31 August 2005

The Web

Yet another report for Brussels

Karl Schembri

Government yesterday published yet another report of generic proposals aiming to boost competitiveness and employment as a draft to the final report that has to be presented to the European Union by 15 October.
But with the EU 2007-2013 budget still in the freezer and the Malta Council for Science and Technology, the country’s supposedly research and development agency still in limbo, the proposals remain much in the air.
The document presented by Competitiveness Minister Censu Galea remains non-binding as the measures it proposes are “not yet government policy” according to the minister.
The report comes in the context of the EU’s Lisbon Agenda, an ambitious list of development targets that are supposed to make Europe the most competitive global bloc and in which Malta is seriously lagging behind.
With Malta dubbed a “laggard” on the overall EU scorecard, the only redeeming factors remain low tax burden for the lowest wage earners and the spread of information technology in Maltese society, with the major headaches registered on the fiscal deficit, research, low economic growth, science graduates and the environment.
Of all the EU member states, Malta has the highest number of people without full education and the lowest number of female employment.
With the competitiveness problems ahead, the report published yesterday proposes a national reform programme, as compiled by the Management Efficiency Unit ahead of the 15 October deadline, by when the government will have to inform the EU how it intends to adopt the Lisbon Agenda.
Most of the shortcomings and measures proposed have been made public for years, such as “upgrading key heritage sites” attracting more foreign investment, making great parts of the document “more of the same”. Even worse, the pages are cluttered with even more upcoming documents, strategies and action plans.

Unoriginally, the document lists as its priorities the sustainability of public finances; competitiveness, employment; education and the environment.
“This document launches the second public consultation stage of the national reform programme,” Galea said yesterday. “It is intended to have the widest consultation possible at all levels … to develop other concrete initiatives that can be taken to achieve the Lisbon targets and Malta’s key priorities.”
Among the proposals to reduce the public sector wage bill, the report says performance bonuses to top management in the public service should be tied to the attainment of agreed expenditure and outcome targets. Tied to the need for fiscal consolidation, the report says government should encourage more savings in the economy that could also be linked to pension reform, and to refrain from reducing consumption taxes.
As to healthcare, the report proposes using the Gozo General Hospital as a spill-over facility where Maltese patients on a waiting list are provided with the option to receive health care in a shorter period of time.
It proposes embarking upon primary health care pilot reforms and the introduction of a health fund that would cut the cross-subsidisation from national insurance contributions.
Foreign direct investment should be ‘biased’ towards research and development and technological excellence, the report says, proposing that the Foreign Affairs Ministry should fast track procedures for third country researchers in areas where there has been an identified shortage within the labour force. Also, a national patents database within the intellectual property rights division should be set up.
To avoid cartels and improve consumer competition, the report suggests improvements in the investigation mechanisms, and the feasibility of privatising the generation and distribution of energy will be studied. Another study proposed regards the feasibility of subcontracting or developing public private partnerships for water production and waste water management.
The government should also initiate a process to divest the entire gas function and the supply chain leading from the importation of fuel for the general market to its distribution in petrol stations from the Enemalta Corporation.
To offer price affordability in communications, the report proposes that the Malta Communications Authority determines why there are unexplained gaps between mobile and fixed line telephony rates.
In a bid to increase the participation of women at work, the document proposes the training of mothers absent from the labour market to provide a range of occasional educational services, such as childminding. It also says there should be increased training in childcare services and the introduction of a scheme that would use schools beyond school hours as childcare facilities.
Long-term unemployed people over 30 years of age may be placed with NGOs to undertake community work, with ETC paying half their salaries. For people granted refugee and humanitarian status, the document proposes supplementing English language training with short courses on cultural integration and the Maltese labour market.
For those receiving unemployment benefits, the strategy says they should be made to work for a number of hours equivalent to the money they are receiving for free.

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