MANILA, Philippines?Breaking her silence for the first time on the Aquino administration, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative, took the floor on Tuesday night and blasted the proposed budget of P21-billion for its conditional cash transfer (CCT) program.
Arroyo called the massive expansion of the program that she had begun as President irresponsible, ambitious and untimely as her former close ally, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, looked on.
The former President questioned the wisdom of allocating P21 billion in 2011 [up from P10 billion this year] for the conditional cash assistance to 2.3 million families [up from 1 million], saying the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) would still have to hire and train more people to oversee and monitor the program.
She said there were not enough classrooms and birthing facilities for the beneficiaries.
Under the CCT, the poorest of the poor families would receive monthly cash assistance on the condition that they would send their children to school and have pregnant mothers regularly go for checkups. These conditions are intended to help the country meet the UN millennium development goals by 2015.
Arroyo with militants
Further cementing her opposition to the expanded CCT program, Arroyo has signed the manifesto drafted by militant lawmakers?her constant critics?that assailed the Aquino administration project.
Arroyo and her son, Camarines Sur Rep. Diosdado Ignacio ?Dato? Arroyo, plus several other allies from the minority, affixed their signatures to the document, bringing to 52 the lawmakers formally opposed to the expanded CCT.
Arroyo, speaking on the floor for the first time and at times showing flashes of her famous temper, said she was not against the CCT, especially since her administration started it. But she was wary about scaling up the project in so short a time.
?I am not against increasing the CCT beneficiaries, but a sudden and massive increase by more than double its previous number seems both ambitious and untimely,? said Arroyo, the target of the truth commission formed by President Benigno Aquino III to look into corruption scandals during her administration.
She said it would be irresponsible to allocate a budget for a program that was not yet fully prepared.
?The details may look very nice on paper, but I?ve been there Mr. Speaker. The implementation is centrally not that simple,? added Arroyo, who critics say ran for a seat in the House of Representatives to offer her some protection after her immunity from suit as President ended in June.
Funding for roads, colleges
She also lamented that the funding for the CCT came at the expense of other crucial projects. In addition, she said funding for farm-to-market roads, state universities and colleges, the judiciary, and the Visayas and Mindanao, went down.
It?s better to realign the budget for classrooms and birthing units, since these are drastically needed and readily address the millennium development goals, according to the former President.
?That is the best way to address poverty rather than a sudden upscaling of the CCT,? she said.
Arroyo was the fifth lawmaker to challenge the CCT allocation during deliberations on the budget of the DSWD, a department that she used to head and which she said she loves.
Her interpellation began at 9 p.m. and ended at midnight. There was a one-and-a-half-hour suspension.
Soliman, head of the DSWD, was in the session hall as Arroyo unleashed her fury on the CCT expansion. The social welfare secretary served as resource person for Guimaras Rep. JC Nava, the sponsor of the DSWD budget.
Soliman was among the ?Hyatt 10,? a group of officials from the Arroyo administration who simultaneously resigned in 2005 at the height of the electoral fraud scandal that had hounded the ex-President.
Sought for comment, Soliman said that it was as if she was being put through the wringer, but added that it was necessary to ensure that the money for the CCT be used properly.
She also said that Arroyo should know the ins and outs of the program well, since she started it anyway.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said the expansion of the CCT program could be done because the foundation for it had been laid down in the previous years.
Mr. Aquino?s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said the CCT was a crucial part of poverty alleviation, and the administration was improving on it.
?As to whether this is irresponsible, let?s wait and see how effective it is,? Lacierda said.
Arroyo said the CCT was supposed to encourage parents to send their children to school, but there was no clear budget for the construction of new school buildings to accommodate the influx of new students.
P12-B lump sum
She said she found a P12-billion lump sum in the budget of the Department of Education (DepEd) for basic education facilities, but there was no specific line item for new classrooms.
She said it was a strange way to present the DepEd budget, noting that it did not offer any assurance that the need for more classrooms would be met so that the parents would be able to continue enjoying CCT benefits.
Nava replied that the construction of new classrooms, worth P4.5 billion, fell under the P12-billion budget. He assured Arroyo that there were enough funds to build classrooms.
Arroyo also pointed out the absence of enough birthing facilities for pregnant women who would be beneficiaries of the CCT. She said it would be better to use the money to build more birthing facilities.
Nava said the DSWD was in constant consultation with the education and health departments for the CCT program, and that local government units were better equipped to do their part.
1 million families, 3 years
Arroyo said that during her term, it took her administration three years to cover a million households under the CCT because it had to prepare the absorptive capacity of the DSWD and allied services such as the education and health departments.
She also attacked the P1.6 billion set aside from the P21 billion for training new personnel for the CCT program.
She pointed out that hiring and training of personnel would take time.
Cash transferred elsewhere
Even Mr. Aquino?s cousin-in-law has cast doubt on the CCT program.
Pangasinan Rep. Kimi Cojuangco, wife of Mr. Aquino?s cousin Mark Cojuangco, said that when she was mayor, she found that certain officers of the DSWD had been giving the cash assistance to their relatives and other individuals who were not among the poorest of the poor.
Cojuangco said the families that received the money tended to spend it on alcohol and betting on the illegal numbers racket ?jueteng.?
During the deliberations on the DSWD budget, she also said the CCT had been a source of conflict between neighbors, who get jealous of those selected to receive the monthly stipend.