THE budget debate in the Senate on Tuesday was briefly interrupted because of a leak in the roof of the south chamber of the Red House, where the Senate meets.
The leak happened while Social Development and Family Services Minister Donna Cox was giving her contribution from a speaker's booth located close to the government's benches in the chamber. She was in the middle of her contribution when she stopped and looked at Senate President Christine Kangaloo. Cox told Kangaloo, "I am getting wet."
Kangaloo then advised senators the sitting would be postponed for ten minutes.
In January 2020, rain fell exposing a leak in the roof of the rotunda, days after a ceremonial opening of the renovated Red House. Expenditure on the roof, and other related carpentry cost $20.1 million, a Udecott document showed. A minor leak was also discovered in the Senate chamber. The contractor for the roof was Construction Services and Supplies Ltd. Udecott chairman Noel Garcia told Newsday then repairs would be covered by a one-year defect liability period.
When Tuesday's sitting resumed, Senate Vice President Nigel De Freitas advised Cox that she had used 16 of her allotted 40 minutes of speaking time before the interruption. De Freitas advised government members that they could make their contributions from their seats in their benches because of the leak over the speaker's booth that Cox was using. He advised Opposition and Independent senators they could continue to use the speaker's booth located behind their benches if they wanted. In the speaker's booths, the members are allowed to remove their masks while giving their contributions.
Resuming where she left off, Cox said her ministry is addressing fraudulent practices used by some people to try and access relief from the ministry which they are not entitled to. She said the ministry has been collaborating with officers of the Financial Investigations Bureau, the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau and Fraud Squad, in this regard.
"Within the last 12 months there has been a 241 per cent increase in the number of reports to the TTPS (TT Police Service), with the majority of cases (151 per cent) involving senior citizens' pension," she said.
Cox said last year, 68 such cases engaged police attention. She added that as recently as August "cheques were issued to 1,955 persons who were confirmed dead." Cox said, "Some of the disability and pension cheques belonging to those 1,955 individuals are being cashed, the most significant, 81 per cent, being senior citizens’ pension cheques."
Cox said a further 3,902 grants were identified for investigation.
"This represents a marked increase in fraudulent activities across all grants. I can advise that 165 cases are already under review by the Fraud Squad. A large number of these grant recipients are residing abroad and are therefore ineligible for support from the State."
She said the ministry is moving swiftly "to ensure that incidents of irregularities, wherever they may be, are thoroughly investigated internally to determine if human error is partially responsible and to take the relevant action."
Cox lamented that despite the ministry's best efforts and appeal to citizens to do the right thing "there will always be those who, for their own selfish purposes, deliberately attempt to scam the system."
She added that the ministry has created an investigation and compliance unit to address potential instances of fraud. "A strong investigative and compliance function will reduce long delays and facilitate better and faster decision-making."
Cox rejected Opposition claims that the budget did nothing to help vulnerable people. She said Government "has not reduced the dollar value of a single grant disbursed by the ministry." Cox said this ensured that "every single person who meet the criteria for a grant will continue to receive it, as they have in the past, in the same amounts, and on time."
Cox said up to September 30, 3,547 people benefitted from the ministry's food support programme at a cost of $173,551,740 while 1,057 people benefitted from general assistance grants at a cost of $5,429,184.36.
She said the budget's proposal to remove value added tax (VAT) on 45 basic food items from November 1 "will ensure that many of our families will be in a better position to afford more nutritious meals." Cox also said the ministry is not only about distributing grants to people in need.
To help people to become more resilient, Cox said, "We must gently but steadily wean them off government assistance, each according to his capacity, helping them to become stronger, more independent and more dignified."
She said for some people these are temporary situations such as losing their job or falling ill. "These (people) require some funding and psycho-social support to get back on their feet."