By Angelos Anastasiou and Evie Andreou
AMIDST A political row over its funding, First Lady Andri Anastasiades on Monday announced the creation of an Independent Social Support Fund, designed to help people who were forced to discontinue their studies due to the economic crisis.
The bill for the new agency, which is already in operation, was unanimously voted by the parliament, the First Lady said. She added that the institution will be run with a “transparent, meritocratic and regulated way”.
She said its creation, aiming to support people “who, due to unforeseen social circumstances or other exceptional incidents, have been directly affected with regards to the continuation of their education” was her idea.
Beneficiaries of the financial aid, which will complement government student grants, will be chosen according to financial criteria. Payments will be made directly to educational institutions for tuition, to house owners for rent, and in extraordinary cases, to the students or their families. Application forms will soon be available at citizen’s service centres.
The agency, Anastasiades said, has already received the first donations by various companies and individuals, residing in Cyprus and abroad.
Substantial monthly contributions, she added, will also be made by President Nicos Anastasiades, House Speaker Yiannakis Omirou, Foreign Affairs Minister Ioannis Kasoulides, Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou, MP Nicos Nicolaides, and Attorney General Costas Clerides, who asked that their pensions be forwarded to the Fund.
But a bill allowing the government to funnel money into the body from the government’s consolidated fund, tabled in Monday’s House finance committee session, sparked heated debate as deputies recalled a similar practice employed by the previous government.
Former President Demetris Christofias was heavily criticised by opposition for issuing cheques at his own discretion from a solidarity fund he created to various people and organisations.
Finance committee chairman Nicolas Papadopoulos noted that social policy should be implemented via laws and regulations, as opposed to arbitrary judgements by the president.
EDEK deputy Nicos Nicolaides said he was bewildered by the bill, since it appeared to contradict the reasoning behind the creation of the fund – that is, to satisfy particular social needs that are not covered by the state’s consolidated fund.
And the Greens’ Yiorgos Perdikis argued that allowing the government to fund the project with taxpayer money would introduce “high-level back-scratching”.
Treasurer Rea Georgiou countered deputies’ criticism by explaining that the fund will cover special cases, like those orphans of the 2005 ‘Helios’ air-crash whose compensation has been wiped out due to the March 2013 ‘haircut’.
But this only sparked further outrage, with deputies deeming the argument “obscene” as the parliament has been calling for a solution to the cases of Helios orphans for a long time.
“Do you not realise that other depositors who lost their money will turn to the Presidential Palace for help, too?” Papadopoulos asked.
“Do you realise what a metal gate you are opening?”, he was quoted by business portal Stockwatch as saying, possibly referring to the postern gate – ‘kerkoporta’, a near-homophone to the Greek word for “metal gate” – through which the Ottoman army penetrated the fortified walls of Constantinople, leading to the city’s historic fall in 1453.
Deputy government spokesman Victoras Papadopoulos issued a statement in response to the criticism, arguing that the proposed legislation bears no resemblance to past practices.
“The fund is the result of legislation that stipulates strict checks, since the committee features the treasurer and the permanent undersecretaries of the labour, health, and education ministries, while annual financial statements will be published and audited by the auditor general,” Papadopoulos said.
“However, if the parties and deputies do not wish to amend the law in such manner, the government will respect their wishes, and the fund will continue to be funded by private donations only,” he added.