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Govt should review $72.3b in Covid-19 spending for any payment errors: Watchdog

Govt should review $72.3b in Covid-19 spending for any payment errors: Watchdog

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 19 Jan 2023
Author: Tham Yuen-C

Checks should be conducted to ensure transactions were bona fide and that there was no erroneous payment, said Public Accounts Committee chairman Foo Mee Har.

Given the unprecedented complexity and scale of government operations to fight Covid-19, a review should be done to ensure that public funds were spent properly.

A parliamentary watchdog comprising eight MPs set up to scrutinise public spending said the review would also ensure that any loss of public monies is reported and recovered.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), in a report presented to Parliament on Wednesday, noted that $72.3 billion spent on Covid-19 in the 2020 and 2021 financial years were not covered in a thematic audit by the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO).

Committee chairman Foo Mee Har said: “Given that the Government’s Covid-19 operations were unprecedented in intensity, complexity and scale, checks should be conducted to ensure transactions were bona fide and that there was no erroneous payment.”

She added: “The relevant agencies should follow up to rectify any errors uncovered during their internal reviews and audits, and take steps to report and recover any loss of public monies. Emergency procurement procedures should be reviewed to ensure that control measures are appropriate for future emergencies.”

The committee’s recommendation follows a thematic audit carried out by the AGO in 2022 of selected Covid-19-related procurement and expenditure managed by the Health Promotion Board, Singapore Land Authority and Ministry of Manpower.

The AGO found that the three agencies generally had in place processes and controls to manage the different stages of procurement and contract management, but there were some lapses in evaluations of contractors’ proposals as well as tell-tale signs that some documents provided by contractors might not be authentic, among other things.

The Ministry of Finance (MOF) started its review of the controls and checks on Covid-19-related procurement and expenditure in early 2022, and government agencies have also been conducting audits to ensure that transactions were proper, said the PAC.

These audits have thrown up similar findings as those in the AGO’s audits, such as incomplete documentation and lack of supporting documents.

An example of erroneous payments is that of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which found errors in the business reopening dates used to determine Job Support Scheme payouts. This resulted in an excess of payouts amounting to $370 million. As of July 2022, the Government has recovered 99.8 per cent of the amount.

The committee noted that MOF had made recommendations for appropriate records to be maintained and key decisions and transactions to be documented.

The agencies would be following up to rectify any errors uncovered during their internal reviews and audits, and take steps to recover any erroneous payments, the committee added.

In its report, the PAC also urged the Government to ensure that standards of public service delivery do not drop below pre-pandemic levels as Singapore transitions from the Covid-19 pandemic to a new normal. It noted that it is especially important to ensure that those who are less digitally savvy can access these services.

It is especially relevant given the public sector’s new hybrid work arrangements and push for digital delivery of public services, it added.

SkillsFuture Singapore: Lapses in grant management, levy collection

The PAC also raised concerns about SkillsFuture Singapore’s (SSG) lapses in managing grants and laxity in enforcing outstanding Skills Development Levy (SDL) collection, which was picked up in the AGO’s audit.

The SSG had overpaid $4.22 million in grants to individuals, employers and training providers who did not meet eligibility criteria, among other things. As at April 2022, the agency had also not collected up to $43 million it was owed in outstanding SDL, for the period 2015 to 2020.

The AGO had found that SSG did not adequately monitor if the grants it disbursed were valid and did not put in enough effort to conduct audits of employers which potentially owed significant amounts of SDL.

The committee recommended that key performance indicators be put in place alongside the funding to ensure that goals are being met.

On grants disbursements, the Ministry of Education (MOE), which the SSG comes under, told the committee that the root cause of the lapses in grants management was mainly inaccurate declarations made by grantees. These were not picked up by the manual checking process because of the high volume of grants being disbursed.

SSG also confirmed that there were no forged documents or fraud involved.

$1.8 million out of the $4.22 million of overpayment needs to be recovered and SSG has contacted all affected entities. As of Jan 3, 2023, it had recovered about $820,000.

The agency has also worked on improving its IT systems for grants management and will simplify its business rules to reduce the risk of errors.

As for SDL collection, it has carried out a comprehensive review of the governance process and is progressively contacting more than 100,000 employers with the aim to reconcile and recover the underpaid levy by end-March 2023.

To improve the SDL system, the Education Ministry will also be proposing changes to the SDL Act to ensure it is fit for purpose. A new IT system will be put in place in 2023 to support levy collection and enforcement.

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

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