Budget Speech - Edwin Reyes
This is my thirteenth address to this House in what is known as the Budget Debate and I wish to commence with sports-related matters by saying that I am a firm believer in unity, where possible, for the benefit of Gibraltar’s greater interests.
Therefore, Mr Speaker, I am glad to see that Government continues with the long existing policy to assist all local sporting bodies to overcome any foreign government’s politically inspired attempts to block our membership of international sporting bodies. The antics and shameful actions taken by our neighbours to the north are wearing even thinner as each year flies past and I hope that, slowly but surely, international sports governing bodies will judge Gibraltar’s membership applications on their own merit and not shamefully allow themselves to be coerced by our neighbour’s unjustified and often unscrupulous arguments.
In recent days we have had sporting events cancelled with only a few hours notice due to what seems are political interferences which resulted in potential visiting sportsmen having to withdraw from a much-anticipated event.
Therefore, Gibraltar’s longstanding and cross-party policy of assisting sporting associations will certainly continue to receive the Opposition’s wholehearted support and I sincerely wish sporting associations all the very best in their continuing battles to obtain their respective international memberships which are rightfully and legitimately theirs.
Mr Speaker, the GSD Opposition wishes the Gibraltar Football Association all the very best in their ongoing refurbishment and upgrading of its own national stadium. It is particularly gratifying to see the Victoria Stadium almost full to capacity whenever our national team play a home game. What is now their home venue, namely Victoria Stadium, was the location first promoted by the GSD. It seems that where there is a will there is a way and, therefore, the GSD has proved it was not wrong from the outset in choosing the Victoria Stadium as the best site for an UEFA and FIFA fully approved facility. It is indeed a far more viable and attractive option for local sports lovers to attend and patriotically support our teams who have already commenced playing their qualifying home matches for the 2021-22 season in respect of the European Champions League and Europa Conference League qualifications. I am sure this House is unanimous in wishing our still remaining team participating within the European Champions League all the best in their forthcoming return leg game. Lincoln Red Imps FC have everything to play for in their next game in order to obtain qualification onto the next stage of the International European Competition.
Mr Speaker, the forthcoming developments at Victoria Stadium should result in an improvement to football facilities in Gibraltar. However, despite this fantastic and ambitious project to be undertaken by the GFA, there is still a great need for further training facilities if our future generations are to aspire to improving their overall standards. It continues to break my heart to see so many Gibraltar-registered football teams having to go over into Spain in order to train in preparation for local and international matches. Indeed, more facilities are very much needed if we are to continue to aspire progressing beyond the qualification stages in respect of international competitions.
The GSD continues to believe that alongside the refurbished facilities which will hopefully soon be enjoyed by our football fraternity, there is still a great need for extensive training facilities in Gibraltar to cater for our ever increasing number of participants in numerous sports.
These facilities should ensure that the introduction and development of our youngsters into the world of sports, very often arising from our schools’ sports curriculum and sporting clubs’ commitments, are equally catered for. It is the duty of the Gibraltar Sports and Leisure Authority to make these facilities available for our general public at large who wish to participate in sporting activities.
The new facilities which were constructed in connection with the Island Games should have been completed 2 years ago and, beyond the Games themselves, were meant to enable Gibraltarian sports participants continue to produce as best results as possible with an increase of facilities which develops their wide-ranging sporting talents. We have heard in this House of a range of excuses as to why our new facilities are still not fully completed, but our local sporting fraternity confide in me their personal opinions that alongside the unfortunate COVID-19 Pandemic there is certain element of managerial inefficiency and bad workmanship contributing to the now 2 years delay in what was hailed as a sporting showcase of facilities. It is totally unacceptable that with the month of July now near its end the Gibraltar Cricket Association still has no availability of outdoor facilities in which to play any of its competitions. I look forward to the answer and explanations of why this facility is still not available.
We have quite often obtained results in numerous sporting disciplines which make our neighbours and sporting opponents in official competitions envious of our rather good and consistent performances. I sincerely hope that the new sports facilities, when eventually completed, will meet local requirements not only for today’s needs but for at least a generation to come.
I am sure I speak for the whole House as we offer our collective best wishes to all forthcoming participants who, through their committed efforts, will hopefully yet again make Gibraltar proud of our sporting achievements in the season which is about to commence in just a few weeks’ time and which hopefully will not be subject to further major disruptions due to international travel restrictions such as those recently experienced due to the pandemic.
Mr Speaker, unfortunately I must repeat the offer I made at our last Budget Debate, as well as the year before and the year before that.
Although I am a firm believer that individual sports governing bodies should be allowed to manage their own affairs with no external interference, I once again urge the Minister for Sports, more so in his capacity as Chairman of the Sports and Leisure Authority, to take a particular interest and where necessary appropriate action to ensure that publicly owned facilities are used in a fair manner for the benefit of all sports lovers. There is both a duty and obligation for the Sports Authority to ensure that, where desired by a club or individual citizen, membership in their relevant local governing body and use of sporting facilities are available and open to all in an equal and fair manner. Not only do we still have unresolved disputes pending for a few years but, most unfortunately, new disputes have arisen in other sports and these matters cannot be ignored. Publicly owned facilities, built and maintained with tax payer’s money, should be available for use by all citizens. If a Sports Governing Body must take some type of disciplinary action and impose sanctions upon a club or individual then it should account for its decisions to a superior local Governing Body such as the Gibraltar Sports and Leisure Authority. If an individual Association is not held to account then decisions taken, some of which at times may be seen as if they are based upon personal vendettas against individuals, could simply be judged by the community as a whole as actually being condoned and approved by higher authorities -and more so when the GSLA is the ultimate landlord of the sporting facilities being used.
I yet again offer myself to sit down and discuss with the Minister for Sports possible avenues which may be looked into in order to set up a special independent body tasked with matters pertaining to, and requiring possible arbitration, in relation to local sports issues. Some disputes have been dragging on for far too long now and I am still hopeful that by working together with all affected parties solutions can and should be found.
It is very gratifying to see that the Summer Sports programme continues to be a very popular facility which is enjoyed by a large number of youngsters during the schools’ summer holidays. This original GSD programme had small beginnings and then expanded into equally successful provisions such as the introduction of what is known as Stay and Play which caters for potential participants who for a variety of reasons cannot fully enjoy the mainstream programmes on offer.
However, the time has now come for a further review of programmes being offered and seriously consider the introduction of bespoke activities for those youngsters who have special needs which neither fit into the mainstream or the Stay and Play facilities. If we conduct a review or audit of what is currently available using the premise of “Sports for All” it could well be that other programmes need to be introduced for the future.
I wish to reaffirm my personal convictions that through the collective celebration of social events participating Gibraltarians contribute towards reinforcing our identity, culture and history as a people and a community. Both the performing and fine arts fraternities have always proved themselves to be very proactive within their own specialised areas and I take this opportunity to congratulate all the groups and individuals who have done Gibraltar extremely proud through their international participations and, in many cases, even gaining top awards. It is always a personal and collective pleasure to be able to say how proud we are of the international achievements of our fellow Gibraltarians.
During their last term in office Government purchased both the Queen’s Cinema and Queen’s Hotel sites for the development of a theatre and related activities. Government announced through its Election Manifesto that a lot of progress on the design of the new Queen’s National Theatre had been made in order to make the old Queen’s Cinema a venue for touring productions. They went on to say that now that preliminary land use designs had been finalised, they would continue to work with the committee of local drama experts to finalise the internal designs and facilities required; alongside exploring the possibility of commercial use of the theatre complex facilities.
This year’s Estimates show a token provision of £1,000 under the Improvement and Development Fund Expenditure set aside under Head 102 – Other Projects, Subhead 4 – ZZJ (Zulu, Zulu, Juliet) entitled ‘Theatre’.
Furthermore, it is now public knowledge that the Queen’s National Theatre will not see the light of day and instead a new project has been announced which will see an enlarged theatre created within the John Mackintosh Hall. This theatre will be built with funds provided for by public subscriptions and, therefore, it does not say much for Government’s personal commitment to see through their original plans pertaining to theatrical facilities which they pledged were going to be provided.
The new Theatre will replace the existing John Mackintosh Hall facilities which currently has just over 200 seating capacity and which is always in great demand for use by local schools and dance groups for their productions. It now leaves the question of where traditional users of the existing Hall will be able to stage their shows? With the refurbishment of John Mackintosh facilities we are actually not providing much needed additional facilities, it boils down to an exchange of a small facility for a much large one which will not necessarily cater for ever increasing demands of theatre facilities. The new larger Theatre might be good news for some, but it has also resulted in sad news for others like local educational schools and dance groups for whom the size was just right. I wish the traditional users of the hereto existing Mackintosh Hall facilities the best of luck in finding alternative venues which caters for their specific needs.
Local performers may often be heard to say that if we can afford £5,850,00 million for a two-day Mega Concert, plus £62,000 for a Jazz Festival with an additional £80,000 in respect of a World Music Festival, then surely our local performers, entertainers and audiences are entitled to ask for a theatre which is fit for purpose and available throughout for 365 days a year without them having to raise the funds themselves.
Mr Speaker, moving onto educational matters, I wish to start by citing once again from a passage I have used before in this Chamber. It says: “Children must be able to play, study and grow in a peaceful environment. Woe to anyone who stifles their joyful impulse to hope!”
With this in mind I cannot stress enough the need to ensure we get it absolutely right when planning and building facilities which will serve our children’s educational purposes in preparation for adult life. Much has been said in respect of Government’s recently completed projects for the re-provision and expansion of our schools. For our pupils’ benefit I sincerely hope that decisions to be taken in respect of future projects will be based above all upon feedback received from the professionals in the field – namely, from school teachers themselves. Unfortunately, the Gibraltar Teachers’ Association feel that on occasions they are ignored and not consulted on a number of educational reforms that the Department of Education had or are about to embark upon.
As both a teacher and a past president of the Gibraltar Teachers’ Association, and someone who still has educational matters extremely close to his heart, I extend a recommendation to the Minister for Education to listen and continue to work as closely as possible with classroom teachers – albeit alongside his senior management teams. Classroom teachers want to be part of any process that improves our educational system and want to be involved in meaningful consultation before final decisions are taken. Surely the way forward proposed by these professionals can only but contribute to the wellbeing and best possible future of our children. This is something which I hope we can all agree is paramount.
I would like to take this opportunity to also recommend to the Minister that in their plans for resourcing of our schools, careful consideration be given to current trends in respect of developments in schools’ curriculums.
Likewise, Mr Speaker, the GSD have raised the concept of modern apprenticeships in the past and we still believe we need to offer more in this field than we currently provide. Those pupils who do not wish to pursue an academic future need to be provided with the opportunity of a modern apprenticeship programme which, if properly structured, has the same standing as higher education. We need to create a gold standard for an apprenticeship programme so that employers have confidence in the system. The time for investment is now – not just in formal academic education heading towards entry into higher education, but also in the co-ordination of training and skills through vocational courses that carry international accreditation.
We must not forget the ultimate aim of providing education for our future generations: it is our duty to ensure all pupils always achieve their maximum potential. The school leaving age in the United Kingdom, upon which we also base our educational models, is set at 16 if students then embark upon an apprenticeship or training type of employment until at least attaining the age of 18. I believe it is high time we reviewed our local school leaving age. For a pupil to leave schooling in Gibraltar at age 15 and not embark upon an approved training programme is certainly not an investment in respect of the future employability prospects of that youngster. We are now in the third decade of the 21st century and decisive action is therefore long overdue.
Whilst desiring only all the very best in respect of whatever educational reforms may be required over the next few years, I cannot but end by reinforcing that the views of the professionals in this field must be heard and acted upon. There is no better formula for success than to cultivate a sense of ownership amongst all professionals tasked with the education of our children. Furthermore, the GSD believes that schoolteachers are a priority that is both needed and from which society will receive huge benefits. The job that they do benefits everyone. Teachers are not a group who are prone to industrial action or making a fuss about nothing, they do not crow the loudest. However, they are a key contributory factor towards the success of our future adults and their aspirations in the adult world. To all those teachers who go the extra mile I thank you on behalf of all parents for assisting and, thus, enabling our youngsters to attain even greater successes than future generations have done.
No one has been more critical of Government spending than the GSD have been over the last few years. We have advocated prudence and pointed to the dangers of uncontrolled spending. This does not, however, amount to austerity. It is about prioritising Government’s spending in areas where it is needed or where, as a society, we are going to get the greatest benefit and I firmly believe Education is one of those areas.
To round up on education matters, Mr Speaker, I would like to say that given that our schools are currently in recess during these summer months I respectfully suggest that a sensible and workable traffic plan for the drop off and collection of pupils be worked upon and put in place before the schools re-open this coming September. Many families depend on relatives, often elderly, to assist in the school runs and on behalf of the many called upon to do so I beg for a bit of common sense to prevail and thus assist in the lowering of blood pressure among those who unfortunately are already on medication for this condition.
Moving onto Housing matters, Mr Speaker, I must remind Government of their 2011 manifesto promises where they pledged that everybody on the pre-list and housing list as at December 2011 would be given a home within a four-year period. It is unacceptable that 10 years later there are still people waiting to be allocated a home – 10 years ago there was no BREXIT or Pandemic so, therefore, the electorate continues to be let down in this matter.
Government may attempt to blame all previous administrations but the reality today is that there is a need for social housing and it is the most vulnerable in Gibraltar who are suffering the worse. Most of the meetings I hold with constituents are about housing matters and I thank pressure groups like Action for Housing for the sterling work they do in making the general public aware of the desperate housing needs of so many in our community.
The rental market from private landlords is outside the reach of an average family, but when you hear the landlords’ side of the story it leads us to conclude that the present Housing Act is in urgent need of review - and this exercise should not penalise landlords when it comes to social housing for Gibraltarians.
I would welcome an update on the current sales of affordable homes inclusive of updated estimated completion dates. Many purchasers are young couples who are facing financial difficulties due to having to make monthly payments towards the purchase of their homes, which are still being built, whilst still paying rents of over £1,000 per month in many cases, until their new affordable homes are ready to be moved into. The next problem they will face in the future is the shortage in availability of Mortgage Lending Institutions as lenders will only give out loans to a certain percentage of homes within a project. Perhaps the Chief Minister in his reply can offer some advice to those who will require to take on mortgages on how best to go about securing their forthcoming mortgage needs.
We have also spoken in the past about the availability of homes for the exclusive allocation and use by senior citizens. There are already certain provisions for these within the Government Rental Homes set-up but, unfortunately, the demand still remains greater than the number of units available.
I have exchanged views with many who bought their homes some 30 years ago when the affordable homes schemes were first introduced. Those purchasers were once young and in receipt of average salaries which made their purchases possible. However, 30 years later they have now become pensioners and subsequently have less of a monthly income from their pension fund. A common concern is that the private estates in which they live requires them to pay service charges and these inevitably go up every year. The reality is that despite having paid off their mortgages these pensioners are still required to pay community charges which on a monthly basis are higher than the average rent for a government flat.
Furthermore, because they once upon a time committed themselves into purchasing their homes, they are now ineligible to apply for a home which has been purposely built for and caters for the needs of senior citizens. In recent difficult times such as the lockdown suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic our senior citizens residing in senior citizen’s homes enjoyed great support and assistance from the relevant official departments. However, those senior citizens who for years went through the financial expenses of purchasing their own homes found themselves abandoned, so to say, simply because they are residing in a non-Government owned home.
Mr Speaker, I think the time is now to put our thinking caps on and look into possible provisions for senior citizens to be able to move into purpose-built homes commensurate with their present needs. The gripe these senior citizens have is that in the past they had to sacrifice holidays and small luxuries in order to purchase their own homes and now they are being somewhat discriminated upon when compared to their contemporaries who have always benefitted from subsidised Government rental homes. I trust that the Minister for Housing and the Minister for the Elderly will be able to look into this matter and discuss current concerns directly with the representative bodies who look after the interests of our senior citizens. Where there is a will there is way, alas what there is not is too much time left for our senior citizens.
Mr Speaker, before I sit down, I must take this opportunity to once again thank you and all your staff at Parliament for the patient and professional manner in which you have all, both collectively and individually, dealt with us. I know that you personally have always led by example when dealing with Members on both sides of The House. With your leave, Mr Speaker - Sir, I would like to wish a very happy retirement to our Clerk but not before posing the important question of who will take on the task of ensuring that sufficient tea and coffee – alongside biscuits – are always in stock behind the Speaker’s Chair for hungry Members?