Senators block P7.42-billion fund for video surveillance project in 2019 budget bill

The Senate moved to block an initial P7.42-billion allocation in the 2019 budget bill for the China-supplied P20-billion video surveillance system proposed to be installed by the Duterte administration in Metro Manila and Davao.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto reported on Wednesday that senators agreed to include two provisions in the 2019 national budget, which, he noted, “have the effect of law, guide the release of funds for overseas development aid and other foreign-funded activities,” including the so-called “Safe Philippines” video surveillance project. 

According to Recto, the first provision, under the Unprogrammed Fund section of the 2019 national budget, specifically states: “No amount appropriated herein shall be utilized for any project intended for public video surveillance and communication system with suppliers or service providers that are considered as serious risks to national security or interest or are involved in cases regarding information leakage, computer or network hacking, and other forms of cyber espionage, whether in the Philippines, or in other countries.”

He added that the second provision enumerates the foreign-assisted projects, which may draw from authorized appropriations for fiscal year 2019. “The Safe Philippines Project is not among the 13 projects listed,” the senator pointed out.

The Senate President Pro Tempore clarified he was not opposing the idea of an ICT-based emergency response system “because the Filipino people need it.”

Recto added: “What the Filipino people do not need is one whose evaluation and approval was hastily done, lacks transparency, no consultations, no independent appraisal, is a tied loan and a donor-driven expenditure.”

In a news statement, Recto said the Senate has “plugged a hole” in the 2019 national budget, through which multibillion-peso Chinese and other foreign-funded projects unilaterally approved by the executive can be paid.

He affirmed that the “block payment” provision in the Senate version of the 2019 budget bill distinctly names one project only, the Chinese-offered Safe Philippines Project, which will pilot a closed-circuit television-based emergency response system in Metropolitan Manila and Davao.

The senator voiced concerns that the “vetting and approval of the project has all the hallmarks of a behest transaction, lacking in studies, consultations, validation.”

Moreover, Recto expressed disappointment, saying “we have asked for documents from the lead appraisal authority, the Neda [National Economic Development Authority], and they cannot provide us any.” He added: “Manipis na, minadali pa [It lacks details and it was obviously rushed]. Usually the documentation for a project of this size is voluminous. In this case, halos walang maibigay [we can’t obtain justifiable inputs].

According to the Senator, the alarming trend of the Executive bloating the public debt by agreeing to donor-driven loans “must be slowed down, more so if the process lacks transparency.”

He lamented that there are “so many salesmen and agents of foreign projects [such that] instead of asking funds through the appropriations route, uutangin na lang, tapos ang bayad ipapasa sa Kongreso at taxpayers [debts that are incurred are passed on to Congress and the taxpayers as part of the] debt service na [that are] automatically appropriated.” Recto said.

The Senate President Pro Tempore admitted he found it “mysterious” that a P7-billion amount was already earmarked as early as July, even as the supply contract was approved only in November. “Ang misteryo dito, July pa lang, may naka-park nang P7 billion. Pero ang supply contract, November na na-approve. [The mystery here is that, as early as July last year, there exists a P7-billion parked allocation for the project, even as the supply contract was approved as late as November]. They [have] put the cart before the horse,” Recto said.

He cited records showing that “it was only on September 20, 2018, that the DILG, the partner agency, was able to transmit the approved budget cost for the Safe Philippines Project to the Department of Finance.”

Recto also noted that the Notice of Award was issued on November 16, 2018, to the chosen bidder, China International Telecommunication Construction Corp., adding that “the supply contract was signed three days later.”

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