Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi said yesterday that there would be no let up in his ministry's efforts to curb abuse of social services.
He told parliament at the end of the budget debate on social policy that the government was not going to shirk from measures to weed out abuse in the welfare system, whatever the consequences. This year it had already recovered Lm1.3 million from persons who received benefits they had no right to.
Next in line was the abuse that took place in sickness and invalidity certificates. He was giving notice: the net had been cast.
He warned doctors to cooperate in this drive, unless they wanted to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He had written to some doctors and asked for their cooperation, and was ready to listen to constructive advice on the issue. No sector would be spared, whether public and private employees or the self-employed.
Earlier in his speech Dr Gonzi said he was surprised at how important sectors of the ministry's activities were not mentioned by the opposition, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Authority and the Appogg, Sedqa and Support agencies.
Social Policy was not just about social security, but also education, health, job creation and employment conditions, all of which had been improved substantially over the past five years. Indeed, the scenario was very different five years ago, when there was no law on social workers, no Occupational Health and Safety Authority, no Appogg, and no law on persons with disability, among others.
Next year almost Lm300 million would be allocated for social policy out of a total government outlay of Lm800 million. The Lm300 million did not include spending on education and health. In all, these three ministries absorbed 55 per cent of all government spending. Yet opposition speakers questioned the government's commitment to social welfare!
Dr Gonzi referred to a report on structural poverty and social exclusion indicators drawn up by the NSO. He said the social net was proving to be far more effective than in other countries. Some 30 per cent of people were seen as being at risk of poverty in Malta, a lower figure than in other countries, and that figure was cut by more than half after social benefits were factored in.
Turning to the labour sector, Dr Gonzi said the participation of young women in work had seen a big increase of late, as evidenced by the large number of female university graduates and female students entering MCAST. This reflected the success of government policies and was a guarantee of progress.
He said the policies being proposed by the government in social policy must be seen in the light of the changes going on in society. People were living longer and enjoying a better quality of life; couples were choosing to get married later, with a consequent decline in the birth rate; a growing number of people were choosing to shirk family ties and people's aspirations were on the rise.
Politicians needed to look at the signs of the times. The welfare state was good but, although it was certainly not being dismantled, it could not be allowed to stagnate. Years ago, the Nationalist government had introduced the concept of the welfare society, in which responsibility for seeing to the needs of the weak are spread to the whole of society instead of resting solely on the government's shoulders.
Among the government's priorities was to create a sustainable welfare system. But its message was not being understood. The reforms it was proposing were not just a question of finances. It needed to be asked whether social benefits were acting as a disincentive to people going out to look for work, and whether they were an encouragement to enter the black economy and avoid taxes.
He said the government did not want to decide on the reforms alone. That was why it was seeking a social pact, which was not easy, given the culture in Malta.
The estimates were approved after a division, the opposition voting against.