Govt should ensure ample manpower to run Covid-19 support schemes: Parliamentary committee

The Government should constantly review wider schemes to manage fiscal challenges, said the Estimates Committee. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - A parliamentary committee has urged the Government to ensure sufficient manpower and resources are deployed to oversee Covid-19 support schemes, given the rapidly evolving pandemic situation.

It should also constantly review wider schemes to manage fiscal challenges, and discontinue those that become irrelevant so that expenditures remain sustainable in the future.

These were some key recommendations released on Tuesday (Aug 24) in a 93-page report by the Estimates Committee - a panel of eight MPs set up by Parliament to examine government spending.

Chaired by Mr Ang Wei Neng, an MP for West Coast GRC, the panel comprises seven People's Action Party MPs as well as the Workers' Party's Associate Professor Jamus Lim, an MP for Sengkang GRC.

The committee also urged the Government to appoint a ministry to lead efforts on managing the fiscal burden of healthcare.

On the Singapore Green Plan 2030, the committee proposed that the Ministry of Finance (MOF) work with the coordinating ministries to minimise duplication and wastage in implementing the national movement towards sustainable development.

For its report, the committee considered the Government's Budgets for 2020 and 2021. Last year, five Budgets were introduced, with almost $100 billion committed to tackling Covid-19.

The report is the first by the committee since it was appointed by the 14th term of Parliament, which opened on Aug 24, 2020. The last report by a previous committee was issued on Nov 14, 2019.

Mr Ang said: "With the significant amount of public funds set aside to help Singaporeans cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the committee expressed the need for robust monitoring mechanisms, transparency and accountability of the various support schemes."

The committee asked MOF if specific vulnerable groups had been targeted for support, and how it was measuring the effectiveness of its schemes.

In response, the ministry said it had devoted $13.8 billion to public health measures to protect lives; $73.5 billion to workers and businesses to protect livelihoods; and $10 billion worth of immediate relief to strengthen social support.

On top of existing monitoring mechanisms, MOF has also set up an inter-agency Covid-19 Budget Implementation Committee to track the progress of support measures introduced.

MOF told the committee that early data on these measures has been "encouraging", with the schemes reaching their intended target groups while succeeding at preserving jobs and cushioning shocks to businesses and households.

The committee called on MOF to release broader summary assessments at "useful points in time", and suggested that the ministry incorporate data from research surveys and studies for these assessments where possible.

MOF was also asked what could be done to prevent errors like the $370 million in Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) aid mistakenly paid out last year after the Government used the wrong dates to determine the amount that over 5,000 companies should get.

As at May this year, over $250 million had been recovered through automatic offsets from the affected firms' JSS payouts, MOF told the committee.

Another $20 million, or 5 per cent, is expected to be offset from future payouts, with offsets to be completed by December when the final JSS tranche is paid out to eligible firms, it said.

Larger affected firms have committed to return an additional $83 million, and any remaining overpayment will be recovered in cash, it added.

The ministry estimated that there would be fewer than 1,000 firms where future JSS payouts would be insufficient to fully offset the excess payment. It also said no firm that received the erroneous payments had been wound up, as at May 10.

Mr Ang said the MPs were concerned by the error, but noted that the Government has been "upfront and transparent". The committee urged the authorities to provide periodic updates on the matter.

It also asked MOF to sketch out measures to address Singapore's challenging fiscal position, in view of an expected $53.7 billion to be drawn from past reserves to deal with Covid-19.

MOF shared how the Government has been managing baseline spending, strengthening accountability and monitoring performance in revenue and expenditures.

The committee also encouraged the ministry to present the annual Budget Book and biennial Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review in a more readable and engaging way.

It suggested developing contingency plans for appropriate economic and public health responses to future pandemics.

Noting that public spending on health and aged care will continue to rise, the committee encouraged the Government to continue exploring new initiatives to nudge Singaporeans to adopt healthy lifestyles, to manage the increasing expenditure.

Employers in private and public sectors can provide a supportive work environment for Singaporeans to participate in national health initiatives, it suggested.

On the Green Plan, the committee asked if there would be regular reports on the status of targets set out.

MOF said these would be reported as part of the annual budgetary process, given that the plans involve five ministries - Education, National Development, Sustainability and the Environment, Trade and Industry, and Transport.

These ministries may also compile a consolidated update from time to time.

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