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A shopper at a grocery in March last year. The Ministry of Social Development is investigating why some people without means tests have qualified for food cards.

SHALIZA HASSANALI

An evaluation and survey undertaken by the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services into its Food Support Programme four months ago have unearthed a string of irregularities ranging from favouritism in the application process, no assessment of beneficiaries and complaints of food cards going into the hands of undeserving clients, instead of its target group-the poor and needy.

It was also uncovered that many of current cardholders did not pass their means test, irregularity in the approval process, irregular transactions with the cards and recipients having balances on their cards amounting to $6,000.

The ministry also found an apparent misinterpretation and/or non-compliance with the instructions and procedures regarding the administration of the grant by staff.

These were some of the shocking revelations Social Development and Family Services Donna Cox said her ministry discovered with the social programme which provides food relief to almost 32,000 recipients monthly.

Cox broke her silence on the worrying issue in a telephone interview with Guardian Media on Friday and also responded to questions in an email.

“Such circumstances have obviously created some issues to be addressed in the programme and has placed a burden on the public purse as deserving persons are left behind.”

In light of the astounding findings, Cox said her ministry will establish this year, an investigation and compliance unit comprising 11 investigators, financial analysts and a lead investigator to monitor all social programmes and investigate instances of fraud as well as to ensure compliance by recipients and ministry’s staff.

“It is not just people outside…it is internal compliance that is important. I think it goes both ways. It is not only them (food card recipients). Our officers are also responsible for reviewing. I am not sure if those reviews were taking place…because once you review them in two years, you would know if their quality of life has improved. So, over the years, there has been a problem there.”

Cox agreed that millions of taxpayers’ dollars could have gone into the wrong hands.

“I could see that happening, yes. Some of these things have been going on for a number of years. So, now that we are looking into it to bring a little more structure, then we are seeing that this is a serious situation. It may go into millions (of dollars). We have to do the assessment and then we will be able to say for sure.”

Asked if she took too long to act on the irregularities, Cox replied, “Remember I am not involved in the day-to-day operations. It’s only when something comes up. When you start to get complaints from people, then you start to look because you tell yourself something has to be wrong somewhere.”

However, Cox said it’s never too late to address the situation.

“It’s not always that easy when you have to go into the system and look at the processes. Sometimes people do not tell you the truth…they hide things from you.”

While some of the issues raised could be human error, Cox said, there should be no room for mistakes.

Genuine people being deprived

Cox said her greatest worry is people in genuine need of food being deprived because of ineligible people on the programme receiving the benefit.

She said Government has given a commitment to help people living below the poverty line.

However, Cox expressed worry regarding the ministry’s expenditure.

“I am also concerned about the level of expenditure coming out the ministry…how long and sustainable that could be? How long can it continue to expend millions of dollars on programmes that some of the persons who are there should not be? That is a serious concern and I have to think about the future with regards to all these expenditures…not just for today. How long can we continue with this? Okay. I don’t think any Government….it is not sustainable for any Government especially with all this expenditure that we recently have with COVID and we continue to have.”

Last September, Cox said, the ministry conducted a sample survey and evaluation of the programme and its beneficiaries.

“This revealed inter alia that the operation of the programme was not meeting its targeted group-the vulnerable and food poor. This situation was supported by several complaints from the public that there were clients who received food support that should not have been so assigned,” Cox said.

In cases where the names of people have been provided, she said, the ministry will conduct the usual investigation.

The shocking information came on the heels of Cox issuing a press release on Friday denying that the programme has been suspended, following an internal memo from the ministry posted on social media with allegations that the programme has been shut down.

The memo dated December 30, 2021 was from the director of Social Welfare to all supervisors entitled “Suspension of Food Support Programme.”

It stated that the Permanent Secretary by letter dated December 16, 2021 had directed that the programme be suspended with immediate effect.

The memo clarified that the suspension was an interim measure to manage the expenditure and to collate and review the information required to support the programme.

It also advised that all applications be placed on hold pending further instructions.

“In the interim, you are required to investigate all recipients of the food support who are also recipients of existing grants (ie Senior Citizens Pension, Public Assistance Grant, Disability Assistance Grant (adult and minor) with a view to remove them from the Food Support Programme, effective February 2022,” the memo further stated.

New applicants will be impacted

In the release, Cox said the programme will be exposed to a review and investigation of its current beneficiaries to ensure they still need the State’s support in purchasing food.

“The ministry has considered to review all clients in receipt of food support to ensure the eligibility status and that the necessary approvals and authority to make payment are in place.”

She also disclosed that new applicants will be impacted but the ministry will make every effort to provide temporary support to those in need in the interim, while current beneficiaries will continue to use their cards or cash their cheques while the assessment is being undertaken.

The programme provides food cards valued at $510 for households with one to three people, $650 for households with four to five people and $800 for households with over six people.

Questioned if fraud was picked up in the programme that triggered the review and investigation, Cox admitted the ministry uncovered 14 irregularities, stating in order to effectively manage the programme and its related expenditure several policies, procedural and other changes must be made.

One irregularity involved clients on the programme who were now gainfully employed and never reported their change of status to the ministry or indicated that they no longer require the support.

Pressed if these recipients have been cheating the system, Cox replied, “How many people would come and tell you I don’t need a food card anymore?”

If clients were reviewed regularly, she said, a lot of people would have been removed from the system to make way for others in need of help.

She said all recipients of grants must be assessed to ensure they remain eligible in accordance with the legislation, policy and procedures.

“But nobody is coming off,” said Cox, while there has been a consistent increase of clients with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To continue on the programme as a permanent client, the applicant must be assessed and pass a standard means test, indicating their monthly income is $1,439 or less.

An assessment is required to be taken every two years with the intention of providing the support necessary for clients to transition from the programme where necessary.

Temporary clients whose monthly income is $584 or less also have to undergo a means test to receive three months of food supply.

“When you check the means test, as I showed you there, a lot of persons if you check them now, they failed that means test. It means they should not have those cards in their possession.”

Food cardholder driving Mercedes Benz

Cox said one supermarket owner told her it pained him to see a man who drove a Mercedes Benz had used a food card to buy items.

“I don’t know how they end up getting it (cards) in the first place.”

In 2021, the programme’s total expenditure was $220.5 million.

There are 31,784 temporary and permanent clients on the programme.

Between February 2020 to last October, 7,319 new clients were approved for the programme.

“It should be noted that these numbers represent the normal food support clients and do not include the temporary food support provided as a result of the COVID-19 social support measures which included a three month top up of food for all existing beneficiaries of grants in 2020,” Cox pointed out.

Also, under the COVID-19 restrictions, people were eligible to apply for income, food and rental support.

The ministry also highlighted complaints of irregularity in the approval process, favouritism in the application process and irregular transactions related to the food cards as other irregularities.

Told that these were damning allegations, Cox said, some people have not taken their role seriously and impartially.

“Hence the reason why we are now trying to put things in place and be more accountable. People will only do what they can get away with. If you don’t have proper structure and processes it is much easier for them to do certain things and get away.”

Cox spoke about recipients who also receive Senior Citizens Pension and Public Assistance and Disability grants.

This, she said, should not be happening.

“I think when you do the assessment most of them are not supposed to be (receiving the grant).”

Another area involved clients on food support who were assigned community care facilities where the ministry was already meeting the full cost of their upkeep, including meals.

“If we are paying that for them, then how could they still get food support? So those are some of the things we uncovered.”

The ministry also found that some clients of $510 food cards had balances in their bank accounts amounting to $2,000 and $6,000.

“It’s as though this grant is not a necessity. It shows they are truly not vulnerable or in desperate need of food. If I can accumulate my food support in the bank, then I don’t need it. This card is supposed to be used on a month-to-month basis,” Cox said.

Some recipients living abroad

Checks by the ministry also discovered people on the programme who reside abroad but their cards are being used in local supermarkets.

Cox said the ministry has to put a stop to this.

While a recipient should show the cashier/supervisor of a supermarket some form of identification before using their food card, Cox said, in many cases, this is not done, allowing the unauthorised person to benefit.

“The supermarkets are another issue we have a problem. Once they are getting the money they do not care if you have an ID or not. That is what you are seeing or hearing. Unless the assessment and reviews are done…then you will be able to do certain things and get away with it.”

Reports have also reached Cox’s ears that clients have also been using the card to purchase cigarettes and alcohol.

“All we have done is asked the supermarkets not to do it. Again, if they are still doing it, we have no way of controlling that. You can’t be hungry and buying alcohol?. You expect supermarket owners to understand the seriousness of this and only provide food. But a mechanism would now have to be put in place.”

Others have been utilising their cards in exchange for cash.

An example, Cox said, was a client swapping his $510 card with someone for $300 in cash.

“It’s a tough situation. We have a lot to fix and it’s up to us to get it done.”

Cox said some of the complaints the ministry received are hard to prove while they have been asking staff to use their conscience to help those in dire straits and not people they know or favour.

Will some of the cards be pulled at the end of the review?

Cox said if it is proven that some of the recipients failed their means test or fell short of the required criteria a decision will be made on the matter.