Auditor General: Relief grant double dippers cost State $8.1m

Minister of Finance Colm Imbert. -
Minister of Finance Colm Imbert. -

DOUBLE DIPPERS were paid over $8 million between March and September last year after they accessed both the salary relief and income support grants, the Auditor General found in her report.

According to the report, which covered the period October 2019 to September 2020, over 2,000 people double dipped.

“As part of the audit procedure, the salary relief grant database was joined with the income support database. An analysis of the joined databases revealed that 2,672 persons received both grants which amounted to $8,115,000.00 as at 30th September 2020.”

The Ministry of Finance’s website states those who received salary relief grants were part of the National Insurance Scheme and made contributions.

The income support grants were for those who were not in the system.

Both covered loss of earnings due to the lockdown measures imposed to battle the pandemic.

In May, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said there were 7,000 people who did not access salary relief grants for 2020. He promised stricter regulations this year to ensure there will be no repeating.

Minister of Social Development and Family Services Donna Cox said double dippers who are identified will be flagged but not punished.

Minister of Social Development and Family Services Donna Cox. -

In an emailed response to Newsday, Cox said: “The Ministry is ever mindful of the challenges faced by many families during these unprecedented times. Notwithstanding the circumstances that gave rise to the various instances of double dipping during the last phase of covid19 social support, the ministry is not prepared to take any action that will further exacerbate the hardship being experienced by vulnerable families at this time. Notwithstanding, this matter will be addressed when the time is right.”

Among those who double dipped were entertainers who received a one-off payment from the cultural grant of $5,000, according to the report.

The report said 823 artistes and creatives were paid $4,125,000 as at the end of September.

“All applicants were paid $5,000 with the exception of two persons who were paid two payments each. Analysis of the income and support grant database revealed the possibility that 44 persons who were in receipt of the cultural grant were also paid income and food support grants by the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services.

“Audit requested the national ID numbers of these persons from the Ministry of Sport and Community Development to verify if they were indeed the same persons. The information was not provided by the ministry. This could result in an overpayment of $220,000 if the names appear on both databases.”

The report added that detailed analysis was not possible since no proof of membership in an artiste association was presented. There were also no evidence in some cases of sustained cultural activity from 2018 to 2020 and artistes failed to provide information on the cancellation of bookings/events owing to the pandemic. There was a lack of evidence in some cases of citizenship, for example identification and NIS card numbers.

President of the Trinidad and Tobago Promoters Association (TTPA) Jerome “Rome” Precilla told Newsday that while he could not speak on the issue of artistes double dipping, $5,000 was little to cover a 15 month period.

File photo

“I know that artistes have been unemployed for over 15 months now so, in terms of the grant that artistes would have been given, the initial grant of $5,000, I can understand if they would have applied for another grant as well if it was being offered to them.

“I hope that something else would have been put in place for them to get a second opportunity to get a grant because I know that they suffering.”

Asked what will be done to ensure there will be no repeat of last year when people abused the system, Cox said a robust ICT system is now in place which will illuminate duplication of names. She said the data will be shared with the Finance Ministry to ensure that recipients have national insurance (NIS) numbers before they are given their grants.

“Clear guidelines and criteria for applicants for both the salary relief and income support grants have been extensively shared with the national population so that there is no misunderstanding about which grant persons are eligible to apply for. Any attempt of fraud will be immediately referred to the fraud squad for appropriate action.”

Apart from the salary relief and income relief grants, under the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services, 20,497 temporary food card grants were issued among the 41 MPs. At the end of September, 3,431 cards, which were all valued at $510, were not properly accounted for.

Between March and September the Finance Ministry spent $781,376,601.78 on covid19 relief. In May, Imbert said the country withdrew $1.2 billion from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund to address the pandemic.

The Auditor General stated: “It appears that no proper monitoring and oversight was in place for the ministries and departments tasked with the administering of the covid19 initiatives.

“Roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined. Lack of collaboration with other relevant departments, and deficiencies in the internal controls, led to the funds allocated for covid19 initiatives not being used efficiently and effectively.”

The social services ministry provided assistance in the form of income, food and rental support to over 176,000 individuals and families. Cox said she wants to assure those that are vulnerable that every effort will be made to ensure they receive support. She added that families who deserve assistance will not be turned away as the ministry will work with other ministries and stakeholders to assist in providing a decent quality of life for citizens affected by the pandemic.

“I also want to appeal to those who are not in need, those who do not qualify, and those who are ill intentioned, to please do not come forward.

“When this is done the system becomes clogged and processing is affected. We must strive for the greater good of those who are truly in need at time. Please give them that chance.”

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