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Government Should Commit to Reform of Parliament

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It is incomprehensible that a Government that used to say before the election that the Parliament should be reformed should now attempt to pretend that Parliament works well in independently scrutinising the Government. If it believes in reform it should get on with taking the steps necessary to change the working practices of Parliament in the interests of the public and accountability of their decision-making.

Leader of the Opposition Keith Azopardi said: “Trying to justify what is going on by counting the number of times the Parliament has come together last year and comparing it to what used to happen before 2011 is to put a cloak over the truth. In fact, some of those times the Parliament has come together to simply adjourn sessions for 5 minutes or to take Ministerial statements or legislation only but no questions. We can all play the game of comparisons with the past but I thought Mr Picardo did not want to be compared to the GSLP of the 1990s? He said he would do things differently. He knows I have been campaigning to reform of Parliament for longer than he has been GSLP Leader. It doesn’t help him to pretend otherwise or twist the facts.

How does Parliament work when Ministers have not answered questions in Parliament for 5 months? How does Parliament work when Ministers cannot be probed on issues of public importance? The Government is avoiding the accountability of questions from Opposition members and instead sometimes chooses to put out answers by press release which then overtake Parliamentary questions and avoids scrutiny.

The Government knows that we have made significant allowances for the BREXIT and COVID issues. But until mid-December COVID was largely under control and neither that nor Brexit can constantly be used as a shield against accountability. People want to see the Government answer questions in Parliament. If laws are passed without proper scrutiny they can detrimentally affect people’s lives. If the Government think that they are helping their cause by issuing that type of reply they are sadly mistaken. Their attempt to defend themselves by referring to the recent deaths of COVID victims in the same press release is disgraceful.”

It is a fact that in the Unlock the Rock Document the Government said that the Select Committees on various issues would meet after May last year and have not yet done so. They haven’t met since the election in fact. The assertion that the Opposition is somehow taking a lazy approach to Bills is simply false. The Opposition never knows which Bills the Parliament is actually taking on the day. Imagine being asked to attend a meeting and not knowing what subject will actually come up. Under the constitution a Bill cannot be taken before 6 weeks have passed from the date of publication. This is to allow the public to be aware of proposed legislation and allow proper scrutiny. If a Bill is urgent the Chief Minister can certify it as urgent and a Bill can be taken earlier. We have no issue with this practice but there are times that we do not even know that a Bill has been certified as urgent. Recently the Parliament considered the Competition Bill which was over 350 pages with the Opposition only being told on the day that the Bill would be certified urgent. When the Government rams legislation through in that way it does not lead to proper scrutiny of important measures affecting members of the public. That then leads to bad decisions affecting people’s lives.

Laya Comments Unacceptable

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Spain cannot decide who enters Gibraltar and there should not be Spanish officers exercising jurisdiction or control in Gibraltar.
The comments by Spanish Foreign Minister to El Pais as to Spain exercising such powers under the political agreement announced on New Years Eve would be unacceptable if true.

The GSD has not seen the political agreement entered into on 31 December and we make allowances that the Spanish Foreign Minister may be giving issues a gloss for her domestic audience but the Government needs to make clear what it has been prepared to agree.

This once again raises the issue of the need for greater knowledge of the details and the uncertainty that may make the period until a final legally binding Treaty emerges. For the public to be drip fed information over the next 6 months at a time and of a nature of Spain’s choosing will be counterproductive.

Ms Laya has also again emphasized the bilateral nature of the agreements between the UK and Spain. Again this would be unacceptable and was not the understanding the Opposition were being given that this part of the process was trilateral in nature.

 GSD welcomes Wizz Air flights but seeks information

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The GSD shadow Minister for Tourism, Damon Bossino, welcomed the commencement of the twice weekly Luton to Gibraltar route by Wizz Air.

“The inaugural flight on Friday evening of the Wizz Air Airbus A320 was a welcome sight, particularly in circumstances where the aviation industry has suffered a huge blow as a result of the pandemic. Gibraltar relies significantly on aviation links with the UK for tourism, financial services and the business sector generally. The air bridge is also a life-line for our students in further education and those individuals who need to use health services outside of Gibraltar and Spain.” said Mr Bossino.

Mr Bossino has sought clarification from the Government, by way of a Parliamentary question, as to whether it has provided any financial incentives in order to secure the flights to Gibraltar and awaits a reply.

 

More Needs to Be Done on Rights of Moroccan Gibraltarians

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The implication by the GSLP/Liberal Government that the advancement of rights of our Moroccan Gibraltarians or citizens of Moroccan extraction would not have been possible under a GSD Government is both false and a complete rewriting of history.

Moroccan citizens had complained about the discrimination and lack of rights they suffered under Sir Joe Bossano’s GSLP government – long before the GSD was elected to government. It was under the GSLP that they conducted 24-hour vigils outside No. 6 Convent Place for many months complaining about those issues.

Leader of the Opposition Keith Azopardi said: “The Government says it dealt with “historical injustices” it inherited in 2011. When the GSD were elected in 1996, those “historical injustices” were addressed and led to the end of the 24-hour vigil in recognition of the measures that were being taken. The late Dr. Bernard Linares was instrumental in addressing many of these issues and worked closely with the Moroccan Workers Association at the time. I know Bernard felt this was some of the work he was proudest of – especially in the field of education, children and family rights.

The fact that the GSLP Government dealt with a backlog of citizenship applications on being elected is welcome but it is not a magic fix to all issues. The cause of ensuring that our citizens of Moroccan extraction are dealt with equally is also not helped by presenting a false set of historical facts.

Much more needs to be done to break down the historic barriers of discrimination and inequality in our community. A GBC Viewpoint programme earlier in the year brought to the fore the squalid living conditions some of our citizens face feeling compelled to rent in the private sector. The inequality of access to housing opportunities is also historic and spans many administrations. A much more radical approach to this issue needs to be taken. Improvements have been made, but so much more remains to be done and it is important to acknowledge it and ensure there is a systematic programme and culture throughout the delivery of services to ensure equality, non-discrimination and the improvement of social conditions for all our citizens.”

 

GSD meets hotel industry

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In its continuing efforts to reach out to various interest groups, Damon Bossino, GSD Opposition spokesman for Tourism recently met with the chairman of the Hotel Association, Mr Franco Ostuni. The meeting took place at the Holiday Inn Express giving Mr Ostuni the opportunity to show Mr Bossino around the hotel and various of its facilities.

“I found the visit and the conversation with Mr Ostuni very informative, as usual. This has given the party an opportunity to hear, at first hand, the Association’s plans for the future which has become all the more relevant in what we hope will be a new post Covid world.” said Damon Bossino.

 

Self-Isolation of 244 Pupils and Staff Highlights Remote Learning Deficiency

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The news that 244 pupils and staff have gone into self-isolation at Notre Dame school as a result of 6 COVID positive cases once again highlight the need for a strong remote learning programme at local schools.

We have been making this point for months and since April 2020. The Government has now had enough time to resolve this. There is no reason why children in self-isolation who are well enough could not join live online classes streamed from the schools to their houses. That is being done worldwide by many countries as a response to COVID to ensure students keep up with their education. This is especially relevant the older children are.

In April 2020 we called for “remote structured learning” for pupils during lockdown. While we understand that the pandemic had initially caught Governments by surprise there has now been ample time to plan online equivalent learning in the event of a closure or partial closure of a school or a need for large numbers of pupils to go into self- isolation.

Until a return to greater normality it is obvious there may be more pupils testing positive and cases of necessary self- isolation of teachers, pupils and close family of pupils. All of that will affect the traditional delivery of teaching.

Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi said: “Many countries are providing forms of remote learning and especially at this time. Gibraltar needs to do the same and where students are unable to attend class they should do so remotely or be able to access a comprehensive and equivalent online learning platform. To do less short-changes pupils and can affect their education and future. While every other country has made big advances in remote learning during this time we continue to lag behind. How many incidents of this type will we need to see before the Government acts?”

Shadow Education Minister, Edwin Reyes said: “These are challenging times for education and educationalists and parents must work together to ensure our future generations do not miss out. These issues require radical solutions so that our pupils are not affected. The Government should act now to provide direct access to equivalent education to pupils self-isolating.”

Daniel Feetham Image

GSD asks Government to deal with Disability Benefit Backlog Prior to Christmas

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“Tomorrow is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and there is still much to do for disabled people” said GSD MP Daniel Feetham. “The system of disability benefit is, quite frankly, in a shambles and it is causing genuine hardship to disabled people. It needs to be sorted out as a matter of urgency”.

“Over the last year I have received more complaints about this than on housing” said the GSD MP, referring to another common and pressing social need highlighted by the party.

“There are applicants who have filed applications for disability benefit nearly two years ago and these have still not been determined. That is unacceptable.”

The GSD understand that the reason for those inexcusable delays is that the Medical Panels that advise the Director of Social Security as to whether the Director should grant the benefit have not met for many months allegedly due to the fact that their anonymity was being challenged by some applicants. This is simply not a credible excuse for these unreasonable delays.

We entirely understand that the current Minister with responsibility for Social Security, Minister Balban, has inherited the issue and he has assured us that the panels have again been meeting over the last week or so to deal with backlogs but it should never have got to this stage. People deserve better and we hope that all applications are determined before Christmas, a time often associated with increased financial demands on families.

“On a more positive note” said Mr Feetham “we look forward to the review that we were promised in parliament which we hope will include improvements to the legislation and other issues affecting disabled people such as sheltered employment. We do recognise that much had been done for disabled people over the last decade, but the work needs to continue to ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy enhanced opportunities and the best possible quality of life.”

To that end, earlier this year, it will be recalled the party filed a motion in Parliament calling on the Government to review the law and administrative practice relating to the grant of disability benefit. In that debate we pointed out that there was a lack of clarity and transparency in how the system was administered. The qualifying criteria is not, for example, published anywhere and is inconsistently applied from one applicant to the next.

We made five key proposals which included placing the qualifying criteria on a statutory footing with published criteria to which people could refer, making the process more transparent and fair. We also argued that no deductions should be made to payments of disability benefit simply because a disabled person works as such an individual may have expenses such as the kitting out of vehicles to cater for their disabilities and may suffer from life time disabilities in the labour market, additional to an abled bodied person.

The Government assured us that a review was already ongoing and we were glad to see that an amended motion committing both sides of the House to work together on

this important issue was passed unanimously by parliament. We hope that over the next few months we see the fruits of that review but the starting point has got to be dealing with the backlog in disability benefit applications in time for Christmas.

Minister admits abandoning Manifesto Pledge on BID matching

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The Government has finally admitted that it has abandoned its unequivocal manifesto pledge to match £ for £ and has instead capped its BID contribution at £250,000 per annum.

Roy Clinton the GSD Shadow Minster for Public Finance and Small Business stated:

“It is remarkable that the Minister for Business did not see it fit to tell the business community during the BID presentation in September 2020, at which he was present, that in his mind the Government’s contribution was always to be capped at £250,000 per annum. It is evident from the GBC report and interviews that not only was the BID district already defined at that time to include side streets, but that the BID levy was £400,000 which the Government was expected to match “doubling your investment” according to the presentation slides. It is obvious from the interviews with business people that they believed that the Government would be matching the £400,000 on an annual basis. In a Government press release on the day Minister Daryanani said that “The Government is financially committed to supporting this project on a pound for pound basis….I would like to reassure everyone that the Government fully supports the Main Street BID, especially during these tough times.” He said that while standing in front of a backdrop that clearly indicated that HM Government of Gibraltar would be making pound for pound matched funding. It is also remarkable that in Parliament in July 2020 the Minister maintained that he was 100% committed to pound for pound assistance.

The Minister has in now watering down the Government’s commitment betrayed the business community and undermined the idea that the BID was a shoulder to shoulder partnership effort. This was presented and is an important project to regenerate the retail hub of the city centre. His lame attempt at justification for abandoning the commitment by focusing on the leisure, hospitality and retails sectors is just a simple red herring as the fact that the project extended to the side streets and not just Main Street was known in September when he attended the presentation. He also risks alienating those office businesses outside these sectors which he still expects to cough up half of the voluntary levy. It would be more honest for the Government to simply say it can no longer afford its original commitment or that it is unwilling to invest in the city centre as it said it would. Frankly though this is a short-sighted policy as this is the kind of project we should get behind so we are well-placed when we emerge from the COVID pandemic.

I look forward to debating the forthcoming BID Bill in Parliament especially as regards who exactly is entitled to vote in this process and who is exempt from the levy.”

Ends

Notes to Editors GBC Report of 3 September 2020 can be found at

https://www.gbc.gi/news/business-owners-launch-plan-invigorating-main-street-surrounding-area-government-support-hope-raise- Government Supports Launch of Business Plan for Main Street Business Improvement District – 595/2020 (gibraltar.gov.gi)

Government Abandons Pledge to Match BID Scheme Funding?

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Government Abandons Pledge to Match BID Scheme Funding?

The Government has apparently abandoned its manifesto pledge to match £ for £ the business sector’s investment in a Business Improvement District (BID) according to the latest BID business plans seen by the GSD.

Roy Clinton the GSD Shadow Minster for Public Finance and Small Business stated:

“It is evident that the Minister for Business is now only providing 50 p in the £ and not matching as he stated in Parliament as recently as July 2020. This can be seen from the latest BID business plan as compared to that presented in September 2020 to GBC.

This row back is becoming a hallmark of his Ministry whereby money is wasted on the Line Wall Road Scheme, the people are taxed with Postal Parcel handling fees and now Government investment in the BID scheme is cut by 50%. Given the uncertainties facing the business sector it is disappointing to see the Government reducing its support for the BID scheme at this time.

I look forward to a ‘clarification’ from the Government.

Mental health report discloses a staggering lack of Government direction in respect of mental health provision

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The GSD notes the publication of the Mental Health Situational Analysis Report made available to the Government by Public Health England back in April 2019.

Whilst we thank the Government for finally publishing a report which they have sat on for 19 months and shockingly had in their possession 7 months prior to the General Election, serious questions now remain as to why it has taken the Government 19 months to make available a report that they commissioned on mental health provision and critically why they have delayed in the implementation of the recommendations contained therein.

Very serious shortcomings have been identified by the Public Health England report. Rightly our community is asking what has the Government being doing from April 2019 to the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to implement the PHE’s recommendations so as to improve mental health provision in Gibraltar?

It will be recalled that no longer than a few months ago the former Minister for Health Mr Balban appeared in an uncomfortable GBC interview in which it was apparent that the Former Minister has not fully digested the contents of the report. During the General Election campaign, it will be recalled that the GSD committed to the full integration of the mental health system, a corner stone recommendation of the PHE report. It is remarkable that the GSLP/Liberal Alliance failed entirely to commit in their manifesto to the implementation of the recommendations that were in the Government’s hands 7 months prior to going to the polls.

Amongst a catalogue of shortcoming identified by Public Health England, it is clear that the main thrust of the PHE report focuses on the complete absence of Government direction namely:

  1. (1)  No overarching Government policy or action plan in place to guide the development of the mental health system in Gibraltar (Findings Section 1 Page 4)
  2. (2)  ..A lack of integration across the mental health system […] which in part reflects a lack of a coordinated national plan to improve and support mental health (Findings Section 1 Page 4)
  3. (3)  No national policy for suicide prevention (ibid)
  4. (4)  No formal mental health budget could be identified (ibid).
  5. (5)  A lack of coherent leadership across the mental health services supporting coordination(Findings Section 1 Page 5)

Shadow Minister for Health Elliott Phillips MP said:

“Whilst I thank the Minister for disclosing the report so that we can finally accept where we are going wrong and where we need to be in relation to mental health provision, the failure to set out in full detail the recommendations which the Government accepts, rejects or has already implemented is a shocking indictment on the Government’s handling of mental health provision and the importance it places on mental health in our community.

This report is a public embarrassment in relation to the Government’s management of one of most important areas of healthcare within our community and our people deserve a full explanation as to the lack of action. It is simply inexcusable to publish a 19 month old report only to say that we are putting together “a road map for implementation and a plan” together with conducting an “anonymous public survey on mental health provision”, surely all of this could have been done last year with a roll out of measures to improve mental health services in our community.