Miniter of Communications Donna Cox

With under two weeks to go before the national budget is presented by Finance Minister Colm Imbert, questions are being asked about where cut-backs will be made and the areas to be most affected.

There are deep concerns that any reductions in State aid could impact pensioners and those receiving social welfare assistance from the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services.

In an immediate reassurance to the thousands of citizens, who look to her ministry for survival aid each month, Social Development and Family Services Minister Donna Cox, in an exclusive interview with Guardian Media, said, “The Prime Minister made a commitment to maintain the investment in the Social Safety Net. The ministry is usually allocated adequate funding to deliver on its mandate given the vulnerable nature of its clients.”

In providing this safety net, Cox said what could be her ministry’s biggest challenge in the year ahead, “is how to successfully respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a lot of uncertainty about how long it will last, how much of our staff and the population will be affected, as well as the extent of the demand for services from our ministry.”

“Our greatest test will lie in how we are able to balance the unknown and unspecified emerging needs of our citizens as a result of COVID-19 while maintaining our traditional services, so that no one is left behind. It will require our very best judgment, constant vigilance, continuous fine-tuning of services and the application of significant national resources.”

Cox said she, along with a team, have been constantly seeking ways to improve different aspects of services, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.

“The Government is concerned about the welfare of the young, the aged, the disabled, those with pre-existing medical conditions, those who have lost their jobs, businesses unable to open, single parents and so on,” the minister said.

Cox confirmed that safety net programmes in her ministry accounted for the vast majority of financial allocations on a year -to- year basis.

She said the ministry’s provision for 2020 was approximately $5.3 billion, and this safety net was set to constitute the majority of the allocation for 2021.

Tasked with looking after the nation’s most vulnerable as the country continues to navigate its way through the pandemic, Cox is responsible for the administration of income support to persons who were retrenched, terminated or experienced any reduction in income.

She explained the Ministry of Finance in collaboration with the National Insurance Board of T&T, has responsibility for the administration of the Salary Relief Grant.

Pointing out that these are two distinct initiatives, Cox revealed that to date-income relief in the sum of $142,011,750 was paid to 46,533 citizens, while 2,206 Rental Assistance applicants received the sum of $9,453,200.

A total of $50 million was allocated for Rental Assistance, while $171 million was allocated for income support, Cox said.

While Cox insisted that her ministry has been up to date with the daily processing of applications, she disclosed that 447 incomplete applications were currently being attended to.

“Efforts are being made to reach out to these persons so that the outstanding information can be submitted to complete the processing.”

At last Thursday’s post Cabinet media briefing, Imbert said, “Double dipping” which occurred among some Salary Relief Grant applicants showed that people are “a bit desperate.”

Imbert also admitted that there would have been some human error and some applications may have fallen through the cracks and not have been dealt with appropriately.

He also stated the life of the Salary Grant Unit will be extended to year’s end to deal with the backlog of people who applied but did not qualify because they did not put all the information needed on the forms.

Regarding the 4,000 plus applicants that attempted to defraud the State when they applied for assistance during the initial lock-down that spanned March to June – Cox said, “Fraudulent matters were sent to the Fraud Squad for attention. The ministry is awaiting a response. Some additional possible fraudulent applicants have been uncovered which will be sent to the Fraud Squad.”

All matters, she said, were related to Rental Assistance.

“The process is robust enough to determine the fraud issues. There was some measure of duplication which may have occurred with regard to the Social Assistance Grants administered by the MSDFS and the Salary Relief Grant administered by the Ministry of Finance. The two Ministries are treating with this matter.”

Efforts to get this statistical information from the T&T Police Service up to Friday, proved futile.

Increase in food cards

During the first lock-down, Cox said her ministry increased the number of food cards to vulnerable citizens.

Food support was provided to 121,247 individuals and households.

“Out of this amount 25,101 permanent food card holders benefited from a top up. As at September 2020, 27,741 households are permanent food card holders. Some 20,500 cards were distributed to families with children registered on the School Feeding Programme.”

Going forward, Cox said Cabinet will decide on how the various target groups will be addressed as necessary.

Echoing the sentiments of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley that no government can fight this pandemic alone, Cox said with God’s help, “will continue to stand and serve our people through this crisis and beyond. Moreover, under the astute leadership of the Prime Minister, I am confident that I will be able to confront the challenges as they emerge.”

In May, Imbert said the Government had spent some $934 million on COVID-19 relief programmes and expects to spend near $6 billion by the end of September.

Responding to Imbert’s admittance that some applications may have fallen through the cracks, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar told Guardian Media “the Government must account as to how these grants were distributed. It could very well be a case where applicants from Opposition constituencies are being neglected. It is unacceptable that so many are kept waiting for relief up till today.”

Once again, Persad-Bissessar said the Government has let the people down.

“Their entire administration has been running the same way these grants are-with no plan or direction. The application form itself had to be altered several times in the initial stages.”

Persad-Bissessar took jabs at Rowley’s regime for failing to say how many vulnerable people who applied for the Salary Relief and Rental Assistance grants have not been paid.

“When it comes to accounting to the nation, this government has never been cooperative. Their unwillingness to account to the public on this urgent matter is troubling. Their politicising of the pandemic has created more problems for the people of T&T.”

Persad-Bissessar said everyday constituents have been flooding her office, as well as Opposition MPs and councillors for assistance, as they await payments in this difficult financial time.

She said it was not unreasonable to consider that these grants were a general election ploy to woo votes.