Questions have been raised over how government can still be paying out more than $6 million in benefits to retired seamen and war veterans.
Government authorized the payments during a finance committee hearing in the Legislative Assembly this week but vowed to review the handouts amid concerns that some recipients did not meet the criteria.
Just under 1,000 seniors receive either the seamen’s ex-gratia payment or the ex-servicemen’s benefit.
Finance Minister Marco Archer said the $5 million assigned for 793 former seamen or their widows would not cover the demand and there was a long and growing waiting list of people eligible for the payments that would miss out. Government has acknowledged that the payments need to be reviewed.
The seaman’s benefit, which is around $500 a month, is supposed to be paid to any Caymanian aged over 60 who earns less than $2,000 a month and has spent at least three years at sea. The merchant marine trade was one of the major sources of employment for Caymanian men up until the late 1970’s.
East End legislator Arden McLean, a former seamen himself, led the inquisition into the payments – raising concerns that the number of people applying was only increasing as time passed.
“There were not that many of us [his generation] that sailed. I don’t know where they’re getting these affidavits from. In my age group – the end of the baby boomers – there weren’t many of us. It [the number of people getting the payment] should be starting to go down.”
He also questioned the amount of people receiving payments as ex-serviceman.
He said there would be five or six war veterans in the Queen’s birthday parade on Monday compared with an estimated 180 people receiving ex-serviceman’s payments – for veterans of the two world wars and the Trinidad navy.
“Where are the rest of them? … Where are they coming from and when was the last time we went to war or supported a war?” he asked.
Winston Connolly, MLA for George Town, said a thorough review of the seamen’s benefits was required to identify abuses of the system.
“There are people that are deserving that aren’t on the list and there are people we all know that aren’t deserving that are on it. Unless we do some sort of audit, we will never get to the bottom of this.
“We should try to correct that situation. It’s not fair for the ones that did the work and went to sea to know that somebody else is on it because they went on a trip to Jamaica and back,” Mr. Connolly said.
Mr. Archer said government had expected the number of retired seamen becoming eligible for the payment to be in decline by now, but this was not the case with a “long, long waiting list” for payment.
Premier Alden McLaughlin committed to reviewing the payments.
“Over the course of the next few months, we need to come to some decisions about this issue because the cost, rather than going down, is climbing and the number of persons on the waiting list just keeps growing,” he said. “At the moment, we cannot accommodate anyone else on the list unless someone comes off and usually they only come off by virtue of death or if they move overseas.
“Even when they die, we wind up having to continue the payment to their widow and increasingly the widows are younger and younger.”
Mr. McLean said the policy had been “sold wrong” from the beginning in an effort to win votes in the 2000 election.
“It was sold to the people that if you went to sea you were entitled to it and people continue to expect it. That government from 1996-2000, they tried to win an election by placating the seamen with an ex-gratia payment,” Mr. McLean said.