Minister of Social Development and Family Services Camille Robinson-Regis and Permanent Secretary at the ministry Jacinta Bailey-Sobers, respond to questions from the media at yesterday’s press conference discussing funding to religious bodies for COVID-19.

Minister of Social Development and Family Service (MSDFS) Camille Robinson-Regis is warning churches across the country that they will be held accountable to God if they misappropriate funds aimed at helping the poor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its latest social support initiative, the Government is providing $30 million over three months to over 30 faith-based organisations to help the needy during the continuing COVID lockdown measures.

The funding, which is being provided through the Ecclesiastical Division of the Office of the Prime Minister and the MSDFS, is meant to specifically purchase food items to assist people in communities rendered vulnerable by the lockdown measures.

“We, therefore, anticipate that no one will be left behind,” Robinson-Regis said at a news conference yesterday.

She said the move to utilise the churches was to ensure they reached more people on the “ground level.”

But amid the goodwill from the State comes strict guidelines on the way the money is to be accounted for. The minister said each beneficiary of the grants will be required to provide a proper written account within two weeks of disbursement of funds and “they have to keep the receipts and other bills and they have to submit that with their report.”

Robinson-Regis said while she is confident in the faith of the religious bodies, they have all been asked to sign an agreement on how the money is supposed to be spent. She said if there is any breach the other tranches will not be disbursed.

But she said ultimately: “They know that God is watching them” and if they decide to go against the agreement, “they will have to answer to God.”

Robinson-Regis said last Saturday 20 churches collected their first cheques and approximately 11 are yet to do so. She assured most of the religious organisations have been communicated with and there are no concerns, except for the Jehovah Witnesses who have to discuss “ideological concerns” before deciding whether they will accept the funding.

The minister explained that while the money is to specifically help the poor in society, the amount paid per body was calculated using an already established mechanism for the allocations and that was based on the registered membership of each organisation. She also gave a detailed percentage of the money each one will receive according to the set criteria.

The one thing for certain, she added, is that “nobody is going to ask you what religion you are. The objective is to reach as many people as possible.”

Robinson-Regis said this measure could also capture any child who was left behind during the recent school feeding food card initiative.

During yesterday’s news conference it was also revealed that the MSDFS will start payment of rental assistance grants later this week.

The grant is valued at $2,500 per month for three months and will be paid directly to the landlords of those unable to meet their monthly commitments because of job loss or reduction in income as a result of the COVID measures.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services Jacinta Bailey-Sobers said there were about 1,500 applications for the rental assistance and the ministry will “be working to begin paying those landlords later this week, at least to start.”

According to Bailey-Sobers, there have been approximately 30,000 applicants for overall support.

She said so far, 2,991 have received payment and added that the ministry is seeking the services of a private firm to help “speed up the process.” She said with that assistance, they will be able to process up to 4,000 applications per week from this week.