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Opinion & Analysis

Cuts in ‘abuse and waste’, admission of past wrongful public spending

By Robert Vasquez
There are signs that public spending cuts are being made, despite the promise of no austerity. These cuts arrive with the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo’s confession that the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated our economy. Based on his May Day message, one is led to believe that any public spending cuts will be made to stop ‘abuse and waste’, and will not amount to his idea of what austerity is. But is that the case, and is there any difference? The definition of ‘austerity’ shows that there is no difference.

Furthermore, if indeed that spending of public monies, which the GSLP-Liberal Government is now pledging to cut, was ‘abuse and waste’, why were those cuts not made earlier, as is the obligation for ‘peace, order and good’ government? Earlier cuts would have been in line with the obligation to govern Gibraltar efficiently. In those circumstances, this year’s May Day message by the Chief Minister amounts to a confession of bad government, and the existence of ‘waste and abuse’ in public finances.

Let us examine what these cuts in public expenditure are so far, in no order of importance we have already had the following.

[1] Community Care Officers, which allow for those between the ages of 60 and 65 to receive Community Care payments, have been reduced. The reality is that Community Care is hugely influenced by and is virtually entirely funded by government, so the effect is that it filters through as a public spending cut. It may be that this measure was taken prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but that only goes to show that cuts were necessary even before that ‘economic devastation’.

Community Care may further justify the move on the grounds that those who have been excluded were in receipt of huge pensions, so it is cutting out an ‘abuse and waste’. Agreed if that is so, then, why was the saving not made earlier? Why was that ‘abuse and waste’ allowed to go on for so long?

[2] The attempts of the GSLP-Liberal Government to downgrade civil service posts by not promoting public servants into vacancies as and when they arise have been in the news. Again, is that cutting ‘waste and abuse’? Based on the Chief Minister’s May Day message it would seem to be a measure to cut ‘abuse and waste’, as those words are defined by the Chief Minister, in which case why has the cost been permitted for so long? If, on the other hand, it is an austerity measure, then the message is not accurate.

[3] Yet Again, one hears that the Government has imposed substantial limitations on overtime in the public service, involving both direct and indirect employees. Indirect employees include those in government agencies and companies owned by government, as in the end all these are funded by public funds.

Once more, based on the Chief Minister’s May Day message, these overtime restrictions amount to cutting out ‘abuse and waste’ and, according to him, are not an austerity measure. One wonders how the affected workers feel about the description of this cost as ‘abuse and waste’. Surely the overtime must have been necessary, as otherwise why did it arise? If it was not, what does that say about the responsibility of all governments to govern well?

[4] It is said that there has been a failure to pay Borders and Coastguards Officers ‘time in lieu’ in accordance with their contracts. Surely, if so, this is not only wrong, but not one that cuts ‘abuse and waste’. What is contractually due and payable cannot be ‘abuse and waste’, unless the Government agree and admit that entering the contractual arrangement was itself an ‘abuse and waste’.

[5] There are also indications that there are serious employment issues in the environment department. It seems that staff are overworked and now expected to deal with their obligations without overtime. Was this overtime in the past an ‘abuse and waste’, as the Chief Minister’s May Day message would suggest, or is this an austerity measure, in the sense indicated by the Chief Minister, which his message says will not be taken against workers?

[6] Finally (for now), there is a buzz that government housing works, and repairs have stopped, except for emergency situations. Additionally, there is talk of less efficiency and speed in the provision of most public services. Again, is this a cut of ‘waste and abuse’? Surely not, as otherwise it would be an admission that such ‘waste and abuse’ has been going on for decades. Then it must be an austerity measure, as meant by the Chief Minister, which, once again, Mr Picardo promised would not be taken against workers.

So, it all begs the question, where are we? It would seem we are in a fantasy world created by the mouth of the GSLP-Liberals, with ever increasing spin. It is a world that is built to suit the message that the current Government wants to sell to the listener or particular groups of listeners at specific times, but one that creates a world that is divorced from reality.

The spin is that the GSLP-Liberals will not introduce ‘austerity’ to pay for Government costs and expenditure. The Oxford Dictionary definition of austerity is “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce expenditure”. That definition includes expenditure reductions that eliminate ‘waste and abuse’, so even at that level accuracy goes by the board.

Surely the GSD should, at least, be pointing out this GSLP-Liberal distraction from the truth? The sadness is that our GSD Opposition do not make the news or any headway on most fronts. That being so, our democracy and the ‘peace, order and good government’ of Gibraltar suffer.

One excuse could be that the way our Parliament is structured is contrary to well respected and regarded constitutional theory about how democratic systems should be and work, so no Opposition can function, to any real effect, to put bad executive government right. Yes, but the GSD is historically at fault for that. It promised parliamentary reforms to reduce this systemic lack of democratic rights and balancing measures. The GSD failed to deliver on that promise throughout its 16 years in government.

The GSD is now the victim of this breach of manifesto promise, but overall, the casualties are all of us constituents, as, right now, there is no alternative to the government being provided by the GSLP-Liberals. That seems to be so, whatever their failings may be, and whatever cuts to ‘waste and abuse’ they may make, or any ‘austerity’, as defined by them, they may impose, especially as no alternative to government can promise different, if there is no money.

The damage to public finances, which have been overstretched for decades, may be coming to a head due to the economic devastation aggravated by the pandemic. The reality is that Gibraltar’s ability to defend against that damage has been massively undermined by past public over-expenditure, over-borrowing, and financial mismanagement, with no regard to ‘waste and abuse’ or corruption. Gibraltar deserves to be governed with honesty, truth, and accuracy, yet it gets and has got neither from the GSLP-Liberals or the past GSD administration.

Sadly, under the present constitutional and electoral systems, change is discouraged and is made difficult for voters, which leads to a continuation of the maladministration we have. One hope is that circumstances will force the Government to stop the spin and admit that public spending cuts are inevitable and will affect all, but more so, unfortunately, and as usual, the less well off. This austerity has started and will grow.

The huge recurrent public expenditure and borrowings, now including the £500 million guaranteed by the UK, must be serviced somehow. These can only be paid by each of us, either directly or through cuts, the best of which cuts are those that eliminate ‘waste and abuse’, but these will not be enough.

In Gibraltar’s political world of smoke and mirrors, the effects of our ‘devastated’ economy on public finances will be hidden, over the short term, by whatever political spin the GSLP-Liberals may spread, but the damage to Gibraltar will be there. The cost will be felt most in the setting of Spain’s sovereignty claim, and any arrangements precipitated by Brexit.

Robert Vasquez, QC, is a barrister. He stood as an independent candidate at the last general election on a platform of democratic reform.

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