EACH year the Government spends $5 billion to provide individuals with social assistance, and amid growing demand this sum is being carefully scrutinised, said Finance Minister Colm Imbert on Monday.
He was piloting a bill in the House of Representatives to approve the Finance (Variation of Appropriation) (Financial Year 2021) Bill 2022.
This bill, as discussed at last Friday’s Standing Finance Committee, will transfer $574,889,840 from the Ministry of Finance to the Judiciary ($35,195,944), Personnel Department ($8,640,671) and Ministry of Social Development and Family Services ($531,053,225.)
Imbert said, “There are certain ministries and departments that we have to keep a very close eye on, Social Development in particular because of the amount of money that is spent in that ministry. I don’t think members understand the vast sums of money that are spent in the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services.”
He said these funds provide a social safety net.
“We have an unfunded pension plan for senior citizens. This is not a contributory plan. Senior citizens are entitled as of right, when they get to the age of 65, to receive a senior citizens pension, once they meet certain criteria in terms of their income levels, but they do not contribute in a specific way.”
Imbert said over 100,000 people receive the senior citizens grant.
“The Government of Trinidad and Tobago spends $4 billion – $4 billion – every year on the payment of senior citizens’ pension.
“This is a number that is increasing all the time. Therefore we in Finance are keeping a close eye on this expenditure.”
He said this was to make sure only those who are eligible receive the pension.
He explained that people “who may have passed away, migrated/left the country, or for another reason no longer qualify for the senior citizens pension are still on the list, because it keeps going up.”
He said last year it became clear the Government had to supplement the allocation for senior citizens’ grants and other forms of social assistance, including food cards and disability grants.
“We have to keep an eye on that ,because the number of beneficiaries, particularly during covid, has been on the increase.
“These are significant sums of money – hundreds of millions of dollars we are talking about. When you add it all up, we are talking about $5 billion.”
He hailed Minister of Social Development Donna Cox for her efforts in rooting out inefficiency, potential fraud and other areas of wastage, but said the Government had to supply extra funding to its social safety net programme.
Saying the budget deficit was first predicted at $8 billion, he said lower energy-sector revenues, coupled with the economic fallout of the pandemic, had worsened the deficit by another $5 billion.
However, Imbert said while last October the Government had predicted a total deficit this year of $13.7 billion, it had now turned out to be $13 billion, for “all sorts of reasons.”