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Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves. (File photo)

ST. VINCENT (Jan. 13):- Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has given some insights into the 2011 budget, saying that the international airport under construction at Argyle “is the big capital project which we will be continuing. And we have resources there in the budget for it”.

He said that consultations with various sectors of the economy and citizens generally have provided useful insights as his government prepares the 2011 budget.

The government has held consultations with the private sector, including banks, insurance companies, retail traders, and manufacturers, farmers and fisher folk, and public sector unions, Gonsalves said.

Thursday night, Jan. 13, was the turn of the general population as Gonsalves held a 90-minute radio consultation.

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“The consultations thus far have been very good. As always, we get a lot of good suggestions, particularly from the farmers and the fisher folk. They have a lot of practical things which they talk to you about. And, of course, the business community, they [are] always incisive and the Teachers Union, they made some useful suggestions,” Gonsalves said.

In addition to the airport, the Prime Minister, said there are “a lot of resources in health, in agriculture, particularly agricultural diversification; we are putting more money into road repairs, including village roads and feeder roads”.

Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party (ULP) government, which won a third consecutive term in office when it clinched the Dec. 13 elections by one seat, said that his government will continue  “Operation Recovery and Reconstruction”, the rubric under which the country is being rebuilt after Hurricane Tomas last Oct.

He said forest restoration will cost $30 million even as the World Bank was helping to evaluate the cost of river and coast defences, “which is a big price tag”.

Gonsalves further said the one laptop per student programme “is a big one this year and you will hear more from the Ministry of Education on that” even as he said Venezuela has completed another 13,000 of the units and was awaiting a vessel to ship them to St. Vincent.

“We are seeking to do a number of things, the little area of sports and culture, community facilities, the learning resource centres and the like,” Gonsalves said.

He further noted that his government has already kept the campaign promise of increasing public assistance payments by 25 per cent as of this month even as he explained the one-week delay in the payment.

“…though the party was elected on putting on the $40 and the $45, that now has to be done through a Cabinet decision…. I had to wait until in the New Year, and last Friday, the Cabinet decision was formalized to that the instruction would come out for the agencies of government to make the payments,” Gonsalves said.

“You know that I honestly and sincerely believe that once your poor brother is in the gates, as the book of Deuteronomy puts it, you are duty-bound to lend a helping hand you are blessed … and everything you put your hand onto is blessed,” the Prime Minister said.

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Public allowance recipients under 65 years have seen their monthly payments increased to $200, up from $160 while those over 65 have moved from $175 to $220.

Transportation grants for economically disadvantaged students have been increased from $80 to $100 while those who got $100 now get $120 each month.

Further, foster parents now receive $275 per month for each ward, a $50 increase.

“Well you and I know that $225 a month can’t really properly compensate for keeping a child. That is why I say they (foster parents) are angels. So, I had to find an extra $50 to put on the $225 to give them to carry to $275. I would have wished if I could have carried it a little more, but, they appreciate that I have been increasing it. The circumstances are challenging and I have to spread it around,” Gonsalves said.

Over 6,000 persons receive monthly state benefits, Gonsalves said, noting that one-third of them are in secondary school, which he attributed to his government’s universal access to secondary education policy.

“I had to provide for some children who come from poor families who couldn’t make it without the assistance.”

He said that some parents do not use the state allowances for the benefit of their children but added that the Social Welfare Department checks and tries to bring those negligent parents “on the straight and narrow”.

“Sometimes, they have their own challenges and they have their own difficulties, which are all part of the importance of governance, helping to keep and to bring people along,” Gonsalves said.