The Needs Assessment Unit is significantly under-resourced and lacks the necessary manpower and legislation to help move people from welfare to work, according to its director Tamara Hurlston.
The unit currently caters to 2,500 families, including 877 people on permanent financial assistance.
Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee on Friday, Ms. Hurlston acknowledged that there is limited follow-up for people who receive long-term financial assistance.
“There are persons on permanent financial assistance who would have been there for many years without being re-assessed,” she said.
She said the unit lacks the manpower or the authority to offer assistance to help people on welfare transition into the workforce.
“Our desired result, ultimately, is to help persons to become self-sufficient. One of the ways we could do that is by offering programs, which we should be doing at the moment, but we don’t have the resources or the legislation,” she said.
“We currently have persons, indigent and the underprivileged, waiting for some form of assistance with programs because we don’t have the resources.
“At the moment, what would help the Needs Assessment Unit the most is having proper legislation and having appropriate staffing levels.”
To fill its current functions efficiently, Ms. Hurlston said the unit needs 40 staff, including 20 assessment officers and several compliance officers. Currently, the unit has 24 staff, including 12 assessment officers, and no compliance officers.
She acknowledged that people looking for assistance are frequently given appointments several months away, while others wait early in the morning outside the Needs Assessment Unit in the hope of being one of the dozen or so applicants able to be processed on any given day.
Ms. Hurlston said she has advocated for more resources and that the unit has seen some increases in staffing levels, but, like other departments, it is subject to budget constraints.
The committee is investigating government’s response to 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.
During the proceedings on Friday, independent legislator Winston Connolly said he is concerned that the unit was “putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”
He said welfare payments, as well as benefits for seamen and veterans, appear to be handed out indefinitely without checks or follow-up, and questioned whether anything was being achieved.
“You are talking about 10 percent of government revenue. That is a significant amount of money,” Mr. Connolly said.
“It needs the proper structure and personnel. This is so ripe for losing money, it’s like throwing cash out the door. We don’t have any way to assess or bridge people from welfare to workforce,” he added.
Ms. Hurlston accepted this was accurate.
“We do need proper resources to operate this unit,” she said. “One of the issues we are having is the ability to allow persons to come off welfare by offering them some support.”
At an earlier Public Accounts Committee hearing, Dorine Whittaker, chief officer in the Ministry of Community Affairs, acknowledged there is no coordinated strategy for how public money is spent on the islands’ most needy.
She said the auditor’s report is 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.