Contribution to 2020 Budget debate by the Minister of Communications

Mr Vice-President, allow me to express my sincerest thanks to you for the opportunity to join this debate today on The Appropriation (Financial Year 2020) Bill, 2019. As I do so Mr Vice-President, let me also say how honoured I am to have been afforded the opportunity to return to the service of the people of Trinidad and Tobago in this capacity. In my maiden speech in this august chamber, I feel duty bound, even compelled to offer gratitude to God, to my mother who has journeyed with me over the years, and to the Prime Minister for the confidence that he has reposed in me.

Mr Vice-President, as you are aware, and indeed I am sure all my fellow Senators gathered here too, I spent a number of years serving in one of our diplomatic missions abroad. And in the interface with persons in the diaspora, one of the comments that you were certain to hear at every function, at every gathering, was that Trinbagonians don’t know how nice they have it in Trinidad and Tobago.

There are some who comment negatively about the country because that’s all they hear about, but then the conversation would turn to how much harder it is for those in the diaspora to eke out a good living, compared to how it was back home.

You see, Mr Vice President, if you find yourself unemployed abroad, make sure and find a soup kitchen somewhere, because there isn’t the neighbor, or tanty, or aghee or agha that you could visit, and you sure you will get a plate of food and a bag with something when you’re leaving. If you find yourself evicted for whatever reason, there is no uncle or nennen you could visit and you sure you will get a place to rest your head until you catch yourself.

Outside there, it’s cold and impersonal, it’s every man for himself you too would at times end up wondering why you ever left sweet, sweet, Trinidad and Tobago.

So that is why Mr Vice-President, when I listened to the Minister of Finance’s Budget presentation some weeks ago, and that of my Cabinet colleague, the Minister of Public Administration earlier, I could not help but smile to myself, because for me, it was even further evidence of this Government ensuring that the average citizen of this country could still provide for their basic needs, could still find comfort in knowing that there is a government in office who will look after persons in every strata of society, and could also reflect on how much has been accomplished with so much less.

DAY CARE CENTRES

Mr Vice-President, it was my own journey as a single woman that caused me to applaud the Minister of Finance when he announced the establishment of day care centres in communities throughout Trinidad and Tobago, so that single parents with children under the age of three will now have an additional option open to them.

The National Parenting Policy of Trinidad and Tobago[1] categorized single parents in Trinidad and Tobago as a vulnerable group. That policy cited research which found that while single parents provided a similar level of child care as coupled parents, they were at a higher risk of poverty and experienced higher levels of financial challenges and unemployment. Studies also found that children of single parents demonstrate lower levels of academic achievement, with consequent limited employment prospects.

Mr Vice-President, put simply, what these studies are saying, is that single parents, while doing their best, are in dire need of additional help.

  • No longer will single parents be denied the opportunity to return to gainful and meaningful employment because they cannot afford the cost of daycare.
  • No longer will single parents be denied the opportunity to return to school, because they do not trust to leave their children in the care of persons who are untrained and ill equipped to perform the role of caregiver.
  • No longer will single mothers be denied the luxury of self-care, because the toddler’s ever present needs always take precedence over hers.

This simple yet significant act of providing day care centres for single parents, Mr Vice-President, opens up a broad spectrum of opportunities for those who need it the most.

GAPP

Mr Vice-President, one of the critical pull factors that allowed me to more easily make the decision to return home from abroad, was the facility provided by this Government to care for the elderly, including my own mother.

Mr Vice President, I am sure all of us in this Chamber would move the highest mountain to ensure that our mothers, indeed our parents, are provided with adequate care in their winter years. Today, this Government offers such care on a 24 hour basis to the elderly through the Geriatric Adolescent Partnership Programme or GAPP.

Let’s face it, today’s world is better at understanding the emotional labour and the countless hours childcare takes from families, but there is still much work to be done on what it takes to care for the elderly and its impact on everyone’s well-being, financial and mental health.

The growth of the older population means there is a greater need for caregivers which is why the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services introduced GAPP.

For those unfamiliar with GAPP it’s an intensive short-term, intergenerational training programme that imparts knowledge and skills about elder care to young persons between 17 to 25 years old.

Trainees are actively engaged in classroom sessions and are supervised in field placements in private homes and institutional settings in the trainee’s community.

The objectives are to develop a sense of self-worth and self-discipline among young people and to help bridge the gap between young people and the elderly. This allows for more effective interaction, positive outcomes and the development of caring skills.

Essentially, GAAP fosters a sense of self-worth, discipline and national consciousness in our young people who can now interface effectively with older adults. I would know. I am benefitting from this programme and has seen the effects it has had on my mom.

There are those who might dismiss GAAP as just another make-up social work programme, there are studies which found that intergenerational care contributed and improved the quality of life for the young and the old and had lasting, positive effects on everyone.

SHELTERS FOR VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Similarly, Mr Vice President, the establishment of additional shelters for victims of domestic abuse, represents an increase in the options available for women in particular. Traditionally, women who find themselves in such unfortunate situations often have to endure the added torture of not having a secure and safe space available to them.

While that is one Government building we hope will never be utilized, we can ill afford to bury our collective heads in the proverbial sand, and pretend that the need either does not exist or that there are currently sufficient spaces, to which a victim of intimate partner violence can easily find safety.

The success of any government, Mr Vice-President, and the mark of a maturing, caring society is found in the emphasis that is placed on those who often stand on the periphery of the society, the widows and orphans and the poor and elderly. These three measures alone, the provision of day care services for single parents, care for the elderly and the establishment of safe houses for victims of domestic violence, are tangible evidence of a Government who knows and accepts its responsibility for the creation of a just and caring society.

INCREASE IN THE MINIMUM WAGE

More than that, Mr Vice-President, the increase in the minimum wage which puts an additional 400.00 dollars in the pockets of minimum wage earners every month, might appear miniscule to some of us who occupy seats either here or in the other place, but that means a whole lot to the nearly 200,000 persons who will benefit.

  • That extra 400.00 dollars could very well mean a single mother not having to work an extra shift to pay for lessons for her child preparing to write the SEA next year.
  • That extra 400.00 dollars a month combined eventually with the establishment of the day care centres for single parents could make the entire difference between someone settling into a minimum wage job with little hope of advancement, and a young bright individual breaking the cycle of poverty to which they might have grown accustomed.

That is why it never ceases to amaze me, Mr Vice-President, when I hear those of us who now find ourselves in positions to assist others, deprecate the efforts of those who seek to do.

For while we in this Senate and our colleagues in the other place, are guaranteed a meal at tea time in the dining area upstairs, we are unsure whether the persons who serve us those meals have anything to eat themselves, and therefore would rejoice at the extra 400.00 dollars at the end of the month.

Mr Vice-President I want to offer a word of caution to my friends on the opposition benches who heap scorn on this measure, we must never forget where we have come from, because all of this, as many will soon find out, all of this, is temporary.

OJT

Mr Vice-President, how many times have we heard our young graduates in particular, and our young people in general, complain that they are unable to land jobs because employers are demanding experience they simply don’t have?

In 2002 under a PNM Government that changed. Thanks to the conceptualisation and the roll-out of the On the Job Training or OJT programme, close to five thousand of our young citizens are now provided with 24 solid months of paid work experience.

But that’s not what attracted much chatter and media attention. It was the announcement by the Minister of Finance that the stipends for these trainees will be increased by 10 percent from 1st December 2019. He also announced that the programme will now be able to accommodate eight thousand (8,000) citizens, an increase of that allows just about three thousand more of our citizens to get much needed work experience.

What this means is that over a two year period, eight thousand (8,000) young people who are between the ages of 16 and 35 will gain practical work experience in both the private and public sectors.

Statistics from the Ministry of Labour and Small Enterprise Development show that OJTs are placed without discrimination, in jobs throughout the length and breadth of Trinidad and Tobago.

Moreso, the Ministry continues to work with employers to ensure there are training plans to develop these trainees who’re seeking much-needed work experience. And a plan is in train to expand the current list of employers to include a wider range of private sector and state enterprises.

This will ensure that trainees are matched as closely as possible to their qualifications and of course, this provides them with the opportunity to gain experiences which are applicable to their career path. For this reason, if no other, this is why the OJT programme is critical to Trinidad and Tobago and our changing world of work.

Mr Vice President, I heard some people criticizing the increase for OJTs on the basis that the stipends are already high and therefore the OJTs would be unable to readjust to the private sector where the salaries are much lower.

For the record Mr Vice-President, the stipends paid to OJTs are as follows:

Level 1

CXC, Craft Level Training

$2,750

Level 2

CAPE, A Level, Diploma 

$3,960

Level 3

Associate Degree

$4,950

Level 4

Undergraduate Degree

$6,875

Level 5

Postgraduate Degree

$7,920

At the lowest end therefore, the 10% increase would amount to a mere $275.00 while at the postgraduate level, the increase would amount to $792.00. I would like any member of the Opposition to tell this Chamber, where in the private sector does someone with postgraduate qualifications currently earn less than $8,000 per month, and even if they can point me in that direction, would they find that to be a just wage?

NALIS

Trinidad and Tobago’s rate of recidivism is unacceptably high and many view the prison system as a revolving door, rather than a place of rehabilitation, where the freedom that comes with restorative justice replaces the self-imposed prisons of retribution and revenge.

It is for this reason the National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS) has ensured that there are libraries in the Women’s Prison, the Maximum Security Prison, the Youth Training Centre, and the Port of Spain Prison. During this fiscal year Mr Vice-President, it is our intention to widen the scope to include a library at the Remand Yard at Golden Grove, the Eastern Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre at Santa Rosa, and the Tobago Prison. We are also going to ensure that similar facilities are available to those participating in the MILAT and MYPART programmes, so that they too can benefit from the world of opportunities that come from accessing a properly stocked library.

More than ensuring that libraries can be found in each of our penal institutions, NALIS is currently working on a plan which would ensure that sufficiently qualified and recommended inmates of these institutions be trained and employed under the OJT programme to provide library services during their period of incarceration.

Mr Vice-President, you and I have heard the horror stories of what happens to families when their loved ones, who were the previous bread winners, become incarcerated.

I want this Chamber to envisage for a minute, the possibility of someone who is incarcerated earning a monthly stipend with which they can still take care of their family. Moreover, envisage for another minute, the possibility of that incarcerated person being able to help the family of his/her victim whom they might have robbed of a bread winner as well. That, Mr Vice-President, goes to the heart of restorative justice. Mr Vice-President, I wait with baited breath for the launch of this programme.

There is already one success story where a previous inmate of the Women’s Prison, having served her sentence, is now gainfully employed through the OJT programme at one of our public libraries in the East. She is doing phenomenally well and serves as a motivational speaker at NALIS-led outreaches.

Moreover, Mr Vice-President, the current Board of NALIS, in partnership with the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, has pioneered the co-location of libraries in our newly built Community Centres. Already libraries can be found in the Mt.Hope/Mt.Lambert, Barataria and Beetham Gardens Community Centres. This represents a sterling example of what it means to do more with less. By co-locating library services in community centres, the Government is able to reach out to a much broader cross-section of the population.

NALIS proposes to expand its list of co-located libraries during this financial year to St. Helena and Princes Town, to name just two places. Additionally, we intend to complete the Mayaro Public Library which has now been redesigned to accommodate commercial space on the ground floor.

Our intention Mr Vice-President, is to establish a model whereby this library will be self-sufficient, in that the rental income derived from the commercialization of the ground floor, will be used to offset whatever recurrent expenditure required for its operations.

In the same vein, the Minister of Finance has allocated $10 million to the Chaguanas Public Library. This library is currently about 68 per cent complete and it is our intention to see how much we can do with our current resources before the mid -year review. 

The other bit of good news where our libraries are concerned, Mr Vice-President, is that the Toco Library is expected to be built during this fiscal year, and work will also commence on the long awaited Diego Martin Public Library. Mr Vice-President, the veteran journalist Walter Cronkite once said: “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” I endorse that view Mr Vice-President, and commit the Ministry of Communication to doing its part in the creation of a knowledge-based society where information is the new currency. Especially in this time when it is easy for us to build walls that exclude, based on race and colour, on gender and political affiliation, on class and educational status. It is our hope that libraries will empower our people, especially our young people, to tear down those walls.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Mr Vice-President, another significant player in the Ministry of Communications is the National Archives.

I am happy to report that the National Archives, in collaboration with the Tobago Library Services, marked the reopening of the Tobago Archives in June of this year in the Activity Center of the Scarborough Library. Following the earthquake of 1997, which destroyed the old Scarborough Library, the safety of the documents were compromised. To date, 60 per cent of the records have been restored by the National Archives and returned to Tobago.

Many of these records have also been digitized allowing for access in both Trinidad and Tobago. The Tobago Archives had been inaccessible for 22 years. Therefore, its reopening is significant to Tobagonians as research on Tobago can now be facilitated in Tobago.

Once more our sister isle has its own records, including, but not limited to:

  • records dating back to 1763, including slave records
  • colonial records related to the establishment of Tobago –  churches, villages and plantation estates
  • minutes of the Tobago House of Assembly
  • Tobago court records
  • Tobago gazettes
  • newspapers and digitized records of maps, photographs and numerous other documents of historical importance

But that’s not all the National Archives is doing. It’s ensuring that the records of Trinidad and Tobago are available online to everyone, all of whom use the archives as a primary source of information but not all of whom reside in Trinidad and Tobago.

In today’s digital age, it’s the new norm that people go online to access records and source research material. Family records generate a lot of interest; people want to find out about their roots. The East Indian Indentureship Register, the Chinese Indentureship records and Registry of Slaves continue to attract a lot of attention.

Mr Vice-President, the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago is the home to original records for most of the Ministries. It should come as no surprise that there are a number of online queries for access to archival material from Trinidad and Tobago.

Right now, all the National Archives has is a list of its records. But the public expectation is that the actual archives should be available on the website. This is why over the last fiscal the National Archives has made major strides in this area.

In fact from 2015 to present, close to one hundred and ten thousand pages have been digitized and the process continues every day to ensure the records of the National Archives are available online via its website.

ENVIRONMENTAL INITIATIVES

Another notable initiative in this year’s budget is the announcement by the Finance Minister that the Government will remove all taxes and duties on LED bulbs and accessories, to support this country’s transition to LED lighting and of course reduce our carbon footprint.

Many have thumbed their noses at this announcement and questioned the real value, but there are numerous examples which show that the use of LED leads to the utilization of less energy. For instance, the average household saves just about 25 per cent on their electricity bill when they make that switch to LED lightbulbs. Moreso, your bulbs last longer.

Studies show that LED equals sustainable technology and energy efficiency.[2]  One research which looked at the feasibility of replacing the conventional fluorescent lamp with LED lamps at a faculty building in Malaysia, found that the use of LED resulted in power reduction savings.[3]

Despite this, the prohibitive cost of embracing the LED movement cannot be ignored. Manufacturing costs are coming down and prices are falling, but by and large LED is still very out of reach for many households. This is why in many countries, great intentions have not been converted into action and high costs have prevented any real movement towards a large scale implementation of LED.

This Government understands that and is intervening by removing that hurdle. The move to take away all taxes and duties on LED bulbs and similar accessories means there is one less excuse why we shouldn’t take that sustainable step, at least via LED. And even if you can’t get on board now, there’s time to do so because this tax break will be in place for a five-year period in the first instance.

But Mr Vice-President, we’re not simply giving out LED bulbs.  In fact the LED bulb initiative is part of a larger programme designed by this Government to foster energy efficiency and energy conservation.  This programme will be backed by a comprehensive education programme to facilitate behavioral change. The programme will be a collaboration between the Ministry of Public Utilities and the Ministry of Education and will include the retrofitting of thirty (30) primary and thirty (30) secondary schools.

To ensure we do our part to leave Trinidad and Tobago a better place for the next generation, this year’s Budget Statement entitled ‘Stability, Strength and Growth’, is aligned to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with 17 Sustainable Development Goals to address urgent global challenges, to ensure economic and social progress.

The San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway, the 35-kilometre Solomon Hochoy Highway to Point Fortin project, will include the Mosquito Creek elevated roadway which is expected to bring an end to flooding in the area. This section of the highway is being protected from sea blasts and storm surges by andesite boulders. Its construction adheres to strict environmental standards through the environmental impact assessment process, in order to ensure environmental sustainability.

The Valencia to Toco Road upgrade, which is presently under construction, will bring opportunities for sustainable lifestyles for communities along the route. These communities include Valencia, Sangre Grande, Matura, Salybia, Rampanalgas, Cumana, San Souci, Toco, Grande Riviere and Matelot. Similarly, the Churchill Roosevelt Highway Extension to Manzanilla underscores sustainable development for the communities of Cumuto, Manzanilla, Sangre Grande, Mayaro and Guayaguayare.

Coastal protection work is also being undertaken in several communities to re-establish these communities as models for sustainable development.

There is a comprehensive strategy to treat with drainage and flooding throughout the country. We targeted 369 active desilting projects and have surpassed our targets for 2017 and 2018. We can see the effects of climate change on our small island developing state, greater precipitation or rainfall is one of the contributors to flooding and it is directly linked to climate change.

Rehabilitation of our Magnificent Seven heritage buildings is important to our history and culture. As Jamaican journalist, and orator said, “A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Stollmeyer’s Castle and White Hall are now resplendent. The Red House and President’s House are near completion and the refurbishing of Mille Fleurs is in progress.

Our Government considers the promotion of renewable energy alternatives very important to energy conservation through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, another effect of climate change. 

The establishment of the Toco Port and Moruga Fishing Port will also be subjected to stringent environmental measures, in keeping with our need to ensure sustainable development in Trinidad and Tobago.

The elimination of the use of styrofoam and single-use plastics is a step towards reducing this type of waste that enters our water courses, contributing to flooding.

Based on an article published in the National Geographic in December 2018:

  • 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic has been produced
  • 6.3 billion metric tonnes has become plastic waste
  • 12 percent incinerated
  • 79 percent accumulated in landfills or sloughing off to the natural environment as litter
  • 91 percent of plastic is not recycled

The UN’s theme for World Environment Day 2018 was ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. Our Government is working to ‘beat plastic pollution’ to provide a safe and healthy environment for present and future generations.

HEALTH SECTOR IMPROVEMENTS

Mr Vice-President, our health sector, which is often criticized, has seen major improvements over the last five years.

  1. 1.   The long awaited Arima Hospital is 90 per cent completed and is expected to be opened before the end of the year.
  2. 2.   The sod-turning for the Central Block of the Port of Spain General Hospital is expected to take place soon (the end of this month). The new block will be integrated with the existing hospital campus in providing comprehensive health care services. The new facility is expected to have an in-patient bed capacity of 540

 

  1. 3.   And we’ve heard the cries of the borough of Point Fortin. That hospital will be delivered and opened in the first quarter of 2020. The Point Fortin Hospital is 78 per cent complete.[4]

 

  1. 4.   The residents of Diego Martin will get a new health centre when it is opened in September 2020.

 

  1. 5.   The Sangre Grande Hospital will be completed in 2022. This will provide a campus-style experience and will be purpose-built for that part of the country. The hospital will have a helipad and will be modular which allows the hospital to adjust as needs arise. Also, for the first time in Sangre Grande, they will have a brand new MRI machine, another reason to celebrate because it means residents of this area will no longer have to be transported to Mount Hope. A sod turning ceremony for this hospital took place on 4 October 2019.

 

  1. 6.   The Linear Accelerator or LINAC facility at the St James Medical Complex has been completed and was handed over to the Ministry of Health. It’s currently in the testing phase as is mandatory but should be opened in January 2020. This service will offer more targeted treatment for some tumours, reduce waiting times and have a positive impact on patient survival, among other benefits.

 

Mr. Vice-President, it’s often said that your health is your wealth and these are just some of the achievements in the health sector from 2015 to now which demonstrate that this Government continues to invest in the well-being of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

ONE VOICE, ONE MESSAGE

Mr Vice-President, the Prime Minister has continuously spoken about the creation of a society based on proper values, on acceptable standards of behaviour, on opportunities for growth and advancement, and most significantly, on providing opportunities for persons to break the cycles of poverty, of violence, of neglect, of illiteracy, of hopelessness. I am happy to say that the Ministry of Communications, which I now have the honour to lead, is playing a leading role in this regard.

Mr Vice-President, the Ministry of Communications will not only coordinate the activities of these agencies to which I have alluded, but will also seek to fulfill its own mandate in the coming year. As you and the national population are aware, it is only recently that I was appointed to this position, and it is my intention to honour the confidence that was reposed in me by the Prime Minister.

Our mandate at the Ministry of Communications, Mr Vice-President, is to coordinate and implement Government’s communications’ strategy; manage the creation, security, storage and dissemination of all information resources, and in so doing create a more open, accessible, and transparent Government.

It is certainly my prayer that the Ministry of Communications will continue to fulfil its mandate and provide the national community with information on the Government’s achievements and programmes. And if information is to be the lifeblood of this new society, Mr Vice President we at the Ministry of Communications stand ready to do our part.

I thank you.

 




[1] National Parenting Policy of Trinidad and Tobago, Ministry of Social Development and Family Services, Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. May 2017

[2] The future of LED lighting: Greater benefit or just lower cost: Rea, Mark S.Lighting Research and Technology; London Vol. 42, Iss. 4,  (Dec 2010): 370.

[3] Malaysian Technical Universities Conference on Engineering & Technology 2012, MUCET 2012 Part 1 Electronic and Electrical Engineering Techno-economic Analysis of LED Lighting: A Case Study in Chin Kim Ganª* , Ahmad Farid Saparª, Yik Chee Muna , Kuan Eng Chong

[4] Vision 2030: Achievement Report 2018-2019 ‘Realizing Our National Vision Together’

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