|A section of the audience at the Consultative meeting at the Ministry of Commerce.
The Ministry of Commerce’s efforts to create a body dedicated to tackling food costs bore fruit today with the inaugural meeting of the Consultative Committee on the Cost of Living.??
Minister of Commerce, Senator Haynesley Benn, addressed the gathering of representatives from the 10 contributing public and private agencies which form the committee.??
Whilst noting the internal and external factors which contribute to high food costs – such as the increasing world market price of staples such as corn and wheat and increased competition for some commodities from foreign markets – Minister Benn emphasised that his Ministry would continue to play an important role in its pursuit of regulated living costs.
He mentioned that there would be some of the more traditional policy responses, including price controls, direct subsidies and tax reductions, to high living costs, along with some other proposed strategies for ably tackling the current situation.
"We want to focus on the stringent enforcement of the Miscellaneous Control Regulation Act, which stipulates the wholesale and retail mark-ups on certain basic items…wholesalers and retailers are expected to provide invoices [to the Ministry of Commerce].?? I’m going to be calling on the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other persons who have responsibility for the wholesalers and retailers to urge their membership to comply," Mr. Benn stated.
He noted that some business persons believed that the maximum mark-up rates listed in the Act, which dates back to 2007, were not ???realistic’ in the current market and, therefore, the Committee would have to review the percentages.?? The Commerce Minister also emphasised that while there was a penalty for those who failed to comply with the Act – a $2,500 fine or five month imprisonment or both – he hoped those measures would not have to be taken.????????
Mr. Benn referred to information gathered by a Ministry team, which identified cost differences on basic food items at eight supermarkets across the island. While he acknowledged that every supermarket would have its own overhead costs, he stated that ???a levelling out’ of prices was necessary, for the sake of the public.?? He also revealed that steps were being taken to increase the existing basket of goods.
"We have sent a paper to Cabinet seeking to expand the basket of goods.?? That basket of goods will also include a number of health items and will also address the [requirements of those with] special needs..some of them we’ve recommended to be zero rated, with no VAT," he said.
Mr. Benn also spoke about current efforts to sensitise the public about prices and disclosed that this particular activity would continue to play an important role in addressing the issue.
"The Ministry has developed a number of initiatives to assist consumers in these difficult times.?? We have already rolled out a programme as it relates to the publication of the prices of certain basic consumer items," the Minister reported, referring to the price listings which were printed in national newspapers over the last two months.?? He observed that there was a need for a regulation of prices so there was less disparity in cost for a particular item, even if the supplier or producer varied.??
Senator Benn also stressed the need for a greater level of self-sufficiency, whilst noting that more than 70 per cent of this island’s food was imported from abroad.
However, the Minister noted that the high level of food from external sources was not the only factor affecting the end cost of foreign goods for the consumer.
"We need to identify some inefficiencies that exist at the port.?? In 2009, an Inter-American Development Bank study found that 58 per cent of imported cargo was cleared within 10 days, while 42 percent was cleared after 11 days – unacceptable.?? The generally accepted international standard…is three to five days," the Minister underscored, and stressed that a greater turnaround rate at the port could improve the cost to businesses, and by extension, the consumer.??????????????????????????
The Consultative Committee will meet once a month.?? It will have representatives from the Ministry of Commerce and Trade; the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries, Industry and Small Business Development; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade; the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs; the Customs and Excise Department; the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry; the Barbados Manufacturers Association; the Barbados Agricultural Society; the Barbados
Association of Retired Persons; the Barbados Consumer Research Organisation; and the Barbados Customs Brokers and Clerks Association.
Its mandate is to provide strategies throughout the short, medium and long-term to address the high cost of living and advise the Minister on the most efficient means to provide viable ways to mitigate its negative impact.