MPs flag ministries' underuse of land resources

MPs flag ministries' underuse of land resources
Mr Cedric Foo, the MP for Pioneer and chair of the PAC

The weak management of land resources by two ministries has been pinpointed by Parliament's watchdog of public-sector accounts.

The panel of MPs was particularly concerned with the underuse of land, buildings and equipment, such as at the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

The AVA, a statutory board under the Ministry of National Development (MND), had vacant buildings and underused laboratories in Sembawang as well as research equipment bought in the 1970s that had not been used recently.

But the matter is being resolved, the AVA has informed the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The issue of resource management is one of four areas the PAC noted in its latest annual report submitted to Parliament on Wednesday and released yesterday.

The other lapses are in the administration of schemes and programmes, procurement, and the backdating of documents.

In another case, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) had wrongly rented out a plot of land to a contractor at a nominal rate, the panel noted. This has since been rectified, as Mindef has drawn up a new agreement with the contractor and will charge it rental according to its revenue.

The PAC, made up of eight MPs who scrutinise how public funds are spent, tracks what government agencies have done to correct irregularities in the use of public funds.

It studied the latest Auditor-General's report, which found lapses in five ministries and 13 statutory boards for the financial year 2013/2014.

It then asked the ministries to account for how they had addressed the gaps.

The AVA said it would dispose of old equipment to free up storage space. It is also exploring the possibility of returning its unused land to the Singapore Land Authority.

The Auditor-General had found that several of the AVA's buildings and laboratories in Sembawang were vacant or underused. One even had termites, while others contained condemned furniture.

The Auditor-General had also highlighted some underused equipment, such as a tractor and a water filter, and research tools bought in the 1970s and 1980s that had gone unused in recent years.

The AVA told the panel that it has since completed a review of how all its land, buildings and facilities are used.It has also looked at whether it can relocate some of its offices and laboratory testing facilities from its Sembawang site to its Lim Chu Kang premises.

Mr Cedric Foo, the MP for Pioneer and chair of the PAC, said: "Singapore is land-scarce. Government agencies, as stewards of the land, ought to use land in the most efficient way. Otherwise, they are wasting resources."

Turning to other areas, the PAC found that where schemes and programmes had been improperly administered, the ministries and statutory boards had acted to redress their lapses.

For example, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board has settled 90 per cent of the Medisave claims that had been wrongly given out, and the Ministry of Health is working with it to recover the rest, said the report.

To prevent future wrong claims, the CPF Board has improved how it tracks and follows up on Medisave claims.

Also of concern was how an MND officer had created and backdated documents during the audit of the Gardens by the Bay development project.

The officer, who is still employed, has been disciplined, the MND told the panel.

It added that internal procurement, project management and contract management processes will be tightened to stop such misconduct from happening again.

Unlike in past years, the panel's report this year does not focus heavily on procurement lapses.

The reason is that the Auditor-General has shifted attention from procurement to other lapses "to give other agencies time to fix their procurement processes", said Mr Foo.

But the PAC will revisit the issue in future reviews, he said. "We will give the agencies time to fix it. But we will surely want to come back to procurement."

This article was first published on Feb 6, 2015.
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