Finance Minister Colm Imbert yesterday defended aspects of his 2021/2022 Budget in the face of criticism from some quarters that it seemed to cater more to the interests of the business community than the most vulnerable in the society.
Indeed, while some aspects of the $52 billion budget attempted to provide relief to that sector of society, in particular the removal of VAT on basic food items, some still felt a lot more could have been done for the working class and unemployed still reeling from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In particular, with the property tax and utility rate hikes still on the cards, many were of the belief that the little Minister Imbert offered by way of tax cuts will soon be whittled away by impending measures which will again affect the cost of living in future.
While the budget was seen by some as a holding pattern budget, pending possible relief from COVID’s fallout, many felt that the measures still benefitted the upper class while continuing to reduce citizens in low-income bracket to dependency on Government handouts.
During a post-Budget forum hosted by the T&T Manufacturers’ Association, however, the Finance Minister noted that many were expecting a draconian budget. Instead, Minister Imbert said, Government, realising the stress on the economy brought on by the pandemic, took a more humane approach with combination of measures catering to both the needs of the most vulnerable while also offering stimulus to the business sector, which has been suffering in part due to the lockdown measures implemented to stave off the spread of the virus.
Minister Imbert was particularly pleased with the decision to remove VAT on basic food items and the utility card initiative which will offer rebates when electricity and water rates are increased in future. The promise of wage negotiations in the public sector may also appease the concerns of thousands of public servants who have been complaining about working on wages dating back to 2013 while the cost of living increases astronomically. Of course, the trade unions, having heard such promises before, are adopting a wait and see approach, with many promising not to let up on their current push to highlight their issues.
The issue, however, is not ever the fiscal measures announced in a budget but how quickly they are delivered, whether they are delivered at all and if they redound to the benefit of the small man and woman.
For example, Government’s removal of VAT on basic items will only succeed if the business owners pass on those benefits to customers. Ensuring this may take the proactive measure of initiating a legislative watchdog body to ensure prices in the supermarkets reflect what Government and the public expect after the VAT cuts. Such committees have been touted before but have never really materialised.
At the end of the day, however, it will still come down to whether the average citizen benefits from the swath of measures aimed at economic relief. That lies ahead but given the fact that COVID-19 and its fallout will be with us for a sustained period, we certainly hope that Government ensures that the relief measures outlined in the 2021/22 Budget truly benefit those who need them most.