Gov’t providing $126m to help J’cans in need during weekend lockdowns

Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke yesterday said the Government will be providing aggregate spending of $126 million to central and local government representatives to assist constituents during the three consecutive weekends of lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic.

According to Dr Clarke, the evolving nature of the coronavirus public health dynamics could have a significant impact on budgetary outcomes, and with uncertainties still existing, Sunday’s announcement by Prime Minister Andrew Holness of the new measures to contain the spread was a fulfilment of the reality.

“In light of the programmed triple-weekend lockdown, the Government of Jamaica will provide $2 million per constituency to support citizens requiring assistance across the lockdown periods,” he told the House of Representatives as he closed the 2021/22 budget debate.

He explained that the provisions will be disbursed to the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) on April 1 for further distribution, as the uncertainties continue to increase the risks in the budgeting and fiscal forecasting process, and where prudence is required.

Clarke also accused Opposition Leader Mark Golding and his finance spokesman Julian Robinson of producing inaccurate data and false assertions in their budget presentations, adding that, in the interest of public discourse, he needed to address them.

He said much of Robinson’s thesis was grounded in “proverbially inaccurate and factually wrong” claims about Jamaica’s fiscal spend in response to the pandemic.

He began by tackling what he said were errors which originated in an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report, and which were reproduced by Robinson in his contribution to the debate. They included the issue of Government’s financing of the health ministry’s response to the pandemic, including the compassionate grants.

“As I go through what the report mistakenly contained, I invite you to make your own minds up as to whether the Opposition spokesman shouldn’t have picked this up himself as he read the page that summarised Jamaica’s fiscal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly considering all of the supplementary budgets and the statements in this House and the information in the public domain,” Clarke argued.

He accused Robinson of referencing a report on the Government’s fiscal allocation for the health sector which should have “set off alarm bells” in the Opposition spokesman’s mind that the information was incorrect.

“Isn’t it general knowledge that Jamaica allocated billions of dollars for the health sector: A response across the last supplementary budget of 2019/20 and three supplementary budgets in 2020/21? Yet, the Opposition spokesman used a report that underestimated Jamaica’s health response by at least $8 billion,” he told the House.

“In fairness, the Opposition spokesman did not compare health expenditures. However, the gross omission of Jamaica’s health expenditure in the same table he referenced should have exposed the possibility that the table may have had other omissions and other errors,” Dr Clarke said.

He pointed to the Compassionate Grant which was paid out to close to 400,000 Jamaicans, saying that Robinson used figures that stated that the grant was $150 million when, in fact, it was closer to $4 billion.

“Isn’t it general knowledge that a $1.2-billion back-to-school grant was provided to PATH (Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education) households? The Opposition spokesman used a table from a report that, in another obvious error, failed to include the PATH Back-to-School Grant, provided in August 2020,” he noted.

He said the table Robinson used also under-reported the $1-billion in productivity incentives to farmers, erroneously reporting it as $200 million and did not include the $1.85-billion in support to PATH and non-PATH families for the provision of laptops.

“The table the Opposition spokesman used underestimated the fiscal support in the SET Cash and BEST Cash grants by $3 billion. The table the Opposition spokesman used did not include the $189 million to the CDF, the $140 million to the municipalities, or the $40 million for the disabled community. And the list of omissions goes on and on,” he said.

“As he presented, I was perplexed. Why isn’t the Opposition spokesman not seeing that he is relying on faulty information? The very next day after his presentation, Friday, March 12, I wrote to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC and, to their credit, they quickly appointed a team to investigate, and by Monday they acknowledged the errors in a letter to me,” he said.

Clarke also responded to Robinson’s statement on increased food prices, noting that inflation had remained low and stable throughout the period.

“Let’s be clear, inflation exists. Prices increase. That is one of the properties of almost all economies. Our policy intent is, through the conduct of monetary policy by the central bank, and with the role of competition, the movement in the general level of prices will be low single-digits on an annual basis,” he said.

“This policy has been working. Inflation has been low, stable, and predictable for the past five years. When you compare that with our history, it is a remarkable turnaround that this House and both Government and Opposition can be proud of. It is only in the last six years that we have consistently had inflation less than, equal to, or slightly above five per cent per annum. Our young people need to be familiar with this history,” the minister insisted.

Turning to Golding’s reference to the social validity of the Bank of Jamaica’s (BOJ) $33-million windfall which has been assigned to assisting the new programme of physical infrastructure and helping to finance the economic recovery process in other ways, Clarke said the Opposition leader was trying to “insinuate with an erroneous calculation”, that the structural make up of BOJ’s operating income had not changed”.

“What has changed is good policy policy that supported a modernisation effort that allows for operating income to be profitability earned. What is different is that after expenses are deducted from consolidated operating earnings, BOJ has been profitable and is in a position to make a substantial and historical dividend payment,” he said.

The budget was approved by the House of Representatives after the minister ended his final contribution to the debate.

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