The Education Ministry will need over $5 billion to complete 161 schools whose construction are still incomplete - plus it also needs whistleblower law and policies to prevent nepotism in agencies under its purview.
This information was confirmed by Education Ministry acting permanent secretary Kurt Meyer yesterday when ministry officials appeared before a Parliament Public Administration and Appropriation committee. The committee examined ministry oversight in agencies under its purview and private secondary school funding.
“The bottom line (on completing the 161 incomplete schools) is money,” Meyer told the committee.
The criteria to determine which schools get funding for completion is the extent of their construction. If a school is 99 per cent ready, it will be completed ahead of one that’s 98 per cent done, he said. He said schools are in different stages of construction: some contractors are still on site, others have abandoned sites and these have been taken over by residents, while other residents are protecting other abandoned sites.
Meyer said there are difficulties although the ministry secures sites and “it’s extremely challenging.” In cases of contractors abandoning sites but not handing them over, he said the ministry is negotiating with a number of them currently.
“We made significant payments recently and we’re currently trying to get as many sites as we can back online,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the huge August 2018 earthquake damaged “quite a number” of existing schools and a couple are a “total loss.” Apart from rebuilding these, he said focus is only on repairing.
JSC member Wade Mark queried the Education Facilities Company Ltd’s work on incomplete projects, including the Chatham Primary and Santa Flora primary schools.
Meyer said the last few years with EFCL have been very challenging and there’s no timeline for resolution. Since last fiscal year the EFCL has been unable to deal with projects, making the ministry lose time, he added.
“But we met EFCL this week and they’re discussing getting contractors back on site by next week. Some additional payments may have to be made,” Meyer.
He also confirmed there’s no formal policy for reporting of misconduct in state agencies over which the ministry has oversight. He said the ministry sometimes get unsigned reports from staffers but the difficulty is there’s no whistleblower law.
“It’s difficult for an employee to blow the whistle without statutory protection. Some protection is in the Procurement Act, but generally there’s none - so we’re in a bit of a bind,” he said.
If one reached the whistleblowing stage, he added, “It meant monitoring wasn’t where it should be. You shouldn’t have to depend on whistleblowers, Systems should be robust enough for you to know what’s happening.”
He said the real problem is protection for the whistleblower because of victimisation.
“This is a small country, even with unsigned letters, you can know who did it,” he noted.
Meyer said the ministry depends on reports from agencies concerning fraud and nepotism but the ministry also flags issues, follows board minutes and checks issues in the newspapers.
On Mark’s concerns about a report on alleged nepotism at YTEPP, Meyer said the ministry didn’t request a specific report on that since it was dealt with. Saying “this was T&T and it may be a little hard to work out relationships,” he added the situation continues under discussion. He said the ministry may have to request a list of staff and family members.
“It’s going to be difficult but we’re investigating,” he said.
Meyer said he’d check to see if the wife of the former YTEPP CEO is currently employed there. He agreed a plan was necessary to deal with nepotism, since some private sector companies have this. He said it was difficult to do this in the public sector, but the ministry is examining the issue and reviewing systems.
He agreed the ministry needs additional staff. He said if some issues requiring audit are red-flagged, the Finance Ministry is called in. Meyer further agreed his office should have direct oversight over agencies.
“If you have to give $1 billion to an agency, you want to know how money is being spent. We had some very unfortunate incidents with agencies for certain devices,” he said, adding the ministry is engaging Finance on oversight.