THE ultimate guardian against religious groups abusing funds given to them to feed the needy in the covid lockdown is Almighty God, said Minister of Social Development Camille Robinson-Regis.
She was replying to questions about possible fraud, at a briefing at her Port of Spain office on Monday on an initiative to give these groups $10 million in government grants each month for the next three months.
The minister said each group must not limit its disbursements only to members of their faith, and suggested migrants could also benefit.
Robinson-Regis said the religious groups must formally agree to properly distribute the aid and then report on how they spent the funds, but did not allude to enforcement apart from denying any more disbursements.
She listed allocations to 14 religious denominations.
The broad allocations were: Anglican Church ($792,000): Islam ($594,059); Hindus ($1,980,198); Baptists ($793,079): Baptist Other ($99,000); Jehovah Witness ($99,000, but these are undecided if to accept); Methodist ($148,515); Bahai (nothing stated); Evangelical ($1,782,178 but uncollected), Moravian ($49,000 but uncollected); Orisha ($99,010); Presbyterian ($297,030); Roman Catholic ($2,574,257); Rastafarian ($99,000, but uncollected); and Seventh Day Adventist ($594,060.)
These denominations included groups such as:
Muslim: ASJA ($200,000), TML ($100,000), Jamaat al Muslimeen (unstated/uncollected);Hindu: Maha Sabha ($500,000) and Swaha ($200,000); Shouter Baptist: National Congress of Incorporated Baptist Organisations of TT ($350,000); Rastafarian: Mansions of Rastafari ($69,000).
Robinson-Regis said the only purpose of the grants was food support to citizens and permanent residents adversely affected by covid19, although later also including migrants. She said the first batch of cheques, totalling $7.97 million, were distributed on Saturday at the Office of the Prime Minister. Robinson-Regis said each body must sign a grant agreement to collect its cheque and then send in a report of its disbursements within two weeks of receipt.
“Once this condition is met, a second tranche will be distributed accordingly.”
Asked what happens if a religious body is approached by a family of mixed religious persuasion, she replied, “Nobody is going to ask you what religion you are. The objective is to meet as many people as possible. The funding is for the churches but the church is not to deny somebody if they come and say ‘I’m a Methodist, but I’m here at the Catholic church.'”
She was asked if religious bodies might be dishonest with the funds.
“I believe in God’s grace. I assume religious organisations are deeper in faith than I am.”
She expected them to stick to the grant agreement they will sign.
“I also expect that because they are so steeped in their faith they will not move away from doing what is right as God is watching them.
“The only consequence is they will have to account to their God, and no other funding will be given.”
Robinson-Regis added that most faith-based organisations are already in the habit of giving charitable assistance.
“They have their finger on the pulse. We didn’t feel it necessary to give guidelines.”
She said any wrongful conduct will not be reported to the police, but an errant body will get no further grant. Saying abuse has happened before, she said she now trusts the groups will be faithful. Of the abuse, she added, "It is not that widespread, as people make it out to be.”
Ministry permanent secretary Jacinta Bailey-Sobers said out of 30,000 applicants for covid19 social support, some 2,991 people had been paid so far.
Newsday asked about the distribution of food cards to families of pupils receiving school meals. Robinson-Regis said 79,000 pupils are so registered, but when you remove those whose families already have a regular food card plus multiple child recipients in a single family, the tally is reduced to 30,000 families set to benefit. She said her initial distribution of 500 food cards to each of the 41 MPs would in sum cover 20,000 families.
“We felt 20,000 was capturing most if not all of the children.”
Saying some families would also get hampers otherwise, she said, “We are of the firm view we covered as many as possible.”
Told that the Maha Sabha has claimed very few of its pupils had received food cards, she said that organisation could plug any such gaps by way of the grant to religious organisations. Bailey-Sobers had no data on how many landlords were refusing to sign tenant applications for rent relief grants.
Robinson-Regis said her ministry was enhancing the social safety net to capture everyone in need.