At the annual dinner of the Institute of Financial Services, the Governor of the Central Bank Mario Vella, devoted an important part of his speech to the property market. Among other things he mentioned social housing. He was reported saying that there needs to be a replenishment of the housing stock, but this had to be accompanied by a change in approach.

His key point in this regard was that entitlement to social housing, as a social benefit part of our welfare system, should not be a permanent one. The move that was made in other areas of social welfare, namely that of creating incentives to move from benefit dependence to participation in the formal labour market, needs to be made in the area of social housing as well.

This is indeed a very good point, as the policy that has been applied ever since social housing has been introduced is that once one is allocated a residence, categorised under the label of social housing, that allocation becomes permanent. There is no review as to whether that entitlement is still applicable, even if in the meantime, the beneficiary would be earning enough income that would not justify any form of entitlement.

It is a policy that encourages either passivity or a form of “benefit fraud”. I have purposely put the term “benefit fraud” in inverted commas because the beneficiary would not have actually gained anything in a fraudulent manner; but one would be benefitting from a social benefit, even if one’s economic circumstances do not justify it.

I state at the outset that I agree fully with the consideration made by Dr Vella. Moreover it also triggers thinking on other issues, which we have grown accustomed to take for granted, and we do not debate enough whether they are still applicable in this country. I will give some examples by posing some questions. Are we sure that all the different benefits that make up our social welfare system are still relevant today? I accept that free health services and free education from the cradle to the grave are untouchable elements in principle. However, is there any benefit that was made available some years ago, and given social and economic developments, is now irrelevant?

Given social and economic developments, is there a scope for developing new elements in the social welfare system? For example, should the tax benefit on own funded pension schemes or monthly investment plans, that both aim to encourage persons to save for their retirement, be increased significantly to make it really worth it?

Should we have an in-depth debate on the stipend scheme for tertiary education students without any strident reactions? We need to accept that it has generally achieved the goals it was set up for and there may be the need to change it (certainly not remove it) to make it more socially and economically just in today’s circumstances. The lack of availability of parking spaces at the University of Malta is a good indicator.

What should be the real criteria for a properly functioning social market economy (there is general consensus in Malta that we should be a social market economy) within a constitutional democracy? What are the rules of governance that we should apply?

Admittedly no one has the perfect answer to any of these questions, like no one has the perfect answer to the proposal made by the Governor of the Central Bank. This is why I termed the questions I refer to in the title as “awkward”.

I sincerely hope that the Governor’s speech serves as a way of stimulating serious discussion on the matter he raised and it is not conveniently ignored or approached in a parochial manner. One of the democratic credentials of any country is its ability to take decisions in the interest of the common good while considering the obligations towards future generations.

I sincerely doubt whether as a country we would score highly on this criterion of democracy.

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