MOI confirms vouchers may be missing

By Loa Iok-sin, Flora Wang, Shih Hsiu-chuan and Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTERS

Wed, Jan 21, 2009 - Page 1

The Ministry of the Interior (MOI) yesterday reiterated that an unknown number of consumer vouchers may have gone missing because of administrative errors at collection centers, but said the exact number was unclear and it had not decided what action to take.

The ministry’s statement came after the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) reported yesterday that nearly NT$11 million (US$327,000) in vouchers may have been mistakenly distributed.

On Sunday, the government issued vouchers worth NT$3,600 to eligible citizens and residents as part of plans to boost domestic consumption.

“Figures returned from voucher collection centers on Jan. 18 showed that some vouchers had gone missing, but so far, we’re not sure about the exact number,” Deputy Minister of the Interior Chien Tai-lang (簡太郎) told reporters at the ministry’s year-end press conference.

MOI Chief Secretary Weng Wen-te (翁文德) said the ministry was not sure how many collection centers had made mistakes.

“The vouchers are not necessarily missing. So far, our investigations have found that it may be because some people claimed vouchers for others but did not sign for each set they took,” Minister of the Interior Liao Liou-yi (廖了以) said.

The rules for collecting vouchers stipulate that a person must sign for each set of vouchers he or she picks up.

“We’ve randomly selected centers with missing vouchers in [Taipei’s] Neihu District [內湖] and Da-an [大安] and two in Sanchong [三重], Taipei County, and confirmed that these centers have a problem with missing signatures,” Liao said.

According to statistics released by the ministry late on Sunday night, more than 21 million, or 91.29 percent of all eligible nationals and foreign residents, picked up their vouchers from 14,202 collection centers countrywide.

The total value of the vouchers handed out on that day, Chien said, was more than NT$76 billion.

Some reporters pressed officials yesterday for exact numbers.

“This is your year-end press conference — you should have all the numbers ready,” one reporter said.

The ministry also said it had not decided how to deal with missing vouchers.

“We’ve bought insurance and insurance companies will cover losses of up to NT$1,500 for each collection center,” Weng said. “For all 14,202 centers, they will cover up to NT$1.5 million in total.”

When asked who would cover losses above that figure, Liao only said the ministry would “try to negotiate with insurance companies” in that case.

Liao said yesterday that he would not hold any of the 180,000 people who had worked at the distribution centers accountable for any errors.

“I understand that each cent of the money is taxpayers’ money and I believe that none of the center workers did anything wrong on purpose,” Liao told a separate news conference at the ministry later last night. “I will shoulder all the responsibility myself.”

Liao said the ministry had begun a thorough investigation into the issue and promised to make the results public by Friday.

“I assure you the accuracy of the voucher distribution will be higher than 99.993 percent once everything is straightened out,” he said.

He said he would pay any losses not covered by insurance companies out of his own pocket.

“I believe the salary I’ve received since I took office [in May] would be sufficient to pay any losses not covered by insurance,” Liao said. “If my money is not enough to pay for it, I believe that people out there who agree with my ideas will step up to help me.

“Each cent of the money is not only hard-earned taxpayer money, but also money that belongs to our national treasury. I will not let our national treasury suffer even one cent in losses,” he said, choking back tears.

Liao said he would step down if the public was not satisfied once the rate of distribution accuracy had been shown to be at least 99.993 percent.

Meanwhile, when asked how the ministry would deal with a case in Banciao City (板橋), Taipei County, in which a woman said the five voucher envelopes she received were empty, Chien said: “We can’t really do anything about it — just like you can’t ask the bank to compensate you if you find you have less cash than you withdrew after leaving the counter.”

Earlier yesterday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said the consumer vouchers had had a positive effect on the economy.

The administration will continue to track the effect of the vouchers, he said. If they stimulate consumption, they could help stabilize the service sector and the economy as a whole, he said.

Ma made the remarks while receiving newly appointed presidential advisers at the Presidential Office yesterday morning.

The world is watching Taiwan’s attempt to boost the economy with vouchers, Ma said, adding that the country’s economic fundamentals were sound.

However, the public should be patient as it may take time to revitalize the economy, he said.

Executive Yuan Spokesman Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) said yesterday that media had made too much of his remarks on Sunday that the government was considering issuing consumer vouchers again if the vouchers proved effective.

The government has not decided to issue consumer vouchers again as the effects must still be assessed, Su said.

Su made the remarks in response to reports in the Chinese-language Commercial Times and the Economic Daily News. Both published front-page stories saying the government might repeat the scheme.

The government said in November that it expected the NT$85.7 billion voucher scheme to boost this year’s GDP growth by 0.64 percentage points.

The Economic Daily News quoted Su as saying the government would issue vouchers again if it would raise GDP growth by more than 1 percentage point.

Ma said during a TV interview last night that it was unlikely vouchers would be issued again because they were a “quick fix” to stimulate the economy rather than a “vitamin.”

Ma said the effect of the vouchers would not be apparent until March or April. The government will decide what to do next after an evaluation, he said.

When asked for comment, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator and Vice Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) expressed support for a second wave of vouchers.

“As long as the government finds [the scheme] effective and the nation’s finances permit it, I think the government could consider distributing vouchers again,” Wu said.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers disagreed.

DPP legislative caucus whip Pan Meng-an (潘孟安) said government officials believed the voucher scheme had worked simply because people had spent them, but that this was a simplistic view.

“It is natural for people to go shopping for groceries before the Lunar New Year. This has nothing to do with boosting the economy,” Pan said.

DPP Legislator Tsai Huang-liang (蔡煌瑯) said any new vouchers scheme would create a substantial debt for future generations.

Meanwhile, KMT Legislator Huang Chao-shun (黃昭順) urged the ministry to include foreign missionaries with permanent residency in the current voucher scheme.

Huang said it would be “fair” and “just.”

In related developments, the Kaohsiung City Government yesterday began distributing NT$1,500 in monthly food vouchers to disadvantaged families.

Even after receiving the government’s consumer vouchers, many low-income families could not afford to eat well, Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) said, adding that the families could purchase food with the vouchers issued by the city’s Social Affairs Bureau.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JIMMY CHUANG