words | Nicole Macedo
Weekdays kick off at 5:30am, although waking up and responding to emails at 1am is not unusual. Government Minister Neil Costa works every day of the week, bar Saturdays, which, instead, he tries to reserve for spending time reading the Economist, cover to cover, and bonding with his daughter. BREXIT, not surprisingly, has added several hours to his every week. Having taken on the role of Minister for Business and Employment in December 2014, a far cry from his former responsibilities of Tourism, Public Transport, and the Port, Neil Costa has steered his Ministry on a path of efficiency, instilled with the vibrant minds of his young team, whom he meets with every day. He is feverishly keen to accelerate through as much work as possible during his finite time in Government, but also has an air of calm and collectedness about him. That, he expresses, is thanks to his increasing years and his recently found interest in meditation, which helps him to be mindful.
Reaching full employment
He is most likely to be remembered for drastically and successfully lowering local unemployment and by assisting to find employment for a staggering 170 individuals since the initiation of the Focused Employment Strategy, three short months ago. ‘The A Team’, as Neil has so aptly dubbed them, is a working group made up of members of his ministerial team that front the project. ‘I need people who are fully engaged,’ the Minister tells me, praising his staff. ‘Krystle, Christian, Elka, John and I work extremely closely with contractors identifying vacancies with them and arranging interviews for those that are registered as unemployed’. I have personally met with over thirty approved contractors and they more often than not have selected the candidates for whom we have arranged interviews.’ The team works even more closely with the individuals they are seeking employment for, ensuring they either attend their interviews, or face the stern words of the Employment Director, who issues warnings of temporary removal from the unemployed list. ‘That will unfortunately mean they can’t collect benefits. The idea is not to penalise, so much as help them understand that if they don’t attend an interview or accept an offer, the employer might think that people we ask them to meet aren’t serious. Such behaviour harms all future candidates identified by my Ministry and the Employment Service. To date, only two persons have been prevented from registering as unemployed for a definite time period for failing to accept employment offers or not attending interviews.’
He explains that EU law recognises the entirely worthwhile social objective of assisting the long-term unemployed find gainful opportunities. ‘We make it as easy as possible for the approved contractor to interview the suited individuals by arranging the interviews ourselves and preparing the candidates with skills seminars. The crucial aim for us is to help effect beneficial change in people’s lives and to keep unemployment down to a number that is entirely manageable for us to help in individual cases.
In the definition of some economists, Gibraltar enjoys full employment. For me, one person on the unemployment list is one too many.’ Full employment does not take into account certain individuals, such as those moving between jobs, having quit or lost a seasonal job, and those incapable or unwilling to work. Costa’s role requires robust relationships with unions and business groups. ‘They fiercely put forward their members’ interests and they expect me to be as candid with them when I don’t agree. Then again, you don’t need to convince this Government of the importance of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and keeping the costs of business to an absolute minimum.
We introduced whistle blowing legislation and, separately, bullying legislation. In my Budget Speech, I demonstrated how past budgetary measures had, in fact, significantly decreased the costs of business over the past five years. I think it says something about the government’s commitment to continuous and genuine stakeholder engagement that we have excellent working relationships with the Unions, the GFSB and the Chamber. Whereas we will fiercely disagree on certain topics, they are acutely aware that my teams, and I personally, take soundings before making policy decisions and passing laws. In my view, the wider and deeper the consultation, the better decisions we will take and the better laws we will pass, as we will have considered and debated all aspects. It does mean a lot of hours explaining your position and your thinking – but that is what we are paid for and it is well worth the exertion to get it right.’
Time for April
Spending a morning at the Ministry, experiencing a day in the life of Minister Costa, staff meetings fill the morning, congruent with the rate of the rising early mid-summer sun that creeps over the Rock and streams through the glass of his third floor Europort office windows. His ministerial responsibilities stretch across Business, Employment, Skills, Social Security, (pensions and benefits) and Postal Services. I first interview him post Budget, and he seems elated, relieved to be able to return to his routine duties. Summer is often a time during which the public assumes all is quiet on the governmental front, but that’s not the case here. Often working well into the evening and night, I question when and how he fits in spending time with his daughter. ‘I’ll work from home in the evenings, and even though I can’t play with April or read to her the entire time, I can certainly sit with her whilst I work on my papers and she enjoys re-watching and singing to Frozen. ‘Love is an open door’, you know.’ Throughout his manic day, he always ensures he makes time for the gym; a respite, and place to release built up tension and stress from his weighty workload. Coffee is used as a means of maintaining focus. ‘It helps to keep me sharp. The business of government doesn’t stop and you have to deal with it. If I don’t have a coffee, I find I’m not as focused and I don’t have that luxury.’ He is meticulous with his actions; reading, re-reading and questioning official documents submitted to him and re-writing correspondence, press releases and other documents, until he is entirely satisfied with their content. ‘I revised my budget speech at least nine or ten times. I’m not exaggerating.’
His lawyer turn of mind becomes evident here, as he takes me through the process his departments follow, with the help of a legal team, to transpose new legislation and present Bills to Parliament. ‘As a lawyer, and one who used to challenge everything under the sun when I litigated, I used to find the most effective arguments were technical submissions on points of law.’
He calls in his Legal Counsel, John Paul, (also particularly young), to discuss an element of the Employment Act that they have been working on. Walking me through the process he eludes, ‘the act is an over-arching statutory framework that then allows for secondary legislation.’ In July, Costa’s Ministry announced wide-ranging reforms of the Industrial Tribunal, involving amendments to the Employment Act, ‘we’ve changed the act by way of an amending bill. The bill sets out enabling provisions that will allow me to introduce entirely new secondary legislation, on which John Paul and I engaged, as you would expect, in a detailed consultation process. John Paul has ensured that the regulations are written in plain English so that if you were to find yourself victimised, you could have a read of them yourself. We’ve also extended the powers of the tribunal.’
John Paul breaks down the legal jargon for me, explaining that secondary legislation includes regulations and orders. ‘For the government to amend primary legislation, the bill has to be debated and approved in Parliament, in order for the legislature to scrutinise the new law and keep checks and balances on the actions and policy decisions of the executive.’
Taking me upstairs to the Office of Fair Trading, a new department that came to fruition in October 2015 with the aim of protecting the interests of consumers and relieving the burden of administrative tasks on businesses, Neil comments, ‘one of the nicest things about this job is that every day is entirely different.’ There is affection and sarcasm in equal measures here. The office maintains a consumer protection element to assist the public with consumer matters, and to prevent business practices which are harmful to consumers.
Head of the Office, Francis Muscat, another young and bright member of the team with a history at a leading law firm, tells me that the OFT has also served to create a single point of contact, which greatly assists the establishment of new businesses, particularly the process of applying for business licences. ‘It’s not just about obtaining a license anymore, although many people come here for that and we have taken a quantum leap in facilitating and expediting such a process, but it snowballs into a very welcome one-stop service for entrepreneurs, which only need to deal with one government department. The office was created by the bringing together of three existing departments.’ The Business Licensing Authority, a board made up of representatives of the GFSB, the Chamber of Commerce, the Unions, and independent members of the community, overseas all cases of new businesses applying to obtain licensing, unless the BLA had already approved a similar business, and does not need referral to the BLA.
End of left and right – political influence
As a staunch liberal, Neil subscribes to the philosophy that ‘people should be allowed to do whatever they want to do, so long as it doesn’t hurt or interfere with anybody else’s freedom’. Philosopher John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty had a lasting impact on him as a teenager. ‘His reasoning as to why people should be allowed to live their life as they judge best, unless it affects another’s liberty or violates another person’s freedom, just struck a chord with me as making absolute sense.’ Coming from an economy that licences gaming providers and sells alcohol and tobacco, he insists that he is against ‘legislating on moral issues’. I think individual freedom should be applied across the board, instead of drawing what, to me, are arbitrary lines of what is or is not acceptable.’ Even drugs? I probe. ‘Drugs are a good example, as they represent a taboo subject that we need to openly discuss as a community. I can’t deal with such an intricate issue as a small part of a larger interview, however. But let me make a few points for us to consider, perhaps in a later discussion. The medical evidence is that smoking kills, and yet we sell the item on the basis that it is for the individual to make that choice, and because of economic interests. The US is now suggesting that the war on drugs has been lost, even though it has cost trillions of dollars and are openly reconsidering how to deal with personal possession. Let’s remember that some US states have legalised marijuana for personal and medicinal use.
Closer to home, I see, almost daily, how some young persons, because of a criminal conviction for a small amount of cannabis resin, have great difficulty in finding employment. There is a very real and damaging cost to individual lives. For me, consumption of drugs, legal or otherwise, should be a health issue and, in the employment sphere, a disciplinary one, and should not be a criminal one. The question therefore, as far as I can see, is simply whether we decriminalise personal possession or do we regulate and tax and distribute that revenue to education, health and community projects?
Portugal is a very good example of a European state that, according to reports, has seen a drop in drugs consumption, and drug-related problems, after decriminalisation. To decriminalise personal possession has the added benefit that police resources can be diverted on actually stopping the importation into Gibraltar of narcotics. Let me make clear that these are my own personal reflections and do not arise out of any Cabinet discussions and certainly do not indicate policies. Any consideration in respect of such an important and delicate subject will require the breadth and length of consultation, the community is now accustomed to objectively look at the advantages and disadvantages of the status quo.’
Reflecting on his own political past, I ask him about his relationship with the Deputy Chief Minister. Neil tells me he joined the Gibraltar Liberal Party in 1999 as a Law student, working with the “brilliant, encyclopaedic brain” of its leader, Dr. Garcia. ‘Joseph is a steady hand in Government. He’s an excellent parliamentarian and Deputy Chief Minister, who provides first class advice and is a veritable workhorse. It’s been my personal pleasure to get to know him as a friend. It’s only normal to work very closely to those who share your values and are also concerned about other people’s aspirations and dreams.’
He is keen to express how personal his role is, noting how he frequently meets with individuals struggling to find employment and remembers them by name and surname. ‘I meet with my staff every day and ask pointed questions about certain cases and why they haven’t been progressed. People understand that a Minister cannot, most of the time, accede to what they’re specifically asking for, but I am certain our community knows that we care deeply enough to find alternative solutions and that, for us, employment is a priority.’ He puts the most recent election success of the GSLP/ Liberal alliance in not just governing by the gold standard of what is best for the entire nation, but also by investing time and resources in all the individual cases that come forward. ‘The day that I actually think of myself as a minister, is the day that I should leave this job,’ Costa insists, ‘because every day I still go back to my original motivation for standing for public service, which is to assist individuals in leading the best life they can and to work daily to provide those conditions. One of my senior civil servants had to remind me the other day that I am the “system now and no longer a pup barking up in the face of it!”’
As two keen followers of British politics, we shift the discussion to the recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, and Neil expresses his admiration for her attention to detail, ‘my impression of her time as Home Secretary is that she forms strong views after carefully considering details and follows through. The Prime Minister has already given some very important signals on her Government’s views on Gibraltar, not least by meeting our Chief and Deputy Chief Minister on the very day she was due to kiss hands. I read that people are able to change her mind with cogent reasoning and argument, so if that’s the case, I think we will be able to work solidly in Gibraltar’s interests.” On being asked, he replies: “The fact that she’s a woman, to me, is neither here nor there. You will have noted that her sex did not feature once in my answers to you. It did not even feature in my thinking. If you ask me, there is absolutely nothing that a woman cannot achieve in Gibraltar and would be delighted to work with the first woman Chief Minister – a person’s gender in this context is just so shoulder shrugging irrelevant to me. Seriously, who cares?’
Despite his traditionally left leaning views, he believes that the concept of left and right in politics is defunct. ‘I totally don’t see the world in those terms. I think the real division today is between whether or not you believe in a liberal society of open borders, free trade, open economies and whether you hold fast to the economic and social value of integration and the fundamental liberal democratic structures of freedom, equality, human rights and the rule of law. My own internal analysis, for example, has shown that, from a strictly financial and economic perspective, cross border workers contribute to our economy much, much more than the cost of EU pensions or the cost of unemployment benefits to EU citizens. Gibraltar, if I may, is an exemplar of how an open European border should work. Without such economic migration, we would not thrive – end of story. Europe is important to us; we believe passionately in the European project and in the ideals of peace, stability and prosperity. I, for one, will not accept the UK referendum result as the death knell to my progressive and cosmopolitan view of the world. Quite the contrary, the referendum result has, if anything, reinforced the need to respect and embrace other cultures, values and ways of life. I am British, European and I am also a citizen of the world. We are all flesh and blood, are we not?’
His enthusiasm is contagious, he has such a fervour for what he’s doing, and it is clear in his achievements. Moving in to his fifth year of Government, Neil notes that he has an open mind as to whether he plans to run for another term, but hopes he can make way for new politicians wishing to bring in fresh ideas and energy.