Muscat - Budget sets precedent for government to tackle benefits abuse

Prime Minister stands by Minister Helena Dalli's explanation on illegal works carried out on Zejtun farmhouse

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat flanked by deputy prime minister Louis Grech and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna (Photo: Chris Mangion)
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat flanked by deputy prime minister Louis Grech and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna (Photo: Chris Mangion)
Joseph Muscat hails Budget that sets precedent for administration

The budget presented last night by Finance Minister Edward Scicluna “sets precedent" for any Maltese government to tackle abuse in the social benefits system, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.

Addressing a press conference less than 24 hours after Budget 2015 was presented in parliament, Muscat – flanked by deputy PM Louis Grech and Economy Minister Edward Scicluna – said the Labour government took the “brave decision” to tackle the social issues that could be thorny.

The government yesterday announced a number of measures to curtail abuse of the benefits system, including regularization of these benefits. Persons on social benefits will have up to February 2015 to regularise their position if they are abusively receiving benefits. New claimants for social assistance for social assistance benefits, under the age of 23, will be placed on Youth Guarantee. Those who refuse to join the scheme will not receive benefits.

“We could have easily said that such measures would not be popular among the electorate. But we are pushing structural changes, even in our mentality and society’s. This budget gives us the satisfaction to see the implementation of measures and distribution of wealth result of economic growth.

“We were criticised for being pro-business but our work meant that today we were in a position to held those most in need. Indeed, there were few occasions in the recent history where governments planned on restructuring social benefits. We are breaking barriers allowing more women to join the workforce… we are increasing maternity leave.”

Muscat said the government’s main challenge was to crease more place of work and that the decreasing rate of unemployment and the increasing rate of people joining the workforce was proof of a stable economy.

Referring to the Opposition’s criticisim of a socially unjust budget, Louis Grech said he could not understand how a child supplement of €400 per child or the in-work benefit of a €1,000 per child, could be described as such.

The Budget was criticised for not having raised minimum wage, a decision, Muscat said, was one based on analysing what would have been the better solution. Arguing that he did not want to engage in “ideological battles”, Muscat said the government wanted to concentrate on what was left in people’s pockets at the end of the month.

“We tackled the costs, decreased pressures by cheaper tariffs and increased benefits to low-income families with children. Increasing minimum wage on its own would have left them in the same situation. And an increase in minimum wage would have never matched the €1,000,” he said.

Asked about those who didn’t have children – and thus excluded from any benefits – Muscat said the matter was about priorities. He said that it’s impossible to reach everyone through one measure but the plan would be to build on previous budgets.

Last year, he argued, the government targeted certain cohorts, measures were analysed and decision was taken whether to retain or remove. This year, a similar exercise would be carried out.

Grech added that a socially just society could not exist without minimum wage. “The goal should always be to create wealth and redistribute amongst the most vulnerable. We are helping the disadvantaged and I believe that, with out vision, we can generate enough wealth.”

Prime Minister stands by Helena Dalli

In reply to questions by the media, the Prime Minister said he was standing by the Equal Opportunities Minister’s position on illegal works being carried out on a Zurrieq farmhouse owned by Helena Dalli and her husband.

According to the Nationalist Opposition, illegal works on the farmhouse – which is on a property of sale agreement – are being carried out by her own company. Dalli is a 99% shareholder in PADA Builders company. Pictures showed PADA’s logo on a tractor carrying out works at the farmhouse. The farmhouse was on sale, but a final contract is yet to be signed.

Muscat however said he was taking Dalli’s word that the illegal works were not being carried out by her: “Dalli has explained that the property is not hers and the works are being carried out by the person who is buying the property.”

Muscat said the property was owned by a company, adding that “it did not result” that the works were being carried out by a company owned by Dalli.

Asked about the court’s referral of Labour MP Luciano Busuttil to the Commission of the Administration of Justice, Muscat said “one would be impressed by the names of lawyers referred to the Commission”.

He added that he would never interfere with the investigation being carried out by the Commission and that Busuttil had already given his version.

“I am always the first to say that things can always be done better,” he said when asked whether the two cases were of acceptable behaviour.

Sarcastically, Muscat said he enjoyed questions unrelated to the budget “because it showed that there was nothing to criticise about the budget”.

‘No big bang approach to public transport changeover’

Muscat appeared to be unaffected by a court injunction filed by the unsuccessful Maltese bidders over the award of the public transport concession.

The awarding of concession rights to operate Malta's public transport was delayed after a court provisionally issued a warrant of injunction prohibiting the government from signing a contract with Spanish operators Autobuses de Leon.

Asked how this would affect government’s public transport plans, Muscat that such objections were normal in the issuance of an expression of interest or a public call and thus, possible delays in the signing of the contract would have been factored in.

“This is normal practice in a democratic society and we don’t imagine otherwise. The government has until November 27 to submit its arguments,” he said.

The PM added that the government was against a “big bang approach” to the public transport service provider changeover but were more in favour of “gradually phasing in the new operator and avoid the same mistakes Arriva did”.

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