The Malta Independent 5 December 2021, Sunday

Testament to a socially conscious administration

Thursday, 21 October 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Michael Falzon

Government has been bullish with social measures over the past few years, rolling out measures in annual budgets aimed at promoting social activation and participation, reducing benefit dependency and poverty, and creating a better quality of life for young and old, families with children, pensioners, vulnerable persons and persons with disability. 

The social narrative was conspicuous in each of the budgets.  But never as much as in the budget speech outlining Government's programmes for next year. Budget 2022 is fertile with a strong package of social measures and initiatives, which in terms of count and expenditure span  are without precedent.

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Social partners have commented favourably, welcoming and commending the budget,  with the GWU labelling it as socially bold.  Media commentators have similarly been positive,  describing the budget as realistic and courageous with the hallmarks of a stronger social safety net.

That has certainly been the raison d'etre of our ministry in drawing up measured proposals aimed at bolstering our social fibre and addressing social exclusion.  In doing so we took account of people's feedback and suggestions.

The lion's share of our ministry's 2022 outlay of €1.8 billion will go to fund social security benefits.  These exceed €1.2 billion which compared to what was actually spent in 2012 represent an increase of nearly €430.5 million or 55%.  Although over this period  dependency on social assistance and unemployment benefits dropped appreciably, benefits have been generously increased and others have been added to the social infrastructure.

Contributory and non-contributory pensioners have been the biggest beneficiaries, with the roll-out of enhanced rates since 2016.  Married couples and single persons in receipt of  minimum pensions were the first beneficiares in 2016 and 2017.  Over these two years their pensions increased by €8.15 weekly. In the following years they joined other classes of pensioners - retirees, widows, invalid persons and old age persons - in benefitting from across-the-board increases which with the announced rise of €5 weekly next year will add up to a total of €25.25 weekly.   The whole pension bill together with bonuses next year will shoot up to a record of more than €1 billion.

Sizeable swathes of the pensioner population will not only draw the  €5 weekly increase, but, through other measures, stand to additionally benefit from improved rates of up to €7.5 weekly.  These will be triggered through adjustments in widows' pensions and in the cost of living bonus through a roll-out of processes, over a number of years, aimed at establishing equivalence in survivors' pensions and a level playing field in the award of the cost of living bonus among all pensioners.

Another keynote measure on the agenda is the revision of the supplementary allowance payable to low-income pensioners, persons on social assistance and persons in employment who are either single or have no children under 16 years of age.   As from January the measure will trigger an increase of up to €338 to €1,098 yearly for married couples and an increase of €260 to €598 yearly for single persons.  About 29,000 persons will benefit from this measure at a cost of €5.6m. 

Furthermore, recipients of this benefit who are 80 years and older  will automatically be entitled to free medical care.

Other improvements envisaged for older persons include increases in the Senior Citizens' Grant and the Deficiency Contribution Bonus, with the top rates going up to €400 and €500 respectively.

Families with children have also been a focal point particularly for those parents in employment who partake or could partake from the In-Work Benefit scheme.   Married couples, single parents and single earner families with children under 23 years, with incomes below €26,000 or €35,000, will gain from an increase of €100 per child.  At the same, through the widening of income thresholds  married couples with incomes of up to €50,000  and single parents and single-earner households with incomes of up to €35,000 will now be entitled to a payment of €200 per child.  Besides the current recipients of the In-Work Benefit, up to 7,000 other families could benefit through the broadening of thresholds.  A sum of €12.5m has been set aside for the whole scheme next year.

Labour has an enviable track record of initiatives aimed at supporting parents in the upbringing of their children.  In addition to established family benefits, a child bonus was introduced last year to defray a family's cost at childbirth or on the adoption of a child.  Next year the bonus will increase by €100 to €400.

The allowance payable families with children suffering from a physical or mental disability will next year go up to €1,560, which is practically double to what they were entitled to in 2013.

These measures, together with others on the social agenda, are not the offerings of a spendthrift administration.  But  a tangible testament  to a socially conscious and sensible administration which truly has at heart the well-being of pensioners, the aged, the vulnerable and families.

Crucially, actions speak louder than words.

 

Michael Falzon is Minister for Social Justice, and Solidarity, The Family and Children's Rights

 


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