Mr. Speaker, this marks the 29th consecutive occasion that I have had the opportunity to participate in the Budget presentation in this Honourable House.
On this particular occasion, the challenges facing our country are unprecedented, given the current global economic downturn. I am confident, however, that working together we will be able to pull through these difficult times.
Since last year, a lot has taken place in the constituency that I represent and within the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce.
Mr. Speaker, I want to extend special thanks to my constituents for their continuous support and, especially, acknowledge the efforts of my hardworking team of councillors and organizers.
The staff members of the ministry have been very supportive and I want to thank Permanent Secretary, Reginald Budhan, and the other members of the team for their strong support. I also want to thank the chairmen, directors of boards, CEOs and staff of the twenty agencies for their hard work during the last year.
Mr. Speaker, there is no substitute for a loving and supportive wife and family. I want, especially, to pay tribute to my dear wife Pauline for her continuous support over the years. I must also thank my children for their support in the background.
Mr. Speaker, for the 2009/10 financial year, the Ministry has been allocated a total budget of $2.101 Billion. This includes $1.849 Billion on the recurrent side and capital expenditure of $252.294 Million. For Capital A, we have been allocated $50 million, while for Capital B, the amount of $202.294 Million has been proposed.
Mr. Speaker, no Ministry will say its budget is enough and the same applies to my Ministry. However, these are difficult times and we have to do the best with what we have. In keeping with the Prime Minister’s leadership, we will be doing everything possible to contain costs, whilst making sure that we deliver our services swiftly, efficiently, and creatively.
Mr. Speaker, the Ministry’s mandate is delivered through its twenty (20) portfolio agencies. The Ministry’s role is to provide policy direction and oversight and resolve policy conflicts.
Operations take place at the agency level. The Ministry, along with eleven (11) of these agencies are on the budget. The other nine (9) operate off budget.
Mr. Speaker, when I addressed this Honourable House last year, I gave a firm undertaking that the various agencies under my leadership would be committed to achieving their targets, within the limits of our resources. Also, I announced that they would be held accountable for their performance just as how I am accountable to the Prime Minister and the electorate.
Hence, I have tabled my “Ministerial Report to Parliament” which provides details on the targets and achievements of each agency. While I will address specific higher level targets and achievements, time will not permit me to deal with all the performance targets and achievements of the agencies. I therefore invite Members to peruse the report at their convenience.
This Ministerial Report is intended to complement in a timely manner the usual annual report of agencies which are tabled in Parliament throughout the year.
4.1 Food PricesMr. Speaker, with the termination of the price support programme introduced by the Ministry towards the end of the 2007/2008 Financial Year, consumers experienced some serious challenges due to the volatility of prices. Towards the latter part of 2008, as the price of energy began to decline, the expectation was for a corresponding decrease in the prices of imported basic foods. This, Mr. Speaker, simply did not happen.
Mr. Speaker, I gave this Honourable House and the nation a solemn undertaking that we would spare no effort to achieve stability in basic food prices. Despite the extraordinary challenges of rising imported food prices and other operating costs, coupled with a declining exchange rate, we have achieved our objectives.
You will recall that last year I declared to this Honourable House that I would not tolerate irresponsible behaviour by any distributor, wholesaler or retailer that would jeopardize the welfare of consumers.
My first strategy was to pursue moral suasion through extensive consultation with key stakeholders. That simply did not work. But, in my quest for a solution I finally found the answer.
Mr. Speaker, this administration is committed to the view that in the final analysis the forces of supply and demand in the marketplace offer the best protection to consumers in terms of prices for goods and services.
In order for these forces to work, however, the consumer must have access to abundant and timely information. Abuse and inefficiency thrive in an atmosphere of ignorance. Recognizing the absolute failure of the moral suasion approach, I decided that I would expose for public information the results of bi-monthly island-wide surveys of the prices of twenty-three (23) basic food items sold in supermarkets across the island. Mr. Speaker, the result of this strategy gave birth to the now famous “Consumer Alert” publication. Armed with relevant information consumers are now able to compare and shop wisely.
Today Mr. Speaker, I am proud to report that my strategy has worked. Prices have stabilized even in the face of devaluation and the range between highest and lowest is narrowing. In effect Mr. Speaker, consumers can get more from their limited dollars.
4.2 Monitoring of Other Prices
Mr. Speaker, we enhanced the system of monitoring prices of food and other sensitive items such as gasoline. The Ministry was also mandated by the Prime Minister to independently monitor electricity bills, separate from that carried out by the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR). Prices will be surveyed island-wide on a bi-monthly basis.
Some 15 surveys were conducted by the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC) on petrol, forty-six (46) on grocery and agricultural products, ten (10) on hardware items, and one (1) on school textbook prices during the past year. The textbook survey, conducted annually during the first week of August, provides consumers with information on the availability of books, pointing them to the best deals.
In February 2009, we started monthly publication of petrol prices in the Gleaner and the Observer. Since the inception of the publications prices have been generally stable, with a closing of the gap between the lowest and the highest prices.
4.3 Complaint Resolution by Consumer Affairs Commission
During the period April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009, Mr. Speaker, the Consumer Affairs Commission resolved 1,568 or 92.3% of a total of 1,699 complaints.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to commend the staff of the Consumer Affairs Commission for the tremendous job they have been doing in conducting the necessary field work for the surveys and in helping to resolve consumer complaints.
What we are doing, Mr. Speaker, is empowering consumers with information so that they can shop wisely and economically. The price surveys are expensive, but we believe that this is a more cost-effective approach for keeping prices affordable.
4.4 Fair Trading Commission and Food Labeling
Mr. Speaker, let me also acknowledge the work of the Fair Trading Commission with respect to the accuracy of food labels. A number of bakeries had been labelling their products as “whole wheat” although the major component was not “whole wheat”. The FTC, upon examination, found this practice to be misleading and issued a strong warning to the bakeries. As a result, the Bakers’ Association of Jamaica advised the FTC that a standard for whole wheat bread would be determined and implemented, through the Bureau of Standards.
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