OPPOSITION Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar called for transparency and accountability in the provision of relief during the covid19 pandemic, on Wednesday as she led her bench's response in the mid-year budget review as the House of Representatives debated the Finance (Supplementation and Variation of Appropriation) (Financial Year 2021) Bill, 2021.
As she began, she coughed slightly and told MPs she had taken a PCR test to imply she did not have covid19 but simply needed a sip of water.
Persad-Bissessar alleged a discrepancy between the $57 million allocated to buy 100,000 market boxes by a Cabinet Minute of May 12 and a $45.6 million figure cited by Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat. She said the Cabinet Minute had said each market box would cost $573, but Rambharat in Standing Finance Committee had put the cost at $456.
She said, "You are being allocated $57 million, where is the additional $11.7 million going? If we use your costing of $456 million, then there is $11.7 million not accounted for. Who is this being paid to? Is it to farmers? Is it to middle men? This $11.7 million would be able to provide so many more food boxes, so tell us minister, where is $11.7 million going to. Where has the money gone?" she said. "Somebody is pocketing the additional monies, if these things cost only about $300 per box. Where is that excess money going?"
Persad-Bissessar said the UNC had done a cost analysis by sending individuals to various markets to buy the same items as contained in the market boxes and their baskets had added up to just $300.
She then cited concerns in an Auditor General Report dated April 29 about last year's covid19 relief distribution and asked if new systems were in place to prevent any recurrence.
The report said only one payment should have been made per eligible household, but proper checks had not been made to ensure that.
Persad-Bissessar then said in some cases a single bank account had been used to receive relief payments.
"In 325 instances for payments of income support grant and 388 instances for the food support grant, the same bank account was used by more than one person.
"How could this happen? Is it that one person has this bank account (getting) all this money. That is what the Auditor General is wising us about.
"This is $2.028 million for the income support grant and $1.213 million for the food support grant."
She said these were not small sums and asked what checks and balances would now be put in place.