Change from the bottom up | Marie Louise Coleiro-Preca

A firm believer in the community spirit and in hearing what people have to say, Coleiro Preca’s social policy ministry keeps her close to the constituents, which may also explain her positive ratings in the MaltaToday survey.

miriam
Miriam Dalli
22 October 2013, 12:00am
Family Minister Marie Louise Coleiro Preca
Family Minister Marie Louise Coleiro Preca


A recent MaltaToday survey has confirmed her as the most popular minister of Joseph Muscat's Cabinet, but Marie Louise Coleiro Preca doesn't appear to be the least bit flattered by the results.

Sitting behind a desk overflowing with documents and paperwork, the Minister for Family and Social Solidarity almost refuses to take credit for the ratings, insisting it was all down to the efforts of the people she works with.

"It's a team effort. I am very surprised with the survey results because we do work a lot but there is much left to be done," she says, insisting that she gauges her work according to the results achieved.

"Luckily I am surrounded by people who put a lot of effort and dedication in what they do. We are working hard to develop a new social policy because we believe in such a need."

Moving aside a plate with an apple cut into pieces - untouched and covered with clingfilm - she reaches for a thick document. It's a research document on a Children's Act drafted by the Nationalist administration 13 years ago, but which never found its way to parliament.

Carried out in silence, away from the glaring eye of the cameras, the ministry has organised three consultation meetings in preparation for the Children's Act. The meetings focused on children in out-of-home care and, in three separate meetings, policymakers met with the birth parents, the children in out-of-home-care and foster carers.

"I believe in the bottom-top approach: while we do have our own researchers and academics on board to draft the policies and strategies, these cannot work without the people's input," she insists.

The end result should be a comprehensive Children's Act (incidentally, an electoral pledge), delving into issues of prevention, parental responsibility, child and family services, protection, support alternative care, obligations of service providers and so forth.

She is baffled as to why the previous administration had not carried the act to fruition: "It was well-researched and the document we found was very comprehensive. But it is now outdated. It's a pity because if it had been implemented, we would now building on it and not starting from scratch."

A firm believer of the community spirit and in hearing what people have to say, Coleiro Preca's social policy ministry keeps her close to the constituents, which may also explain her positive ratings in the MaltaToday survey.

But her ministerial work aside, for which she dedicates an average of 15 hours a day, Coleiro Preca still squeezes in time to meet her constituents (amongst others). 'Squeeze' might not be the correct word to use, given that for this she manages to dedicate between 30 to 40 hours over the weekend and an evening.

Her 'waiting list' is now at 2,500, and these exclude the 400 daily emails she receives, the 300 phone calls and even Facebook, which has become an "extended customer care service".

The minister's portfolio is worth €1.2 billion - €800 million alone is spent on pensions and social benefits. "The amount of money we are dealing with is huge and I want to strengthen our budget office. It cannot happen overnight, and it cannot happen close to Budget Day. So as soon as the budget is over, we will throw ourselves into an intensive exercise."

The plan would be to review the minister's budget allocation in detail. Two issues she dedicates a substantial amount of attention to are poverty and housing: she is almost ashamed to speak about the poverty figures in Malta, or the number of children at risk of poverty, or how long it takes for a family to dredge itself out of poverty.

Her vision involves the development of integrated services: "Take housing. We cannot go on treating social housing as if we're giving away boxes. We have to consider the people's needs: if a person is wheelchair bound, the accommodation we find must be accessible, and cater for all of her needs.

"If a person suddenly falls ill, or has an accident which completely changes her life, the first thing to do is to assign a social worker to them, who would then develop a care plan."

This, she adds, would also include community services.

Another issue is how housing is assigned: the family minister is against placing same vulnerable people and families all in the same block.

"It's like we are creating ghettos, and it defeats our purpose. We should be developing communities, where neighbours look out for each other. This is the sense of community I believe in."

In the coming days, the Labour government is expected to announce a new structure which should facilitate accessibility to housing. Applying for social accommodation is no mean feat: applicants are asked to submit a variety of documents - documents which are obtained by running from one department to another. This process alone may take up to six months, and it comes at a cost.

"But if a person is already on social benefits, the government somewhere already has all the necessary documentation. It is nonsense that people are asked to pay €80 - for some equivalent to a week's support - for information which already exists."

A centralised system would reduce this red tape. Moreover, the government was also developing a means testing system and social assessment. The plan is not to look at how much an individual earns, but to instead consider their needs.

By way of example, a man who is separated and lives alone may obtain a certain income which makes him ineligible for certain social benefits. But the minister argues that the current system does not look at the fact that this man would be paying maintenance for three children, paying his bills and buying basic necessities. Once you eliminate these costs from his monthly salary, the person would end up penniless.

"It's a chain: if this man does not have enough money to sustain himself, he'll probably stop maintenance. This would in turn increase the government's benefits to the children. If the children do not have adequate living, they'd probably fall behind at school. The situation might also cause distress to the parents, who may risk suffering mental health problems."

Coleiro Preca insists that her ministry has the responsibility to provide "proper visibility" to the sector.

"This is social science, and everything we do must be seen as part of continuous development. I hope to see this ministry one day renamed the Ministry for Social Development," she says.

Another electoral pledge is the setting up of family clinics, or as they are now being referred to, family resource centres.

The centres would be offering various services, and will seek to attract people at early stages.

"They will serve as prevention centres: if a family has started to face problems, why should it wait until things get worse? They can seek guidance at early stages."

Coleiro Preca turns to her own personal experience when she started facing the common mother-daughter fights.

"While I took the initiative to seek parenting guidance, and paid for the service, others may not be so proactive or would wish to do so but do not have the financial means. I want mothers and fathers to find the necessary and timely help."

Another issue is support for children with special needs. Some of these children may find the necessary care and help during school hours only.

"I want to involve NGOs and create social cooperatives. Why shouldn't government buy services from them? They still require financial help to carry out their services. And they are more expedite in the delivery of the services."

A hands-on minister, Coleiro Preca lived the human tragedy which saw Malta and Italy engaged in a mission to save as many asylum seekers as possible who were shipwrecked last week.

With a quivering voice, she expresses pride in the medical team and social workers who rushed to help the migrants, many of whom were separated from their families.

"We washed them, gave them food, spoke to them and offered our help. They sat there quietly and did as we told them. We made sure they all got the necessary medical attention as soon as possible."

But the tragedy did not end when they reached Malta's shores. Every day, the Maltese authorities receive pictures of the dead from Italy, pictures which are then showed to the migrants in Malta, in the hope that the victims will be identified.

Families have been separated, with parents in Malta and children in Italy. The two governments have now embarked on a plan of action to establish how to reunite the families as soon as possible.
miriam
Miriam Dalli joined MaltaToday.com.mt in 2010 and was assistant editor fr...