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Minister of Finance, Colm Imbert.

The “double-dipping” which occurred among some Salary Relief Grant applicants shows that people are “a bit desperate.”

Finance Minister Colm Imbert acknowledged this at yesterday’s first post-Cabinet media briefing for the Government’s new term.

And he’s warned that the formulation of the upcoming 2021 Budget is something of a Catch 22 matter because of two sets of calls coming from commentators.

Imbert said the “double-dipping” which had been found among some Salary Relief Grant applicants wasn’t unexpected.

“You have to understand people are a bit desperate here, you have to have a human side in all of this,” he said, noting the ministry’s Central Audit Unit did a report on the situation.

The life of the Salary Grant Unit will be extended to year’s end to deal with the backlog of people who applied but didn’t qualify because they didn’t put all the information needed. Genuine cases would be processed, “but it’s a labourious task.”

He admitted there would have been some human error and some applications may have fallen through the cracks and not have been dealt with appropriately. He, however, said a report on people not being paid – which the ministry checked – was wrong. Among the three people in it, he said one got the grant, one never applied and another got a grant from Social Development.

Imbert also gave a reminder about the September 28 forum which Government hosts on the Budget and the economy. Details will be given on T&T’s finances he said, including the effect of the COVID pandemic on T&T’s revenues and expenditure.

“It’s intended to let the public know what exactly is happening with T&T’s income and expenditure in the last year. We’ll also take a very, very brief look into what we’re looking at for the next five years,” Imbert added.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley will be among the 80 public and private participants, plus 300 others via virtual systems. The Hyatt Regency ballroom will utilised with a social distanced spaced setting.

Imbert said so far, estimates for the Budget deficit are still in the vicinity of the $15 billion given earlier in the year, “… Until the public servants do the final numbers, that’s the kind of figure we’re looking at.”

He said there had been significant reduction in tax revenues of various kinds, including due to depressed oil prices.

Imbert said it was also no secret that Government would implement the property tax and launch the Revenue Authority since this was stated in People’s National Movement’s election manifesto.

“We didn’t hide that, we said we’d do evaluation of properties and fill the rolls (on properties) to implement the tax.”

On whether it will be a challenge for people to pay, he said the overall situation was a complex Catch 22 one. He noted one group of commentators are calling for Government to balance the Budget and cut and another warned against borrowing, including from the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund

“How on earth is one expected to deal with these two sets of calls?” he added.

Imbert said if Government did what one set was recommending, about $15 billion will have to to be cut from T&T’s expenditure and that could impact expenditure that has to be done for pensions, social welfare, disability payments and debt. He said that was $3.5 billion monthly.

If Government cut expenditure to $35 billion as some proposed, T&T would descend into chaos, he added. And if taxes were stopped, he queried where that revenue would come from.

“So it’s easy for commentators to say ‘cut’ but it’s not easy to do … all over the world countries are struggling, Dubai also, so you can’t just do what people are asking you to do just like that, we have to be very very careful,” Imbert said.

Imbert said he hadn’t expected NATUC at the Budget forum. NATUC’s has again declined to attend the event. He said he didn’t really think people who were in active politics contesting against the PNM would have been favourably disposed to Government.

“But we’ve gotten tremendous feedback on recommendations from private sector, NGOS, JTUM, other unions, business groups, etc … almost 45 pages of bullet points.”