Published: 15 August 2016
Mr Desmond Choo: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs in view of the Auditor’s General Office’s observation that the Singapore Police Force had overpaid $2.63 million in allowances to volunteer special constabulary officers, (a) can the Ministry explain the cause of the overpayment that was not uncovered since 2008, and (b) what steps has the Ministry taken to prevent such overpayment from happening again.
Mr Low Thia Khiang: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what are the special considerations behind the amendment of Regulations under the Police Force Act and retroactively applying them to regularise seven years of over-payments (2008-2015) to Volunteer Special Constabulary officers; (b) what measures are being taken to prevent such control lapses in future; (c) whether the retrospective approvals of the allowances are permitted under the Police Force Act; and (d) whether any action will be taken in respect of the officers who approved the revised allowances despite not being authorised to do so.
1. Madam Speaker, may I have your permission to take these 2 questions together.
2. The Volunteer Special Constabulary (VSC) is an integral part of the Singapore Police Force and has been so for the last 70 years. In 2008, the VSC strength was slightly over a thousand officers. As of June this year there were 734 VSC officers.
3. Our VSC officers come from all walks of life - university students, taxi drivers, accountants and lawyers. They have the same powers, and put on the same uniform and perform duties similar to that of a regular police officer. They are deployed for frontline duties, at Police Land Divisions, Neighbourhood Police Centres, Traffic Police, and also deployed for major events like National Day Parade.
4. VSC officers face personal danger and risks in their line of work similar to regular Police officers. They undergo rigorous basic training, twice a week in the evenings, over 24 weeks. After passing out from training, VSC officers have to contribute a minimum of 16 hours a month.
5. Many volunteer for more hours than that. On average, each VSC officer contributes about 32 hours a month. And they are not paid salaries. Instead, they are given a small allowance and that is to offset out-of-pocket expenses like transport and food.
6. In 2007, SPF conducted a review of VSC allowances. At that time the allowance was $2.80 per hour. SPF recommended to increase the VSC allowance rate from $2.80 per hour to $3.60 per hour. The reasons for the increase were considered and evaluated at Ministry HQ. They were approved by the Permanent Secretary (PS).
7. However, the officers did not take the next step of seeking approval from the Minister - as was required under the Police Force Act. Within a Ministry, the Permanent Secretary (PS) is the Chief Executive Officer. He is the Accounting Officer for the Ministry’s budget – which runs into several billions of dollars.
8. For example, the budget for MHA for this FY, is $5.34 Billion. The PS has the authority to approve expenditures up to $10 million. The decision to increase the VSC allowance in 2008 was taken at the highest senior civil servant level in the Ministry – and in money terms, well within the PS’s authority. But the Police Force Act requires the Minister to approve the increase.
9. The additional 80 cents per hour, per officer, amounts to about $2.62 million over the 7 years from 2008 to 2015. In addition, SPF had also paid allowance for VSC duty beyond the 4-hour cap stipulated in the Regulations; and pro-rated allowance for duty for less than an hour.
10. Since the payments had been made without the Minister’s personal approval, AGO classified them as overpayments. That is how AGO has put it – since the Minister’s approval should have been obtained. But it will be fair to describe what happened as a procedural error.
11. When assessing the nature of the error - the following points need to be considered:
(i) The policy intent was to increase the VSC allowance.
(ii) Ministry HQ agreed that the VSC allowance should be raised and approved this.
(iii) No one in his right mind could complain or suggest that the VSC should not get $3.60 per hour as allowance for their out of pocket expenses. Indeed most people will consider it an underpayment.
(iv) Nor can anyone reasonably say that it is wrong for the officers to get the allowance, if they volunteered for more than 4 hours; or that it is wrong if pro-rated payments were made when they volunteered for less than an hour.
12. The AGO findings were brought to my attention. I agreed with the rationale for the payments. It was right that the payments should have been made. We sought advice from AGC - AGC advised that under the Police Force Act, I can authorise the payments retrospectively. Hence I authorised the payments. The Regulations were also amended, with some provisions deleted, also in accordance with AGC’s advice.
13. I should add that I have asked my staff to review the VSC allowance rate further. The current quantum of $3.60 an hour is in my view still too low. This was not a case of officers making decisions to increase allowances, and deliberately bypassing the Minister. The officers responsible for handling the earlier approval have been spoken to about their mistake.
14. Madam Speaker, the VSC celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Our VSC officers have been doing good work for many years. They work alongside our regular Police Officers, hand in hand. They have shown tremendous dedication and commitment.
15. Let me share 2 examples. SSGT(V) Mohamad Ariff Bin Said Abdul Kader, aged 36, is currently a Project Manager in the construction industry. He joined the VSC in 2010. Despite his busy schedule juggling a full-time job and looking after his family, SSGT Ariff performs frontline policing duties on Friday and Saturday evenings with regular counterparts of the Jurong Police Division.
16. Another VSC officer is 55 year old Senior Station Inspector 2 (V) Johnny Boon, who had just extended his service for another 3 years, after having served the VSC for 26 years. He joined the VSC in 1990. As a full-time swimming and martial arts instructor, his skills were recognised and he was selected to serve as a training instructor. Besides spending 2 evenings a week as a training instructor, he also took up additional policing duties, serving on Friday or Saturday nights at Tanglin Police Division.
17. These officers, 734 of them, do not serve because of the $3.60 per hour. They come forward to serve Singapore. If any Member of this House seriously thinks that $3.60 is too much, then please let me know.
18. Our VSC officers make considerable sacrifices to step forward to partner the Police. They help keep Singapore crime-free. They do not do this for the money. So let’s keep this whole issue in perspective. If there is no complaint about the actual amount paid, then the question is the process.
19. On the process: I have set out what happened. The officers involved made a mistake. The matter has been handled with advice from AGC. And the officers have been advised to be more careful.