We must not sit quietly in this House when we talk about the fact that we have achieved 100% universal primary education in Guyana. We must not sit quietly. We must not sit quietly in this House. We must blow our trumpet and let the world know that we are well on the way to achieving 100% universal secondary education. Our Technical and Vocational (Tec-Voc) Programmes are spread throughout the county. We have technical institutes, not just in Georgetown, but in Berbice and in Essequibo. We must be careful that we do not miss, very importantly, what is happening at the University of Guyana. While some will only want to talk about the problems, there are expanding programmes that are taking place at the University of Guyana, including, very soon, online courses being offered from the University of Guyana.
I heard the Hon. Member, Ms. Hastings, remark about the Schools Feeding Programme. Let me remind this honourable House that when this Programme was started, it was funded by the World Bank and, when the funding dried up, this Government was bold enough, this Government was strong enough, to face it and to provide the moneys that were needed to ensure that that Programme continues. We are doing it today - not with donor money - with our own resources and this Budget continues to provide for that in 2014.
Apart from the Schools Feeding Programme, we are providing the text books. We are building the ICT labs across the country and, in addition to all that we have already done in education, Budget 2014 provides for a new initiative in the education sector to ensure the personal prosperity of our people. Mr. Speaker, I learned something very early. I grew up like any other person in this country, poor and humble, but my mother told me do not pay attention to what is in the refrigerator; pay attention to the bookshelf because education is your way to the future. This Government continues to provide education to the people of Guyana and what we are doing this year is providing a grant of $10,000 to every school child who is attending nursery, primary or secondary schools. One hundred and eighty-eight thousand plus children will benefit from a total allotment of $2 billion and that is what Budget 2014 has to offer.
I have heard people talk about impact. Maybe we have to have a new definition of impact because it would appear that when people get benefits from the Government, it is not impact. It is only an impact when they are starved of benefits because of budget cuts. That is how it appears.
In the area of health, we are ensuring the prosperity of our citizens. There are health huts, health centres, poly clinics, regional hospitals staffed with medics, nurses, health workers, and community health workers, and we are lifting the bar. That is why we are now building the Specialty Hospital; it is to bring specialised care and services to the people of Guyana. Where people had to travel to foreign countries, they would be able to do it here.
That is why it baffles me - and I do not really understand the rationale here - why people have a difficulty with this. Some of the same Hon. Members of this House who are having a difficulty with such a project could afford the luxury of travelling overseas to go and get their medical attention, they could afford to do it, but this Government is ensuring that the ordinary man, whether he is from Crabwood Creek, Charity, Jawalla or some part of Georgetown, could access these services right here in Guyana. If for no other reason, Budget 2014 must be supported because of these initiatives.
We are continuing and we are paying attention to what is happening in our environment. I think every Guyanese, despite of the high-rise buildings that we are seeing, the development that is taking place across the coast and in the interior, we are concerned about one thing – the way our people litter and dispose of garbage, the way our communities look. Budget 2014 was bold enough to address this issue by allocating $1 billion for a “cleanup my country” campaign. I want to take this opportunity tonight to make a call to all the faith based organisations (FBOs), the community service organisations, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the political parties to come together and ensure that Georgetown is cleaned up, every municipality is cleaned up, and every village is cleaned up, and we must do it in such a manner that we will never return to the place where we are today. Where we are is because of our own making. Collectively, we must take responsibility for that and collectively we must work to improve it and we must sustain it so that Guyana will be deemed that beautiful country we all want it to be.
As it relates to our Amerindians, I heard the Hon. Ms. Hastings refer to what the Government is doing for Amerindians. What is the Government doing for Amerindians? We cannot be myopic. We cannot always be narrow in our thinking. There is a familiar story in sacred text about a woman by the name of Hagar. When she got a child for Abraham and she was mocking Sarah and she was put out of the house and she went into the desert, there came a time when she and the child needed sustenance and she started to complain about her lot and her situation and that she had no water and the rest of it, she had a divine visitation. That visitation told her to go back home and submit, but, in that very same instance, she opened her eyes and the water was right there. The water did not come because of a miracle... [Singing Interruption]
Ms. Teixeira: Mr. Speaker, there seems to be a lot of ‘church singing’ in the House right now. Every time the Bishop gets up to speak, the Opposition seems unable to restrain themselves. I do not know if this is recognition of how important this man is. They are recognising the power of this man but it does not stoke the rest of us trying to listen to him speaking, so I will seek your intervention.
Mr. Speaker: Thank you.
Ms. Teixeira: ...especially when the former Commissioner of Police joins in signing too.
Mr. Speaker: Thank you, Ms. Teixeira. Members, let us hear the Minister. Go ahead.
Bishop Edghill: I want to make the point in this House that bitterness blinds. Bitterness blinds. Bitterness blinds. I said it three times for emphasis, Sir, because when one is bitter, what one needs for one’s own survival could be right there but one cannot see it because one is bitter. I would urge the Hon. Members of this House that we be objective. Everything is not hunky-dory; everything is not perfect, but we have enough that we can see that significant development is being made in this country.
When it comes to our senior citizens, it is a known fact that we all care about them. We want them to be better. The Government has been doing everything within its power, over the years, to ensure that there are proper allocations and support for senior citizens, including a non-contributory pension. This year, the total pension bill will be $6.6 billion and, apart from that, my Colleague, the Hon. Ganga Persaud, not so long ago, spoke about this. That is not a stand alone. That includes the water subsidy. That includes the electricity subsidy. That includes free healthcare. Budget 2014 also caters for the psychosocial needs of the elderly. In this year’s Budget, there is a provision for the opening of centres for senior citizens where their mental and physical health can be catered for. We are continuing to work with our senior citizens.
I think we have a lot of people across this country who are smiling and waiting for the implementation - and I would hope that every Member of the Opposition supports this initiative - of the Rural Enterprise Development Fund. One billion dollars has been allocated to that. This will lend to business development and, ultimately, to community development. When we talk about ensuring the collective wellbeing of our people, we ensure that our infrastructure is being repaired... [Ms. Ally: Look, your boss has come now.] We ensure... I am extremely proud to have him as my boss. I am extremely proud to have the Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh as my boss. [Dr. Singh: As am I proud to have you as [inaudible]...] Thank you very much, sir.
When we make allocations in a budget to ensure that our sea defences and our roads are taken care of, when we make allocations in our budget to ensure that $1 billion is provided for the building of hinterland roads, it is because we want to ensure the collective wellbeing of our people.
We are providing, through this Budget, support for the traditional sectors, and much has been said already about sugar. I thought about this long and hard. There was a time when sugar contributed towards the upkeep and support of other sectors in this country and I was thinking about...
I would share with this honourable House a situation that I came across. A family had not father but one of the brothers was able to make his way in life and he bought a bus and he was working that bus. From that bus, he took care of his brothers and sisters to go to school and one, in particular, made it all the way to the University of Guyana. There came a time when the bus had a problem and the engine of the bus collapsed and the brother who owned the bus, who took care of mother and other siblings, went to his mother and said, “I will like for the family to help me to get the money to buy a new bus by us using the transport to put it at the bank to get a mortgage.” It was the same brother who benefited all the way to university who, despite of the income that came from that bus, objected to the use of the transport - that same brother. There was a time when sugar was that brother with the bus and now that sugar is having a problem, look who is objecting - the same people who sugar helped to put on their feet. We have to be careful about this.
We are continuing to support the traditional sectors – sugar and rice. We are continuing to diversify the economy. It is a known fact that if one of the industries could properly get on the road that could create jobs that we are talking about in this country is the tourism sector. It is a known fact that one of the largest providers of jobs in any economy, when one looks at it, is the tourism sector. Guyana is bold enough, in this Budget, Budget 2014, to continue to lend support to the tourism sector by making a provision of $800 million for a hospitality institute. That is one of the reasons why we must support Budget 2014.
Mr. Speaker, permit me a few minutes to talk about the transformational projects that we are having in this country. While we are looking after the personal wellbeing of our citizens, we are securing our collective by these projects, whether it be the Amaila Falls Hydro Project, whether it be the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) project, whether it be the Specialty Hospital, whether it is the Marriott Hotel, whether it is the Linden to Lethem Road, whether it is the new bridge across the Demerara River, whether it is linking Guyana with Suriname with a new bridge across the Corentyne River, whether it is the One Laptop Per Family Programme and the Government’s E-Governance Programme. I heard a criticism tonight, and rightfully so, constructive criticism is good. It came from the Hon. Members Mrs. Catherine Hughes, but the act is that 30,004 families in Guyana already have a laptop that they would not have owned if it were not for this Programme – 30,004. Out of 30,004 laptops, 514 had some problems during the warrantee period and under the warrantee had to be fixed. Look at the difference.
Are we going to complain about 514 that had problems or are we going to celebrate the 30,004 that are already distributed? And while we celebrate the 30,004 I want to give hope to the people of Guyana that in this year alone another 17,000 will be distributed. That is something that we need to celebrate.
I hear a lot of talk about the Minister comes every year and say a bigger budget, but that is the fact; the Budget is a bigger budget. But do you know why I am touching on this? Because we need to know what causes a bigger budget; what drives us into having a bigger budget. You cannot have a bigger budget if you do not have more income coming in. We are doing well in revenue collections; inflation has been kept to a moderate low. And we heard it from the Hon. Minister Whittaker tonight – 0.9%. There is more disposable income; our consumption levels are remarkable; and because of the quality of the initiatives that have been put in place more money is in the hand of ordinary men and women. And Budget 2014 caters for more money in the hands of ordinary men.
Mr. Speaker, I will like to bring to your attention a press release that was issued from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Executive Board – Press Release No. 13/534, 19th December, 2013. Listen to what it says:
“During the last decade Guyana’s strong macro-economic performance has contributed to the reduction in public debt levels and sustained poverty reduction. The economy has experienced seven years of uninterrupted growth averaging about 4% annually.”
This is not the Minister saying that; it is coming from the IMF. Listen to what it says as well in the press release:
“The key pillars of macroeconomic resurgence have been sustained reforms, in particular the implementation of Value Added Tax (VAT), favourable commodity prices, significant inflows of foreign direct investment and debt relief under the heavily indebted poor countries initiative and the multilateral debt relief initiative.
Real economic activity expanded by 4.8% in 2012 on the back of a broad-based growth in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, construction and other services. The twelve month inflation rate remained low at 3.4% notwithstanding higher energy and food prices.”
So even though there was higher energy and food prices inflation rate remained low. That is the performance of our economy. This is what the press release is saying:
“The banking soundness indicators have remained strong with capital adequacy ratios well above the regulatory minimum requirement, non-performing loans between five and six percent over the last three years, and provisioning for bad loans at comfortable levels.”
We are seeing bigger budgets because we are doing better - in 2011, $161,430 billion; in 2012, $192,781; in 2013, $208,840; in 2014, $220,046,661. What are we talking about? We are not talking about robbing people from benefits; we are talking about bringing benefits to people. We must be very mindful about the achievements in 2013, and why we could have such a sound budget in 2014. The economy recorded its 8th year of consecutive growth. I am saying this slowly for the people of Guyana to understand because sometimes we come here and read fancy papers and the people do not really get it clear. So for eight years Guyana has experienced uninterrupted growth despite all that is happening around the world. When last did that happen in Guyana? I think while my colleague is conscious that his job as a Minister is doing national service he should be congratulated by the people of Guyana for managing the economy in such a way.
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member you will require an extension of 15 minutes to continue.
Mr. Hinds: Mr. Speaker, I propose that the Hon. Minister be given 15 minutes to continue his presentation.
Question put and agreed to
Bishop Edghill: Thank you very much Mr. Speaker. I want to turn to some other things. I want to deal with this whole issue of public procurement. There is a lot that is being said about this matter. As a matter of fact some people speak about the Public Procurement Commission as if it would be that divine institution to correct all the wrongs that exist in Guyana. Let me bring to your attention that for last year along eth National Procurement and Tender Administration Board processed 3,800 plus contracts. Of that number 466 were above the $15 million mark that had to go to Cabinet for no objection. Only on five occasions the Cabinet withheld it’s no objection. Only twenty-four bidders complained. And this is mainly at the regional level. Do you know what I am here to tell you, Sir? If we had a Public Procurement Commission – and we are on record of wanting a public procurement commission; the PPP/Civic administration wants a public procurement commission and we are on record of saying that.
We just simply need to ensure that the Cabinet’s right to no objection remain. Out of that 3,800 plus contracts 24 people complained. This would have been the work of the Public Procurement Commission, a high price entity, to deal with 24 complaints, which were all or if they were not resolved they would have been resolved anyhow administratively. This is the nature. Let me remind us that when it comes to public procurement bids are opened in the presence of bidders or their representatives, and the media. This is no secret thing. But we recognise that we need to strengthen public procurement because people need to have value for their money; we need to ensure there is greater confidence so we are continuing to do training; we are continuing to work with evaluators; we are continuing to work with the tender boards at the various regional levels to ensure that we have a more aggressive system.
I want to move from procurement and go to dealing with contractors. There are four things that must be highlighted when we debate this bill, because people are talking about the impact of contractors and how the works are being done. But there are four non-negotiables - contractors must have the technical competence; contractors must have the financial resources to get the job done; contractors must have the human resources including the proper engineering skills to get the job done; and contractors must have the necessary equipment to get the job done. We have to continue to work in an environment to ensure that contractors perform. When a contract is awarded whether it is for the repair of a school, the building of a road, the fixing of a health centre, the fixing of sea defences, the building of a bridge or culvert, or the expansion of a road, or the roads in the hinterland the Government has one thing in mind, and that is the people of Guyana must benefit from that award. And we want to ensure that contractors are seen as partners for national development. That is why we will continue to work with them; we will continue to encourage them. For the ones that incur cost and time overruns there are clauses in the contracts to deal with such and we will be dealing with them like we have dealt in the past.
I want to move onto two other topical issues I know from this budget that will find a lot of heat in this House and that has to do with National Communication Network Inc. (NCN) and Guyana Information News Agency (GINA). I will speak about GINA and NCN. Over the year GINA has come in for a lot criticism, but I have done the research. In Jamaica, in Fiji, in Malaysia, in the Netherlands, in Canada, in the United States, all of these places have an outfit in the kind of GINA; GINA is the Government information service; GINA’s job is to present the views, programmes and projects of the Government. It has always been so. I heard someone say that GINA is just about press releases and Government features. But all the persons who have threatened to cut GINA or to reject the appropriations for GINA must know there are 40 persons employed. If you are talking about jobs you are not supposed to be putting people out of jobs. To cut GINA and shut it down will result in thousands of Guyanese, both locally and overseas, being deprived of their constitutional right to be provided with the pertinent information with regard to Government’s programmes, policies and related to development. To cut GINA would be considered suppressing the press or curbing press freedom; GINA addresses the needs and directives of central government. The budget cut can only be interpreted as an attempt to silence government’s information arm. May I remind us that GINA’s provision comes under the office of the President. It is the President’s right to communicate to the people of Guyana and to let them know of government programme that is being attacked here.
Let me talk about NCN because we also have difficulties with some of the people talking about NCN being a public entity doing partition political work. I am advised by the General Secretary of the PPP that the PPP has an official publication which is called “The Thunder. And I am advised as well buy the General Secretary of the PPP that very soon they will be launching a radio station. So GINA and NCN operate for the Government; the PPP has its own apparatus. But it would appear that some people cannot separate Party from Government because that is the way they operated when they were in Government. When we have paramountcy of the party there was no separation between Party and Government, but the PPP/C has a Government; GINA is an outfit of the Government. The PPP/C as a party does not need to the Government to represent them. The PPP has the capacity to defend and represent themselves and have been doing so.
I will like to ask all of us that we should pay attention to the fact that we have equal access and equal opportunity. The Hon. Ms. Dawn Hastings a little while ago was asking why the children of the interior are not having access like the other children in the other regions. If the Hon. Member reads Budget 2014 she will discover that is exactly what the Government is seeking to do. We are writing the wrongs that have been there for decades. We are bringing to the people of the hinterland what they should have had decades ago. It is being done in a phased manner. Thorough the Office of the Prime Minister we ensure that our brothers and sisters in the hinterland could have electricity in their homes through the solar panels. While I was visiting Region No. 7 in one of the villages one of the ladies in the meeting said to me: “I want you to tell the President I want a bigger solar panel because I come to Georgetown and I see dem ladies get the thing spinning round hotting the food.” She wanted a solar panel that could power a microwave. And you know what, she deserves it. But development is incremental. We started small and we have to continue. Last year $500 million was allocated for Information Communication Technology (ICT) hubs, and we have an allocation again this year to ensure that ICT comes to the people of the hinterland – 100 communities will have ICT hubs. I am sure the Hon. Minister of Amerindian Affairs will deal with that.
As I begin to close up my presentation, I want to make an appeal to the Hon. Members of this House despite the chorus and the singing. I am accustomed to it. I want to make this point. Whenever we are finished acting here we have to live with our consciences. This is more than just grandstanding; this is more than just might is right; this is about having to face the people of Guyana. On the 24th when Minister Ashni Singh stood up at that podium and read this Budget he gave hope to the people of Guyana. Do not take the hope away from the people. From 24th March the people of Guyana have been dreaming. They cannot wait to hear the time has come and the vote is a big resounding yes in support of Budget 2014. Ask your supporters and they will tell you they want the education grant; ask your supporters and they will tell you they do not want to have electricity bills climb; ask your supporters and they will tell you they want to see the investment in rice; ask your supporters, they want to see the expansion in ICT; ask your supporters, they want to ensure that their facilities are adequately maintained; ask your supporters, they want to ensure schools have teachers, hospitals have doctors and they are paid. Ask the supporters and they will tell you that. I do not need to come here to tell you; you know it. And you owe it to the people of Guyana to do what is right. We owe it to the people of Guyana to do what is right.
Mr. Speaker, we are here as legislators; we are here as representatives of the people; we are here as the people who have to ultimately in this House decide on the way Guyana will go. The PPP/C has come through this Budget, the third one in this Tenth Parliament, indicating these are the things we want to do to secure the future of Guyana. A responsible Opposition is to support the things that are good, criticise it to make it stronger and better, but not to dash the hope of the people to the floor. When we are finished dashing people’s hopes we still have to go back to them and build it again. I will like to commend Budget 2014 to this House and I will like to ask that we all support it. Let us be magnanimous, let us rise to the occasion, let us do what the people of Guyana expect of us, and let us do what is right – support Budget 2014.
I thank you very much, Sir. [Applause]