Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Jamale Pringle, opened Thursday’s debate on the 2022 budget, by accusing the government of not being people-focused and attempting to monopolise the agricultural sector which the administration said was among major industries that led to a 5.3 percent growth in the economy last year.
Pringle, the Member of Parliament for All Saints East and St Luke, said the $1.64 billion “election budget” did not address direct assistance for residents who have been facing hard times since the pandemic, or how the ruling administration plans to combat the high cost of living in the country.
“Consider the people for at least once,” he remarked, pointing to the scheduled yearly increase in Social Security contributions which he argued should have been postponed due to the current lack of employment opportunities in the country.
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition explained that “the government could have stepped in and asked Social Security to freeze the increase until the economy gets a little better. But, again, Mr Speaker, because there is no plan on how they’re going to solve the pension situation, they continue to squeeze the people of this country”.
Pringle said that an effort should also have been made to widen social programmes based on the number of people who are out of work.
He also lashed out at the government for failing to introduce, in the budget, ways to diversify the economy, particularly through agriculture, given the increase in industry growth.
“I am convinced that the government is out of options,” he remarked, noting that the Ministry of Agriculture and Barbuda Affairs was allocated only $17.5 million of the billion-dollar budget, while there appears to be a “hostile takeover” of the sector, which is threatening to displace farmers.
“The investments that should have been made in agriculture some years ago, you’re seeing it now and you’re seeing it at a rapid pace. You’re seeing members of parliament running to grab 50 acres there, 50 acres here, and if it’s not them, Mr Speaker, it’s somebody next to them getting a 50-acre plot. So, what we are seeing is a hostile takeover of the Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda in agriculture,” he argued.
The MP for St Mary’s South and Minister of Agriculture and Barbuda Affairs, Samantha Marshall had an opportunity to respond to the observations of the Leader of the Opposition during her contribution to the debate.
She noted that the Fisheries Department alone contributed $32 million to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2021, an increase of 2 percent from the previous year and followed two successive years of 2 percent growth in agriculture.
Additionally, she shared that the Department of Environment, through the Entrepreneurial Development Programme (EDP), has been offering low interest grants and loans to farmers, while her ministry has introduced a 25 percent reduction on water rates for farmers and has recently waived survey fees for farm lands.
“We also recently indicated that for serious farmers who are in production, but they may have had disconnection because of issues, that we were inviting them to return to APUA for arrangements for reconnection with a payment plan,” she explained.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne will be the last to debate the budget which is when he is expected to rebut Pringle’s assertions and speak about the advances of his ministry.
Other speakers for the day, however included the MP for St John’s Rural North, Tourism and Investment Minister Charles Max Fernandez who gave an overview of the accomplishments in tourism in 2021.
He also announced plans to offer 100 short term scholarships at the Antigua and Barbuda Hospitality Training Institute (ABHTI) for persons on the government’s job programme. The scholarships will begin this year and will be awarded annually.
Meanwhile, Maria Bird-Browne, the MP for St John’s Rural East and Minister for Lands and Housing, spoke of offering concessionary housing loans in several communities including Jennings.
For Barbuda, she announced further moves towards authorising freehold ownership for residents.