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Jearlean John

Probe THA’s COVID- 19 relief measures immediately!

Opposition deputy leader Jearlean John has called for a probe after discrepancies were found in several Tobago House of Assembly (THA) divisions concerning distribution of millions of dollars of food, hampers and vouchers related to COVID -19 relief measures .

This, after the Auditor General’s report ( 2019- September 2020) noted discrepancies surrounding THA’s handling of State-funded COVID food hampers valued $658, 430 and $7.8 million worth of food cards also funded by the state and taxpayers .

Collective values of the hampers and food cards said to be now under query is $8.5million.

The THA’s Division of Health, Wellness and Family Development yesterday admitted the report has in some instances “pointed out areas of internal weaknesses in our systems of control.”

The report stated it was not ascertained whether the food vouchers– distributed by the THA’s Division of Health, Wellness and Family Development reached the intended recipients who had suffered negative impact from the pandemic.

The report stated that Division– headed by PNM Tobago leader Tracey Davidson-Celestine– received food hampers and vouchers totalling $658, 430 .

The report stated the Division’s procedures for distribution of the vouchers were not adhered to as vouchers were given to people who didn’t complete the required “Client” form.

Distribution of food vouchers by this division’s secretary’s office was done without interview from the senior social support officers. Consequently the quantity of food hampers couldn’t be accurately determined, it said.

The report also found discrepancies concerning COVID- 19 food card releases managed by THA’s Division of Finance and Economy. That Division is managed by THA’s Joel Jack.

The report also found weaknesses in internal controls for the emergency rental assistance programme including details in payment vouchers, and criteria for rental assistance were not followed on two applicants.

A THA Health and Wellness/Family Division press release yesterday, stated the Auditor General’s report “has in some instances pointed out areas of internal weaknesses in our systems of control. The information will assist the Division in examining ways and means in which it can close the existing gaps.”

The Division stated it accounted for all hampers and food vouchers distributed within the COVID-19 period in question. The number in the time frame of the audit was 1,197 individual assistance at a value of $658,410. There were 797 food vouchers and 400 food hampers distributed.

The Division also said application forms go through verification procedure (sic)“ Resulting in the distribution of a voucher ranging from $500 to $800. No applicant is required to be interviewed by a senior social worker.

The Division was satisfied the vouchers distributed were “able to bring relief to single mothers, families, and others who experienced hardship during the pandemic.”

The Division stated the Office of the Secretary “is often engaged” in the distribution of hampers and vouchers. Hampers in the form of vouchers were also given to organisations like the Blind Welfare Association, among 20 other NGOs, to distribute to people they serve.

The Division said of almost 2000 transactions of rental assistance processed there were two instances, in the report, where two pieces of documents weren’t seen and “the manual method of reporting has its own unique set of challenges.”

UNC’s John said,“This must all be probed. Based on these revelations we owe a debt of gratitude to the Auditor General’s Department for their timely reporting on the lack of accounting of proper accountability and oversight in the PNM THA’s handling of COVID relief.’’

She added: “Also noted is that at this time based on the 6-6 THA election results the PNM has resisted any overtures at collaborative management which would have served to ensure a better accountability system when there’s need for equity. I have no doubt the same lack of accountability exists in its handling of the COVID relief .’’