1956 was one of the most dramatic years of the 20th century.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stunned delegates at the congress of the Communist Party in Moscow with his denunciation of Josef Stalin for the atrocities he perpetrated and his policy and strategic errors. Later that year, Khrushchev deployed Soviet troops to suppress a popular uprising against the communist regime in Hungary while Fidel Castro began his revolution in Cuba.

Egypt seized the Suez Canal and Britain, together with France, got embroiled in an ill-fated military campaign to regain control. As a British colony, Malta was unavoidably enmeshed in the Suez Crisis, as it served as an outpost for the invading forces and, later, as a refuge centre for British evacuees from Egypt.

On the political front, early in 1956 the Maltese electorate was called upon to vote in a referendum to decide whether Malta should integrate with the United Kingdom. On the social front, 1956 marked the laying of the foundation of Malta’s welfare state, with the creation of the Department of Social Security and the concurrent enactment of two major social bills – the National Assistance Act and the National Insurance Act.

Vulnerable people became now eligible to social and medical assistance. Unemployed and persons unable to secure a job because of ill health were granted social assistance; while chronically ill persons became entitled to medical assistance, irrespective of family financial resources.

The National Assistance Act further provided for free institutional care for the aged, as well as for hospitalisation and treatment in State-run institutions and hospitals. Beneficiaries of social assistance also qualified to a rent allowance if their place of residence was rented.

The National Insurance Act introduced a social insurance scheme financed through contributions paid compulsorily by employees, employers and the State. The scheme encompassed a wide range of contributory benefits, allowances and pensions, besides other contingencies covering sickness, employment injuries or diseases, unemployment, widowhood, and old age.

Social justice in Malta no longer remained a narrative, but tangibly delivered to families, workers and the elderly, through the provision of support and tools to help them turn their lives around.

Successive administrations built on this bedrock through legislative measures and initiatives aimed at creating an extensive security net to safeguard the Maltese population. Particularly over the last nine years a Labour government has been unstinting in its efforts, to increase pensions across the board and improve the living standards of elderly persons in general through other measures.

Today, the pensioner population numbers around 100,000 persons. They are all in receipt of contributory retirement, widowhood and invalidity pensions, or of the non-contributory old age pension. Between them, last year, they received also a record €836 million in pensions and thus were entitled to other allowances or grants depending on age and living conditions. As a standalone expenditure the pension bill absorbed three quarters of the global social security expenditure for the whole year.

Families with children aged up to 16 years have been in receipt of children’s allowances since 1974. Allowance rates have been enhanced over the years and as from 2021 have been augmented with the payment of annual supplements. New benefits such as the childbirth grant and adoption grants have been introduced; while payments to foster care parents and parents of children with a disability, have been strongly upgraded.

Active labour market initiatives have been taken since 2014, aimed at weaning off persons from inactivity and social benefits and provide them with greater security when landing a job. This package comprised the in-work benefit, tapering of social benefits, free childcare for parents in employment, or education, and availability of care for primary schoolchildren before and after school hours.

Buoyed up by a positive economic and industrial climate, these measures have proven to be fundamental to increase jobs, reduce benefit dependency to the lowest level ever recorded and facilitate the entry or re-entry of women in the labour market. The measures further contributed towards the reduction in the rates of poverty or social exclusion

Armed with the strong electoral approval of the government’s manifesto, this ministry reconfirms its commitment to continue with its drive to further deliver financial support through social justice, by implementing over the next five years various new measures and initiatives pledged in the manifesto.

This is one of a series of articles in commemoration of Social Justice Month organised by the Ministry for Social Policy and Children’s Rights.

Michael Falzon is Minister for Social Policy and Children’s Rights.

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