The senior official responsible for welfare in the Cayman Islands has acknowledged there is no coordinated strategy for how public money is spent on the island’s most needy.
Dorine Whittaker, chief officer in the Ministry of Community Affairs, said it had accepted the findings of a damning Auditor General’s report, which pointed to a lack of oversight and accountability for the $50 million spent annually on providing assistance to those in need.
She said the report was being used as a springboard for reform, with the aim of producing a “business case” for a new social assistance plan by the end of the year.
Under questioning from members of the Public Accounts Committee last week, Ms. Whittaker acknowledged, at various stages in a three-hour hearing, that she was unable to say, with 100 percent certainty, that everyone receiving ex-gratia seamen’s benefit had been to sea, that everyone getting veterans’ payouts were genuine ex-servicemen or that schoolchildren receiving free lunches were not getting similar assistance from charities.
She said the Needs Assessment Unit, which has 24 staff including 12 frontline assessment officers, needed more personnel.
She acknowledged that there were gaps in the system, including potential duplication with charities, like Feed our Future.
“Once the Needs Assessment Unit comes up for air, they need to start looking at school lunches to make sure we are not duplicating and giving the same set of families lunches and uniforms,” she said.
Public Accounts Committee chairman Ezzard Miller also raised concerns about veterans’ benefits, citing a letter form the president of the Veterans Association indicating that only four people in the Cayman Islands should be qualifying for the payment, compared with 162 people that were getting it.
Ms. Whittaker acknowledged that she was not aware how all the people claiming veterans’ benefits had originally qualified. She said there was a list that had been compiled before her time in the ministry, but she was not sure how the credentials of the war veterans were verified at the time.
“No new persons [have] been added since 1997. We started with quite a number, [and] it has dwindled to 162 because you can’t add any persons to that list,” she said.
She added that despite new guidelines for the separate seamen’s ex-gratia benefit, indicating new applicants had to be endorsed by the Seafarers Association to receive the payment, anyone who qualified under the old system had been grandfathered in and would continue to receive the $550 monthly stipend.
She accepted it was possible that some of those people were not seamen and had simply got two friends to swear an affidavit that they went to sea in order to cheat the system.
“There’s no way when they sign that affidavit we can say 100 percent they are a seaman.
We are relying basically on them going before a JP and swearing it,” she said.
She said new criteria would prevent that in future but old recipients would not be kicked off unless they were proven to be fraudulently receiving the money. Just over 900 people currently receive the $550 monthly payment, costing the government around $6 million annually.
Ms. Whittaker said the auditor’s report had highlighted the need for a social assistance strategy as there was no way of knowing whether current programs were reaching the target audience.
She said the auditor’s recommendations would shape a request for proposals to find a private sector consultant to help produce a business case for welfare reform by the end of the year.
In his introduction to Friday afternoon’s hearing, acting auditor general Garnet Harrison summed up the conclusions of the audit report, saying, “This report indicates that government has not taken the necessary steps over the years to ensure it is providing assistance in the right amount to the right people at the right time, and thus ultimately failing the people they are supposed to be serving.”