Fund approved despite 'blank cheque' fears

Fund approved despite 'blank cheque' fears

'Too much power' rests in PM's hands

The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to approve 587 billion baht of spending in the next fiscal year's central fund despite some lawmakers' doubts over accountable spending.

The fund, designed for prompt disbursements through deregulation, has been criticised by the opposition as almost impervious to checks.

The MPs gave the central fund the all-clear by a vote of 326 to 52.

The fund was expanded from 571 billion baht -- governed by Section 6 of the 3.1-trillion-baht budget expenditure bill -- after 16 billion baht, saved from trimming budget allocations to various ministries during the budget scrutiny stage, was added to it.

The 16 billion baht was slated as backup finance for battling the pandemic. The amount, however, has raised concerns in the opposition camp who said it was like issuing a blank cheque to the government.

Sirikanya Tansakul, an MP of the opposition Move Forward Party, said she sought a 20 billion baht cut to the central fund but to no avail.

The MP, who also sits on the budget scrutiny panel, said she saw no point adding the 16 billion baht trim fund when the government already has 89 billion baht at its disposal to fight Covid-19. "That should be more than enough," she said.

Also, the Finance Ministry has already borrowed an additional 500 billion baht for disbursing aid and relief programmes in handling the pandemic crisis.

Ms Sirikanya said it was not the question of not having enough money. The problem was inefficient and slow spending.

She said that only 23% of the current fiscal year's portion of the central fund has been spent tackling the pandemic. The MP said she was concerned the authority to tap the central fund was in the prime minister's hands, which makes its disbursement hard to monitor.

Chonlanan Srikaew, an MP of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, said he asked for a 20% cut to the central budget, without success. He insisted the 16 billion baht should be used to purchase mRNA vaccines for free inoculation.

This chunk of the fund is ready for spending from October when the new fiscal year kicks in. He said if the disbursement is not specified, he was afraid it might be squandered.

Kiat Sitthi-amorn, an MP of the coalition Democrat Party, said the design of the central fund, which bypasses the normal auditing process, may come at the expense of accountability. The central fund, in practice, should be kept at a minimum and spent only where absolutely necessary, he cautioned.

Mr Kiat said the sheer amount of the next fiscal year's central fund was almost comparable to the 650 billion baht earmarked for the government's investment for the entire year.

"I've never seen any country pile up a central fund of such magnitude and let the prime minister and cabinet have a total say over how to manage it," the MP said.

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