Wednesday, 09 May 2012 02:30
By Alex Holder
Antigua St John's - The question about whether or not Antigua should employ a credit system in the place of the existing per diem system that manages the overseas spending for government ministers and officials has been met with strong resistance.
Caribarena.com took a look in to the matter on Tuesday, and according to a source close to government finance and management, the per diem system provides more benefits than shortfalls when compared to the credit cards.
The source explained that unlike a credit card system, the issuance of per diems actually guards against over spending and abuse something that the credit card would not be able to do effectively.
While the source agreed that the credit card would provide a more detailed insight into the spending habits of ministers and officials who go abroad, it would not necessarily serve as a deterrent for extravagance.
In attempting to explain the process of the per diem system, the source said that per diems are only issued for trips that are approved and, where an individual is traveling, the grade of the individual’s employment status and the length of their stay determine the amount.
The per diems are issued for daily expenses and include mainly meals and accommodation.
“It differs. If you are traveling in the Caribbean it is one rate, if you are going to North America it is another rate and if you are going to Europe it is another, and of course Asia has another rate. At least that is my understanding of how the system works,” the source said.
When asked to provide the exact figures allocated for each category of travel, the source said he could not provide such.
In the meantime however he did point out that while individuals get a per diem to cover their trips’ daily costs, they are not required to return any monies that are not spent, neither are they allowed to claim for monies expended outside of the amount allocated.
For instance, he said if an individual choses to stay in a hotel that costs more than what was budgeted for in his per diem allowance, he or she does so on their own conscience. Likewise, if they opt to stay in a hotel that costs less than was budgeted for then they do not have to return the unused funds.
“They give me a fixed amount so if I choose to go into another type of accommodation, that's my business, I have to foot the bill.”
Caribarena understands that each ministry has an allocation for travel, and each request submitted for travel allowance (per diem) must be justified and a check carried out to make sure that sufficient funds are available to finance the trip.
This means that if the necessary ministry found itself having utilized all or most of its funds on other business then travel through that ministry would be restricted.
Speaking to the proposed credit card system, the senior government finance official said, “It could end up costing the government more,” citing the instance where a credit card could be used on things like unusually expensive hotels and meals that would normally be ignored with a restrictive per diem.
“That is human nature. They are going to book a 5 star property when under normal circumstances they wouldn’t stay there. They are going to have the most expensive meals like sirloin and lobster. So, it could end up costing the government more,” the source said.
He said if government is to even consider employing such a program it must implement very stringent guidelines to govern the use of the cards.
In the meantime, Budget Director Carolyn Charles-Tonge said the there are actually two ministries responsible for the flow of per diem that run through the central government, including the Ministry of Finance and the Office of the Prime Minister.
She explained that the PM’s office handles the “non-established” portion of the process while the establishment department (Finance Ministry) deals with the other aspect.
“It is aggregate. What they (the ministries) have to do is decide what programs they believe are important, and they will make the application, which will have to be signed off by their respective Permanent Secretaries, then their Ministers, then it will come up to the FS’s office to sign again.
Then it goes to the Prime Minister’s office and then it goes on to Establishment, or in the case of non-established where it stays at the Prime Minister’s office who sends it directly to thetreasury,” the budget director explained.
She said the treasury is responsible for the actual payment of the funds based on the allocations made and the individual requests.
What the ministries can apply for is restrictive to the funds available in the treasury, Charles-Tonge said.
Chairman of the Antigua Labour Party Gaston Brown had proposed that a credit card system replace that of the per diem, and he has pledged to foster this program if the ALP is to regain the reigns of government.
Attempts to reach Brown for details on how he proposes to administer this initiative were unsuccessful.