The tragic event last week of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia put a halt to all routine activities on these Islands. People simply had to stop and contemplate over the issue of the freedom of expression and to show their resolve, as they have after all done since, in the media and on the street, that, no matter what, the voices of our journalists and broadcasters, of whichever political inclination, will not be silenced.

Nor will the call for justice stop as we seek, as a nation, to get over the trauma so cruelly inflicted upon us, and get back to our everyday lives with families and loved ones. In so doing, Malta will show what it really stands for – democracy, peace and progress. The signs are there for whoever cares to see them, particularly in the economic field which is the first reassurance one needs when embarking on a project for the future.

This foresight was nowhere more evident than in this month’s Budget for 2018, inevitably sidelined in the emotion and tension of the past few days. For more than four years now, Malta has made huge strides forward towards first the creation and then the sustaining of a thriving economy. The achievements, recognised at both national and European levels, include the lowest ever unemployment rate, the biggest ever increase in jobs, many more women working, better social benefits, the first budget surplus after almost forty years, and a significant drop in national debt.

With that kind of credentials, it was hardly surprising that the 2018 Budget would inject yet another boost into this fast-growing economy. It is another fundamental block put into place in the formation of the basis for a better future for these Islands. Economic well-being has to be reflected in the everyday lives of people everywhere as we have after all gradually seen with the country’s annual budgets since 2013. This one, though, takes the prize.

It is the first budget in modern Maltese history that does not introduce a single new tax while it provides a long list of new and better social benefits, financial upgrades via straightforward increases and higher tax ceilings, and other positive initiatives that make us, a small but industrious people, the envy of many nations still caught in the grip of austerity, either politically instigated or economically essential.

The list of benefits and beneficiaries is too long to cite, but some examples suffice. Other than the cost-of-living and pension increases and various tax benefits including refunds, the Budget for 2018 also sees an increase in vacation leave, a scheme for second-home buyers with the one for first-time buyers retained, free school transport for children attending State, Church and independent schools, exam fees halved with the commitment of their removal altogether in 2019, and fiscal incentives to persons reading for a Masters or Ph.D. degree.

On the social and solidarity front, 2018 will see in-work benefit schemes revised upwards, extra income for employees working in the Community Worker Scheme, higher carer, orphans and foster care allowances, and child adoption reimbursements.

Fully aware of the need to tackle the problem of social housing and soaring rents, private property owners are being offered a maximum of €25,000 to rehabilitate unused properties on the condition that they are rented to the Housing Authority for a period of ten years for social housing purposes. Special incentives are also on for persons in social housing who voluntarily choose to move to a care home while giving up their housing accommodation. Government has announced it will be issuing a White Paper on affordable housing and which will look at regulating the rent legislation, including the facilitation of eviction procedures and a deposit retention scheme.

The environment, particularly the air we breathe in an island chock-full of cars, also features in the 2018 budget. While retaining the refund scheme on VAT paid on the purchase of a bicycle, cash refunds are also to be granted on the purchase of motorcycles, scooters and electric bicycles. Electric bicycles are to be exempted from VAT and the rental of bicycles will attract VAT at 7% rather than the current 18%. Add to that the measure that will exempt electric and hybrid vehicles from road licence for a period of five years.

The premise of a sound basis for the future is further amplified by the measures in the investment and employment fields that include tax credit schemes for businesses, grants of 30% to Gozitan businesses employing persons under contract for a minimum of three years, and the offsetting of amounts payable and amounts receivable between businesses and government.

In a nutshell, the Budget for 2018 offers an exciting package to the vast majority of people of these Islands, hard-working men and women whose psychological ordeal of recent days can only be alleviated by the steadfast promise of both peace of mind and a guaranteed future.

The Malta Independent 27-10-17

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