Two of Government’s flagship social programmes could come under pressure this year as the Freundel Stuart administration explores various avenues to slash a ballooning national deficit of five per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), and worrying debt in excess of 100 per cent of GDP.
Government backbencher James Paul said he was looking forward to some serious discussions this year on what adjustments that could be made to some social services currently enjoyed by Barbadians, including school meals and free bus rides for school children.
Paul acknowledged that it was an election year, and “we will see the best and we will see the worse in people”.
However, he said it was important to have a discussion on these issues in light of the country’s economic situation.
“If it is one thing I would want to emphasize is that, despite what other people say, I would like to promote the best in terms of Barbados and what it means and what we can achieve together . . . and I think it is useful when we go into 2018, we are going to have a debate, we are going to have a debate in which the different options are going to be put on the table in terms of the way forward for this country.
“We are going to have a debate in which we are going to have to choose whether or not the social safety nets that we had provided for our people, whether or not the free bus fares, whether or not the meals for school children [will have to be cut]. All of these things are going to be put on the table and they are going to be challenged,” the Member of Parliament for St Michael West Central stressed.
While Government officials have in the past raised the prospects of shedding some social programmes, Paul is likely to raise eyebrows by zeroing in on these two initiatives.
Earlier this year business executive George Connolly advised the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government that as part of measures to curtail the fiscal debt it should reverse the 2008 signature decision to introduce the free bus rides for school children.
Insisting that he held no “political position” on the issue, Connolly, described as a DLP supporter, told party faithful at the DLP luncheon lecture on March 7 that there was “no way that one could continue to take a product that costs money to produce and give it away for free”.
“If I produce a product that costs a dollar and I make a determination that I am going to give it away, then I am a charity and charities have special rights and privileges,” he said at the time.
Then Prime Minister David Thompson had announced in his 2008 Budget presentation that all schoolchildren in uniform or under 18 years old and carrying identification would be allowed to travel free on the buses.
At the time, Government had allocated an extra $8 million to cover the new free ride service.
The school meals programme dates back to 1963, when it was introduced as a pilot project to provide cooked lunches for 1,600 students in six primary schools.