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Minister of Home Affairs avoids question of applying laws retrospectively by making snarky remark

On 15 August at the 22nd session of the 13th Parliament, Members of Parliament raised questions on the findings by Auditor-General Office (AGO) in regards to overpayment of allowance by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) to its Volunteer Special Constabulary (VSC) officers.

In its audit report for Financial Year 2015/2016 published on 26 July, the AGO found that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) had overpaid its VSC officers allowance amounting to about $2.63 million from 1 April 2008 to 31 December 2015.

AGO notes that SPF had been paying its VSC officers a revised allowance rate of $3.60 per hour since 2008. This is $0.80 higher than the rate stipulated in the Police (Special Constabulary) Regulations (Cap. 235, Rg 3).

Under the regulation, special police officers attending any parade (any period of training, duty or attendance of not more than 4 hours) shall each be paid an allowance of $2.80 per hour.

AGO states that the Deputy Commissioner of Police and Permanent Secretary (Home Affairs) who approved this revised rate were not authorised under legislation to do so.

Mr Desmond Choo asked the Minister for Home Affairs, what is the cause of the overpayment that has been not uncovered since 2008 and what steps has the Ministry taken to prevent such overpayment from happening again

Mr Low Thia Khiang asked the Minister for Home Affairs on what are the special considerations behind the amendment of Regulations under the Police Force Act and retroactively applying them to regularize seven years of overpayments (2008-2015) to Volunteer Special Constabulary officer and what measures are being taken to prevent such control lapses in future. He also asked whether the retrospective approvals of the allowances are permitted under the Police Force Act and whether any action will be taken in respect of the officers who approved the revised allowances despite not being authorized to do so.

In response to the questions, Mr. Shanmugam said it was "fair to describe what happened as a procedural error,"

According to the Minister of Home Affair and Law, K Shanmugam, the allowance rate for part-time officers under the Volunteer Special Constabulary had been raised to $3.60 an hour in 2008, 80 cents above the rate stipulated by law.

Mr. Shanmugam said that the ministry headquarters has considered and evaluated the reasons for raising the VSC officers allowance from S$2.80 per hour to S$3.60 per hour in 2008.

The raised allowance was approved by the Permanent Secretary and Mr. Shanmugam told Parliament that since the policy intent was to increase the allowance, it is fair to describe it as a "procedural error".

"When assessing the nature of the error, the following points need to be considered. The policy intent was to increase the allowance. The ministry headquarters agreed that the allowance should be raised and approved this. No one in his right mind could complain or suggest that the VSC should not get S$3.60 per hour as the allowance for their out-of-pocket expenses. Indeed, most people would consider it as an underpayment."

"I agreed with the rationale of the payments. It was right that the payments should have been made."

Mr. Shanmugam said that the regulations were amended with some provisions deleted after the ministry had sought advice from the AGC.

"This was not the case of officers making decisions to increase allowances and deliberately by-passing the minister. The officers responsible for handling the earlier approval have been spoken to about their mistakes".

He added that the VSC allowance rates are currently undergoing review. "I’ve asked my staff to review the VSC allowance rates further.

The current quantum of S$3.60 per hour is in my view still too low."

Mr Shanmugam said, "They do not serve because of the $3.60 an hour. They come forward to serve Singapore." and asked anyone who does not agree on this to voice out.

Mr Low, in a follow-up question to the minister, said that the issue was not how much the volunteers should be paid. He asked, "Is this correct way for the Government to make an unlawful payment become a lawful payment, overpayment to become correct payment, and is this the way to respond to AGO's report for lapses?"

Mr Shanmugam answered, "I thank Mr. Low for his considerable interest in the matter and I'm glad he takes such a serious view of process errors."

The minister explained that he had acted according to advice from the AGC, and stressed that what had happened was "a pure process error".

He said that this should be contrasted with errors in substance, which may or may not have legal consequences.

Mr. Shanmugam went on to said what is correct and not correct has to go on the basis of the law.

"There are different types of wrongs. First, there is a process error. Then there can be an error in substance. Then there can be an error both in process and substance. One must keep these distinct. What happened here is a pure process error. If you look at that, contrast with an error in a substance which may or may not has legal consequences,"

Instead of answering Mr Low's question of whether is it right for the Police to turn an unlawful act into a lawful act retrospectively, Mr Shanmugam went on to describe a hypothetical scenario of a group of people taking over an organisation.

"The new group appoints its friends. It sets up a structure which helps to vacuum money out of the organisation, and its own accountants say in writing, despite repeated requests, the organisation did not provide us with all the critical documents relating to the transactions with the friends".

"And assume they repeat it every year, and yet the organisation doesn't do anything. That is an error both in the process and in substance, and that is unlawful. And that must have consequences.”

“So let's keep things in perspective," he concluded.

Mr Low had wanted to reply to Mr Shanmugam's snarky remarks but the Speaker of Parliament, Halimah Yacob immediately jumped to the next question without giving him a chance, even when Mr Low had immediately stood up after Mr Shanmugam finished his comments. Mr Low raised his hands up to indicate he has something to add, however Speaker denied Mr Low's follow up questions by saying that the question has passed.

Halimah Yacob appeared shocked when Mr Shanmugam stood and pointed out that he is ok for Mr Low to respond,  however she maintained her original stance that the question has already passed.