CHIEF SECRETARY Ancil Dennis has seen no wrongdoing after taking an initial look into claims of irregularities in the distribution of food cards.
The allegation came from PNM assemblyman Sheldon Cunningham on Monday during an interview with Tobago Channel 5. Cunningham said a PNM official was distributing the food cards without proper protocol in his Mason Hall/ Moriah/ Providence electoral district. He said declaration forms were not being signed and he had reported the issue to Dennis.
Speaking at Wednesday’s post-executive council media briefing at the Scarborough Library, Dennis said, “The initial information suggests to me that there is no issue at all with the distribution of food cards and how it was done.”
Questioned about the progress of his investigation, Dennis said, "Allegations are only allegations until facts and evidence are provided.”
He acknowledged speaking with Cunningham about the matter and asked for the relevant information.
“I was provided with some initial information which I did verify, and I spoke to the Secretary of Finance, I also spoke to an individual who was in receipt of a food card and so far, I have found that there is no evidence to suggest that the process was fraudulent or corrupt in anyway.”
He said he is awaiting further information to verify the claims.
“The initial information suggests to me that there is no issue at all with the distribution of food cards and how it was done. I asked him to provide me with additional information, if there is any, and I still await that information.”
Asked whether Cunningham would face disciplinary action for his public outburst, Dennis said, “There is no intention to discipline Mr Cunningham at this time by me.”
Dennis said the food card initiative has been ongoing since 2012 but has been decentralised to make applying easier.
“I am sure that a lot of us would remember that persons were going to the Victor E Bruce Financial Complex in droves seeking this assistance. Therefore, like the Central Government, we decided that the best way to approach this would be a decentralised approach where persons can go through their area representatives."
He said area representatives have been involved in assisting people to apply for social support.
"Area representatives were assisting before with other areas of social support, assisting persons with filling out and submitting forms for the Ministry of Social Development’s programme and also the National Insurance Board salary review grant, so area representatives were always assisting. Given the circumstances, the approach is that assemblymen and councillors and even other employees within the Tobago House of Assembly, sometimes social workers can assist persons with filling out these forms and can even submit these forms on behalf of those persons.”
He made it clear that area representatives have no say in the approval of the food card forms. He said the division of finance and the economy verified info and successful applicants would be called to collect their cards.
“As far as I am aware, there is no situation where any assemblyman or councillor, or anybody in the Tobago House of Assembly as a matter of fact... let me go further to say, that I have been given the assurance by the Secretary of Finance that no food card leaves the division without the support of an application form. So, an application form comes in, they verify the application, then the food cards are issued. In addition to that, persons are required to sign upon receiving the food cards and the ID numbers are also quoted.”
Dennis said he trusts all assemblymen to operate with integrity, with the exception of one member of the Minority.
“Councillors operate at the highest level of governance on the island and therefore they are expected to be people of integrity and they are all people of integrity as far as I am aware. Every single Assemblyman and councillor in the Tobago House of Assembly maybe with the exception of one, are persons of integrity and are persons that I trust and respect and therefore I expect them to operate accordingly to ensure that there is no corruption, to ensure that there is no fraudulent activity and based on my discussions with the Secretary of Finance, I am assured and convinced that we do have the checks and balances in place to ensure that each food card given to any individual is supported by an application form and in addition to that, that no individual receives two and three food cards.”
The THA-issued food card is a one-use card, however Dennis said the Assembly has made arrangements that people can reapply for another card one month after their initial card has been utilised. This exercise, he said, will continue for three months but “if the situation remains the same, we do intend to extend it to give the necessary support to the people of Tobago.”