St. Vincent and the Grenadines is today (Friday) celebrating its 44th anniversary of independence from Britain, with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves announcing that the income tax threshold will be moved from EC$22,000 to EC$25,000 annually, beginning Jan. 1, 2024.
“This move will cost the Treasury nearly $5 million annually,” Gonsalves told the annual military parade at Victoria Park, in Kingstown
He also announced a gun amnesty that will come into effect immediately after the passage of new laws next month to increase the penalties for possession of unlicensed firearms.
“The Commissioner of Police will announce the details shortly,” said Gonsalves, who, as minister of national security, has ministerial responsibilities for the police force.
Currently, on summary conviction, possession of an unlicensed firearm carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison or a fine of EC$20,000 or both.
“The idea is to get you to bring in your illegal firearm. You will have a chance but after this chance, we are increasing the penalties and we will intensify prosecution. Let’s work together on this,” Gonsalves said.
He was speaking during an Independence Parade a few days after the country recorded its 43 homicides, breaking the record of 42 set in 2022.
The amnesty will be part of Gonsalves’ “Independence from Fear” programme, which includes “anti-crime measures” such as placing additional CCTV cameras across the country and the usage of body cameras for the police.
“And we are implementing a programme of further ramping up the placement of street lights.”
He said acting Commissioner of Police Enville Williams has presented a strategic plan to him and within that framework there are particular pieces of crime-fighting legislation to be brought to Parliament.
“And we are going to carry out a structured programme to rehabilitate all the police stations,” Gonsalves said.
He said that through the police force and the National Commission on Crime Prevention, there will be an expansion of the outreach initiative between the police and the community.
The prime minister’s 16 announcements including that the Offering National Support For Internship Training and Employment (ON-SITE) programme under which the government places employees, at its own expense, in the private sector for fixed time periods will be extended into the years 2024 and 2025 with a fresh batch of employees.
He said this will be subject to the usual annual review of any programme’s efficacy.
The prime minister said there will be an increase in minimum wages paid to workers consequent upon the full review of the report from the Wages Council, which is currently in progress.
Nurses, nursing assistants, and nursing aides will be paid in addition to a regular salary increase which was already on the cards an additional monthly supplementary non-taxable income for an additional six-month period amounting to 5% of their salary.
Gonsalves said this will be to “ease certain specific challenges which they currently face”.
He said the government will conduct a review in the first half of next year with the aim to upgrade and reclassify these positions in the nursing profession.
“It was my intention, it is the government’s intention to big up the nurses in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the prime minister said.
He further announced that the relief that was granted over a year ago to domestic consumers of electricity to pay no VAT on their bills for consumption below 250 units per month will continue.
This month, 44 additional grants are being issued to micro-entrepreneurs under the Promoting Youth Micro Enterprises (PRYME) programme.
“This will cost around $350,000,” Gonsalves said, adding that this brings the number of PRYME grants to over 1,300 at a value of in excess of EC$6.9 million since the programme was implemented in 2020.
He announced that the PRYME programme will continue in 2024 and in 2025
Gonsalves further noted that on Tuesday, the government announced 66 national scholarships, national exhibition, special awards and bursaries for university education, based on the results of the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination and associate degree examinations for the students at the Community College.
“This package of award is valued at over $20 million this year,” he said, adding that a record number of five-year, fully-funded scholarships — 26 — were awarded, each of which has a price tag of up to EC$600,000.
“The government is committed to young people and the education revolution. I want all the young people to know that more and more scholarships and other financial support are available for students going to college or university,” Gonsalves said.
“Let us big up our young people.”
He announced that 1,185 farmers, who owe the state-owned Farmers Support Company a total of EC$4.5 million, will receive a 50% waiver on the principal sums owed and a full waiver on all interest.
To vendors in Kingstown, the prime minister said that he has asked for a complete review of all the debts they owe to the Kingstown Board. He said the intention is to provide relief and waivers.
“After this review, we will provide the details of the relief and waivers early next year in the 2024 budget,” he said,
Gonsalves said there would similarly be a full review of all the debts owed by patients and their families to the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital and all other hospitals in St. Vincent and Grenadines after Independence Day last year.
“The intention is to provide relief and waiver,” he said, adding that the relevant details will be announced in Budget 2024.
Gonsalves announced that the government intends to reduce, as of next January, the interest rate paid by students who borrow monies from the state-owned Student Loan Company to finance university education.
He said that more details would be available in the 2024 budget.
In the campaign for the 2020 general elections, the main opposition New Democratic Party had promised to reduce the interest rate from 8 and 9% to 4.5%.
Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party promised to better this, but has failed to adjust the interest rate, even as some 20% of the students have not been repaying their loans.
The prime minister said that as a road safety measure, the government wants to discourage the use of “defective second hand tyres” and will, as of Jan. 1, 2024, “provide relief on the duty for new tyres for all motor vehicles.
“The Minister of Finance will provide the details in next year’s budget,” he said.
The government will also extend for another year up to the end of 2024 the existing time-bound duty free concession on cement.
“This will continue to ensure that cement in St Vincent and Grenadines is the most affordable in the OECS.”
Gonsalves also announced that the annual duty-free concession on Christmas barrels will run from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31.
The prime minister announced the appointment of Shane Cadogan, a national swimmer and national scholar as a sport ambassador, the nation’s youngest.
He said Cadogan has been doing amazing work in his nongovernmental organisation in assisting and mentoring young persons in their athletic and educational pursuits.
Gonsalves also announced Lornette “Fya Empress” Nedd, the current calypso monarch and Europe-based Vincentian entertainer Phillip Dunbar Bastien aka Wetty Beatz as cultural ambassadors.
“I am quite sure that they will perform with a high quality and excellence as other sporting and cultural ambassadors have done,” Gonsalves said.