PETER CHRISTOPHER

While the focus of the headlines in recent days has been the lack of accountability with regard to funds distributed for COVID-19 relief by the Tobago House of Assembly, the Auditor General Report for 2020 has revealed that there have been several instances of this shortcoming across ministries, regional corporations and state agencies.

In the report’s conclusion, this was seen as one of the oversights in the rollout of COVID-19 relief.

The report stated: “It appears that no proper monitoring and oversight was in place for the Ministries and Departments tasked with the administering of the COVID-19 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 COVID-19 initiatives not being used efficiently and effectively.”

The report also noted that the pandemic exposed the lack of plans in place for such a disaster, as the report confirmed many of these agencies did not have updated business continuity and disaster recovery plans.

“This was evident when the pandemic occurred and ministries and departments were not fully prepared to deal with a disaster of this nature,” the report said.

The oversights in verification could be seen in some of the key relief programmes introduced during the pandemic. Income and food support relief grant, as the audit noted numerous failures to properly identify who had received payments.

The report noted that there were 49,433 applications for the food support grant, totalling $75,632,490 in payouts while 47,685 applicants for Income Support with $145,467,750 in payouts. $221,100,240 would have been distributed for both grants up to September 30 when the audit was completed.

There were distributed as follows:

• Automated Clearing House— $109,748,610

• Debit Card—$51,353,880

• Cheque—$59,997,750

However, the report’s analysis noted: “Due to deficiencies in input controls, 75 applicants were registered twice. This resulted in 75 applicants receiving two payments each for the Food Support Grant and the Income Support Grant. As a consequence, double payments totalling $330,660 were made.”

It was also noted that there was an instance where an applicant received double payment for the income support grant in the amount of $3,000.

The report noted that while the criteria for the payments of these grants was only one payment should be made per household, there were numerous discrepancies suggesting otherwise with a sum total of over $3 million being paid to individuals who may have benefited more than once.

“Evidence was not seen that proper checks were made to determine whether one payment was made per household. In 325 instances for payments of Income Support Grant and 388 instances for the Food Support Grant the same bank account number was used by more than one person. Payments to these applicants totalled $2,028,000 for the Income Support Grant and $1,213,290 for the Food Support Grant. Due to the lack of monitoring by the Ministry, it could not be determined whether these payments were made to bona fide applicants,” the report noted.

The report also recognised six instances where bank account numbers were not entered for Automatic Clearing House (ACH) payments while there was one applicant who received both grants, but there was no name recorded.

“This incomplete information indicates a lack of verification of input. Due to incompleteness of the database, there was difficulty in determining whether the monies were actually deposited into the applicants’ bank accounts,” the report said.

One identification card was also reportedly used for six Income Support Grant records and 20 food support applications.

“This was verified by the Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC). Twenty-six payments totalled $48,600 for both grants.

Each person has a unique National ID card number and the database is supposed to indicate upon input if the ID card number was already in the system,” the report noted.

The Salary Relief Grant experienced fewer discrepancies, but they noted that 18 instances were seen where the Employers’ National Insurance Registration number was listed as ‘0’ or ‘00000’.

Evidence was not seen that the ministry verified whether these employers were registered with NIBTT.

An analysis of both the Salary Relief Grant database and the Income Support Database revealed that 2,672 persons received both grants, with a sum total of $8,115,000 paid out to people able to benefit from both.

Regional corporations also came out short with regard to accounting for the distribution of hampers and food cards to those in need.

In its assessment of the Chaguanas Borough Corporation, it was noted that payments totalling $331,150 were made for 2,199 hampers/vouchers as at September 30, 2020 “to facilitate humanitarian aid in the form of food vouchers, pharmaceutical vouchers, family care packages and childcare gift vouchers for all eight electoral districts and the Office of the Mayor.”

However, the report said they only received listings showing 680 named persons for three out of eight electoral districts.

The report noted “The listings for two districts did not contain particulars of the recipients’ address or contact numbers. There was no documentary evidence that any of the intended recipients signed for or actually received these hampers and the donations from the corporate citizens. “

This phrase would appear consistently throughout the assessment of the various regional corporations in the report.

A look at the Diego Martin Regional Corporation would bring about a similar query.

The report noted that the DMRC spent a total of $300,000 in humanitarian aid in the form of 1,500 gift cards each valued at $200.However, distribution lists for 300 gift cards from two out of ten electoral districts were not produced for audit.

The report states a total of 348 gift cards valued at $69,600 were not accounted for based on the distribution listings provided.

In the report’s assessment of with 520 gift cards set aside for four electoral districts, inconsistencies were found. Sixty-one cards were given without any data being submitted while there nine instances of people from the same address or household receiving multiple cards. Eleven people received cards twice, while 10 times one signature was used for multiple cards, 35 cards were issued under such circumstances.

The report noted, “there were instances with 49 gift cards where batches of gift cards were either signed for by councillors, marked off to a Department or an individual with no evidence that any of the intended persons signed or actually received gift cards.”

During a press conference held on Tuesday, Finance Minister Colm Imbert highlighted some of the measures being undertaken to prevent fraud with respect to the grants being offered by the government.

“What I can is that we at Finance, we have very robust, very strict systems in place to identify persons who are trying to commit fraud and double-dip and so on. And with our latest online digital portal even more safety features are being built into that,” Imbert said.

“So it is very, very difficult for people to cheat in terms of our salary relief grant. What I can say is that I have had some very encouraging news from the Ministry of Social Development where they are also improving their detection mechanisms for persons who may be wanting to cheat,” he said.

Imbert said previously someone would go to the social development ministry and apply for an Income Support Grant, pretend they do not have a NIS number, pretend they did not get a Salary Relief Grant from the ministry of finance.

He admitted some of those individuals “slipped through the crack.”

“This year I am encouraged by what I am hearing from the ministry of social development in 2020 some of them slipped through the cracks but this year what I am hearing is that they are doing much better,” Imbert said.

He said for May around 4,800 valid applications were made for the Income Support Grant.

Imbert said this was a little smaller than originally anticipated because of the controls that are in place.

“But we are going to continue to look at that. We have collaboration, we have communication between the two ministries so we will provide them with the list of persons we are going to give grants to and they will provide us with the list they are going to give grants to,” Imbert said.

We will double-check if the same person pops up, the same name the same id card number, the same address, and so on and that person will automatically be cancelled out,” Imbert said,

“So I think we are doing much better in terms of fraudulent behaviour, detecting it and dealing with it,” he said.