Saturday, 26 June 2010

Tripartite-tism and the Three Parties

My understanding is that each of the three main parties now support the tripartite process.  The difference is that the GSD's policy is coherent, whether one supports it or not.  The support of the process by the GSLP/Libs and the PDP is qualified.  They criticise much of what  has resulted, so far, from these discussions or claim to want to re-negotiate some.  They do not make public what their support of the process is intended to result in.  It is difficult to understand how a party can support a process of discussion with the attributes of the tripartite process yet not be committed to what, so obviously, it is  aimed at.

Peter Caruana has eloquently described the process as serving " ... to contain problems ..."  and  "... as a piece of dialogue architecture where these continuing problems and serious continuing disputes ... can be discussed".  He has said also that " ... it gives us a degree of contact with the Spanish Government ... it gives us the opportunity to manage these problems , to contain these problems in a way that serves better the wider interests of Gibraltar."  It " ... has allowed us to to condemn bilateralism between Spain and UK about Gibraltar to history ... By playing a constructive part in the dialogue about Gibraltar's affairs we also obtain greater security ..."

But what and where do  the GSD and Mr Caruana say the process will take Gibraltar? Again, it is best to quote Mr Caruana in answer to this question:  " ... we are perfectly willing to explore possible formulas for a future acceptable to everyone, so long as people understand that the primary consideration is the wishes of the people of Gibraltar... Spain  is free to raise the question of sovereignty as we are free to raise the question of self-determination ... nothing can be agreed which is not entirely acceptable to the Government and the people of Gibraltar.  That is a very comfortable and safe position for Gibraltar to be in... it is hugely in Gibraltar's favour that our difficulties with Spain should be resolved.  It is the obligation of every generation, without abandoning our legitimate rights and aspirations as a people, to try and leave a less problematic for our  future generations than we have".

The circumstances that gave rise to the tripartite process were very opportune.  The GSD, who favoured dialogue with Spain, was in power in Gibraltar.  The PSOE who favoured dialogue to resolve many of Spain's separatist internal issues, like that of Catalonia and of the Basque country, was in power in Spain.  Surely, it would have been very difficult for the Spanish Government to start dialogue to resolve internal separatist issues without taking an equally logical stance and being willing to enter a dialogue with Gibraltar?

One of the dynamics of dispute resolution is that, if you keep the parties in the dispute talking, usually the dispute will not worsen.  Another dynamic is that, if discussions continue for long enough, an atmosphere of friendship and trust develops, which helps understanding and eventual resolution.  These dynamics are well understood by diplomats.  They are used all the time, one of the most publicised occasions, recently, is in Northern Ireland.  The statements of Mr Caruana indicate that he understands and accepts these dynamics, safeguarding himself, politically, by the age old adage that any agreement is subject to the wishes of the people of Gibraltar.

What will happen if there is a change in government both in Gibraltar and in Spain to the two extremes?  The GSLP/Libs in Gibraltar and the PP in Spain.  If the process does not come to a grinding halt, the dynamics will continue to work.  In Northern Ireland it was when the diametrically opposite poles joined the dialogue, that resolutions started to became a reality.  Will it be the same in Gibraltar?  That is why it is important for the GSLP/Libs and, indeed, the PDP, as they may well be a political force at some stage, to clarify their support of the process.  Can it be any different from that of the GSD?

Sunday, 20 June 2010

GSD Running Scared Following Opinion Polls?

It is just as well that Peter Caruana's view is that "Polls are not things we usually pay attention to ...". If he (or it, one assumes he means the GSD Government) paid attention to them we would get a dedicated edition instead of just two and a half FULL pages in the Chronic (Thursday 17th June 2010).  Of course, he was not  reacting, for one second, to the recent adverse opinion polls in the Chronic and the Panorama, the timing is entirely coincidental.

It may be that he just felt like boasting a little about his GSD Government's achievements.  It is a pity that  he did not check them off against the list of Commitments that they set out on page 4 of their 2007 Election Manifesto.  If he had the story would sound somewhat different.  It is too boring to undertake that exercise here.  I leave it to readers to undertake it themselves.  You can find the Manifesto on Remember it is governments that have to make good on Manifesto commitments.  This is not the function or in the gift of the Opposition or any other political party.

One matter deserves mention, not least because it has always been close to my heart.  In the Commitments List it is described as "Reform of Parliament's way of working".  This promise is enlarged upon at page 51 of the Manifesto: "We will reform the way our new Parliament conducts its work to ensure that we have a modern Parliament that meets this community's modern needs".

A few paragraphs earlier the GSD remind us that it " ... will remain committed to open, transparent, fair and good Government.  This is the cornerstone of the quality of life in Gibraltar. It is vital that the huge progress made not be lost by a return to how things were done in the past".  Those who remember the ascent to power of the GSD in 1996 will remember it's promises of being a "team", "good governance", "transparency", "tenders" and that the GSD would rid Gibraltar of the climate of fear so people could express their views without fear of repercussion.

Hello Mr Caruana, hello GSD, you can boast as much as you want about what you perceive to be achievements but people look at how these have been undertaken and achieved.  I would venture to suggest that many of the promises in the previous paragraph have been sacrificed on the altar of expediency.  Much may have been done (much greatly delayed and much has not even started, for example where are the new mental health facilities promised?) but has much or any of it been done in accordance with, having in mind and acting in accordance with those principles that the GSD espoused in 1996 and reminded the electorate of in it's 2007 manifesto?  Each elector can make up his own mind.  To me the abandonment of the the reform of Parliament  sufficiently palpably shows that it has not.

Change, as highlighted in an earlier blog, can come from within the GSD.  It does not need to mean a change of governing party.  The time has come for the GSD to stop relying on, to quote Mr Caruana, the electorate knowing "...what Gibraltar was the last time it was under a GSLP government.  a lot of people will be asking themselves whether they they want to trust Gibraltar into the hands of people who brought Gibraltar into the hands of people who brought it to its knees once before."

Perhaps what the people are asking is, are we not in a similar place? There is no team, no transparency, few tenders, questionable fairness and no Parliamentary reforms to deliver good governance. In case you had not noticed, Mr Caruana, it will have been 16 years since the GSLP last formed government, times and have changed, so have the policies of the GSLP.  Also, there has been a near total change in the identity of the candidature fielded by the GSLP.  These are significant factors that an electorate takes into account, especially if they agree, as some will, with the argument on the GSD's failings made in this blog.

It is all very well to say "... sooner or later the electorate will tire of me personally and will want Gibraltar in somebody else's hands.  I am determined to pre-empt that and co-operate with any change."  Three issues with that, first, how will you know if you do not heed opinion polls, will you wait to lose an election ... that is not pre-emptive?  Second, Gibraltar wants what you promised it, a team to govern well and transparently, not " ... somebody else ...", as in another personality.  Lastly, is it not you, who criticises change as "... silly and rather cheap psychology ..."  Perhaps if you simply deliver what you promised in your manifesto, then change may be unnecessary, either within or without the GSD.  It is in your hands as the clock ticks down to the next election.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A Taxing Time Presages Finance Centre Changes and Lower Personal Taxes

The Chief Minister is to be congratulated for having had the political acumen and maturity to seek, heed and help to improve, with his personal input, on the ideas of those lawyers, accountants and other finance centre operators who have devised a tax system for  Gibraltar that is EU compliant but still delivers also to Gibraltar's finance centre one of the tools by which it can continue to succeed.  However, it is no longer the same world of pile them high and sell them cheap.  Operators in the finance centre will be operating in a more sophisticated environment where cross-disciplinary co-operation, professionalism, knowledge, expertise, specialism, innovative and unique thinking will be required.

Before I develop that theme a little more, let us dwell on some other significant achievements of the new tax laws.  Aside from safeguarding the finance centre, the opportunity has been taken, at long last, to improve the system of collection of taxes from business, companies and the self-employed.  This was long overdue.  The PAYE system has meant that the employed have, for years, paid tax throughout promptly, whilst all others have been paying in a delayed fashion, some even delaying payment far too long.  This inequality could not continue and it was not politically sustainable any longer.

In addition, the strengthening of anti-avoidance measures and the imposition of deterrent policies was equally long overdue.  The laxity (not to describe it as total disdain) with which certain taxpayers have dealt with their tax affairs in Gibraltar is widely known to the degree of notoriety. Such behaviour is unconscionable.  it is a crime against all society.  It is with tax revenues that a government functions, provides for the common good, delivers essential services and helps to improve the lot of the less fortunate.

There are those that will squeal and complain.  The majority will be the very people that the new tax laws are intended to catch.  They have no reason to squeal.  They have reason to hang their heads in shame.

If one is to be critical at all it, it is by reason of the lack of discretion given to the Commissioner of Income Tax.  There will be good grounds, on occasion,  for some to justify a slight delay, not least in the initial stages of the introduction of the new tax system.  There is also good reason for the accountancy profession to squeal about this lack of discretion, at least initially, the resources are simply not available to catch everyone up in such a short period of time.  There again, that is life, and a superhuman effort will be required.

It is, as the Chief Minister pointed out, on the basis of full compliance, acceleration of payment and improvement of collection of tax, together with added revenue from those that have in the past not paid any tax due to their tax exempt privileges, that further reduction of personal taxes will be achieved.  When this occurs, those who have squealed may be pleasantly surprised; not only will they be tax compliant and not be constantly looking over their shoulders but their tax burden will be at a bearable level.  In order to achieve this, the tax office will need to be better resourced and also ensure proper training, otherwise the system will simply not operate as intended.

To return to the theme in the opening paragraph.  The finance centre will need to adapt quickly to the new regime.  It will need to become more sophisticated but, equally importantly, so will those in the public sector on whom reliance will be placed to oil the wheels of the finance centre.  The persons in the tax office dealing with sophisticated finance centre financial instruments and structures will need to develop the necessary expertise. Good and quick response times are essential. .

Gibraltar will no longer be competing with the traditional Crown Dependency Tax Havens.  It has joined a club in which the competition includes Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus.  All these are very hungry jurisdictions. .

The finance centre may be seen by voters as resourcing the rich and capitalists and so will not be popular amongst them.  The message that must be propagated is the true message, which the Chief Minister has himself vocalised  already:

"Thousands of local jobs, much Government revenue and thus our public services, depend on Gibraltar having an internationally competitive tax system.... banks, insurance, investment, gaming and other companies ... are vital  to our economy and to the social prosperity of all of us in Gibraltar". 

In shorthand, the finance centre is vital to all of us, do not think otherwise.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Is There Really Such a Thing as a Free Bus Ride?

The recent announcement by the GSD Government that there will be a "free" bus service to the beaches during the official summer bathing season, no doubt, will be seen as good.  A popular move by a governing party that is facing elections within 18 or so months but fast losing popularity.  This perk comes after so much criticism has been leveled against it recently on the subject of beaches.

That there may be a need for an additional bus service to the beaches is not in issue but, a slightly deeper consideration of the move to make this service "free",  does raise a few questions.  First, nothing is free.  The buses cost money.  Their added use causes them to deteriorate and lose value for which no reward is being received.  They need to be maintained and repaired.  They need fuel.  They need drivers and support by other manpower.  All of these cost a substantial amount of money.  This cost has to be met from government revenues, which in turn, in the main, is raised from us by direct and indirect taxation.

This all means that a few are being benefited by the many for that few to enjoy what is a leisure pursuit.  Those few will be over the moon.  Others will ask why should anyone complain?  Well, aside from the suspicion that this move may be one more desperate ploy to gain electoral popularity,  should public moneys really be used for this purpose whilst there is such a call for it for more worthy social causes?

Please do not compare free bus trips commonly described as park and free bus rides into a busy town centre.  First these provide savings on roads,  traffic management, congestion and other indirect cash benefits.  Secondly the parking attached to such schemes usually costs enough to cover the free bus service and parking charges.

For example, Gibraltar's social services, whilst better resourced and funded by the GSD Government than ever before, are still under-resourced and in need of money.  Gibraltar has its social cases and issues.  It is a small territory with a smaller problem (in numbers) than other larger countries.  It should be possible to provide more fully, not to say fully, for the less adequate members of society.  It should be possible to have a more targeted and tailor-made social care system that gives specific help to specific cases, rather than a system that fits all sizes.  Money provided by all (and visitors to Gibraltar who pay indirect taxes) could be better deployed to help those in need than used for non-essential benefits for a minority.

Fewer "free" bus rides (save for the elderly who have paid their dues but should be paying taxes on their pensions); our governments should concentrate on making better the lives of the more needy and less fortunate amongst us.  We all know that we Gibraltarians are renowned for charitable giving and for having a generous spirit.  Application of tax moneys for such social purposes has the added benefit that, if it is explained properly, people will understand the good to which their money is being put to.  This will help to convince electors to vote for a government that has applied money to this end in greater numbers than one that spends money on unnecessary perks for a few: such an administration would be demonstrating a greater social conscience.

And guess what, if people walked a little more in Gibraltar it would solve many a traffic problem and we would all be healthier.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

New Constitution and New Governor

On Tuesday of this week Gibraltar's Governor, H.E.Vice Admiral Sir Adrian Johns KCB, CBE, ADC, was interviewed on GBC.  His comments on the 2006 Constitution were in line with what would be expected.  His interview contained also some interesting tit bits that were not enlarged on.

What was to be expected is that he described the 2006 Constitution as being absolutely right for Gibraltar.  To be expected, because, after all, it was agreed between the FCO and the Government and approved in a plebiscite.  No one in the position of Governor could conceivably criticise it in those circumstances. 

He also described it as turning 300 hundred years of British rule or influence on its head.  My interpretation of that statement is that it achieved a transfer of control over Gibraltar's affairs to Gibraltar (and I use this word deliberately as opposed to saying to the people of Gibraltar) whilst retaining British sovereignty.  A more robust interpretation would bring into play factors and consequences that do not bear thinking about.  I refer to the provision of the Treaty of Utrecht that gives Spain a first option were British sovereignty of Gibraltar to cease.

The unexpected tit bits, which I hasten to say I applaud and with which I fully agree, were his statements to the effect that the 2006 Constitution was moving in the right direction, was still bedding in and that there was plenty of work to do.  This indicates that there is room for improvement.  It may and is likely to be that the reasons for my applauding this view and agreeing with it are not consonant with the reason why the statements were made.

For a long time, my position has been that, whilst the 2006 Constitution advanced our self-government (not self determination or independence) a great deal, it did not provide the governmental safeguards that a constitution could have done and should do.  I  made this view known vociferously during the "NO Campaign". For example, the 2006 Constitution did not provide any separation of powers between the legislature and the executive.  It provides a semblance of institutional separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, which could have been much improved, so one has to suspect why there is so much influence of the executive on appointments to the Judicial Services Commission.

The GSD Government indicated that the increase of members on the government benches would allow for backbenchers.  They indicated that they would look at using the additional two members or increasing the numbers in Parliament to allow for backbenchers.  They indicated that they would review the electoral system having in mind a more democratic one.  These were some of their "selling" points at the time of the referendum.

To date nothing has been done on this front.  Quite the opposite the two additional members are also Ministers.  They cost the tax payer more in salaries, whilst taxpayers actually get less. Less, because due to the lack of checks and balances and of any separation of powers between the executive and the legislature more and more power is concentrated on one person who sits at 6 Convent Place, doing more and more with no legislative authority in some case. 

What, for example?  Well we have a new air terminal being built at a cost of in excess of £50,000,000, can anyone point out to me where the Act authorisng and empowering the Government to do that is to be found?  I am sure that that there has been an appropriation for the expenditure, as required by the 2006 Constitution, but where is the legislative authority to build?

Many might say, does it matter?  The Government has a majority and can pass the necessary legislation to correct the position.  It is precisely that which proves the failing in the system that there is no or no sufficient separation of power between the executive and the legislature.  All Government Ministers (who as such constitute the executive) also equate to the legislative majority in Parliament (and so the controlling element of the legislature). 

There is an added aggravating feature, which is that there is no incentive for any ruling political party from time to time to make any change to the system to enhance democracy and ensure that it will really exist in Gibraltar.  Our democracy is limited to voting once every 4 years, demonstrating, petitions, the strength or weaknesses of representative bodies and the free press (yes, all right where is that?)

So yes I applaud and agree with the Governor.  However, will those who  have the power now under the 2006 Constitution really move it on and do the work that is necessary, or will Gibraltar simply be taken by its governments from time to time the way of some other colonies when they achieved the degree of self-government that Gibraltar has now or some of those that have achieved independence?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Secularism - The Separation of State and Church

This week my eyes were open, by a letter written by Anna Latin to the Chronic and published on the 3rd June 2010, to an issue that I had never given much thought.  It was on the subject of government schools and secularism, briefly explained secularism is the separation of state and church.  In this sense, it is a subject closely related to the ongoing debate on the equalisation in law of the heterosexual and homosexual age of consent.

Briefly explained Anna points out that whilst government schools are secular in name they are in fact run as Roman Catholic schools, with daily prayers, services at Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Marian Services etc. , walls and public spaces in schools are also covered with crucifixes and religious statues, preparation for sacraments are under the control and auspices of schools, and all this without adequate arrangements being made for children whose parents are not in agreement with such matters.

She complains, rightly, that children, whose parents do not want them to participate in Roman Catholic sacraments, are left to feel socially different and awkward by a lack of proper arrangements. The only arrangement being that they are left at the back of the class in the hopes that they ignore what is being said.  I cannot think of any more insensitive treatment of a child of such a tender and impressionable age.

I must agree with Anna's request that all this preparation for the Roman Catholic sacraments should take place outside schools and school hours and be the responsibility of the Roman Catholic church and, I would add, done at its expense. The functions of a state school, if it is not denominational and the attendance of a child is with the specific consent of his/her guardian, is to educate and within that process to teach comparative religions as an academic subject and not concentrate on any denominational religion.

In fact, if what is happening is what Anna says is happening, and I have no reason to doubt her,  it engages the 2006 Constitution.  The 2006 constitution guarantees freedom of religion.  This includes the right not to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance save with his/her or his/her guardians consent and then in that individuals denomination.  It seems to me that this right is breached by all that Anna complains of, not just sitting at the back of the class being bombarded with religious denominational propaganda but also being exposed overtly and surreptitiously to one denomination: Roman Catholicism.

And before anyone suggests otherwise, yes I am a Roman Catholic and, because I am, I respect the rights and freedoms of others.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Prison, the Justice Ministry and the Courts

Years after it was promised by the GSD Government and decades after the Howard Reform League criticised Gibraltar's Prison (dungeon?) at Moorish Castle, at what seems a reasonable cost (£7,000,000 as measured against the £50,000,000 being spent on the new airport terminal),  Gibraltar's new Prison has been inaugurated.  But credit where it is due the GSD has provided Gibraltar with a prison facility of which it can be proud.  In addition it has agreed to increase the number of Prison Officers. Also the infrastructure has been built to train and rehabilitate inmates.  All for the good.

It is great to note that the Hon  Daniel Feetham MP,  Justice Minister, has been credited for overseeing the construction of the Prison, although he did not inaugurate it.  The Justice Minister has also achieved much in his Ministry generally and is striving to do more.   He deserves encouragement and congratulations.  He is reviewing and modernising the criminal legal system and procedures. Although all the legislation was ready some long time ago, it has yet to see the light of day.  He is also modernising the laws relating to prisons, treatment of prisoners and suchlike, but these were ready some time ago also.  I wonder why and where these are held up?

Thankfully, and at long last, a new court facility is being built and the old court facilities are being modernised.  Excellent news and good for the GSD Government and its Justice Minister.  One sad note, the majestic staircase that has graced the Supreme Court Building gets demolished next week.  Is this really necessary and all for the installation of a lift?  I am sure that architects and engineers could be innovative and find a different location for a lift, thus leaving the majestic staircase standing. Go on Danny give it a go.  You can do better than destroy a historical feature and one of beauty.

The Justice Minister has also been instrumental in engaging an additional judge to deal with family and divorce matters.  Although this has alleviated the court system some measure, the reality is that in the past in the field of criminal trials, commercial disputes and also more general litigation some delay has been experienced.  Massive efforts and great strides are being made by the judiciary to deal with matters before the courts but the reality is that there is an ever increasing amount of litigation much of which is increasingly complex.

Perhaps, consideration might be given to engaging a full time Master to deal with procedural and interlocutory applications, thus alleviating the enormous workloads of the Chief Justice and Puisne Judge.  All of this also places a great deal of pressure and increased workloads on the shoulders of the Court Registry staff.  Like for the Prison Service, could the Government not resource this department with more personnel, providing new members with training in the UK?

A finance centre cannot grow and Gibraltar cannot prosper from its growth without a smooth and efficient dispute resolution service provided by its Courts of Law.  The judiciary and court staff are doing a sterling job but with a little more resourcing the improvement would be exponential.