OPENING STATEMENT BY HON. MARLON PENN,
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
PRESS CONFERENCE ON SOCIAL ASSISTANCE GRANTS
MONDAY, 27 JUNE 2022
A pleasant good morning to everyone.
Today, I would like to update you on the progress we are making to streamline the disbursement of social assistance grants to persons in need.
As you may know, the Ministry of Health and Social Development has primary responsibility for Social Protection policies and programmes, which aim to reduce poverty and inequality, and improve economic security in the Virgin Islands. This includes the administration of social assistance benefits to qualifying persons who are not able to meet their basic needs.
The Public Assistance Programme is our main vehicle for delivering means-tested benefits to low-income households. In times of an emergency or crisis, the Social Development Department may also disburse special, short-term grants based on objective eligibility criteria.
The recently published Commission of Inquiry Report found these arrangements to be consistent with good practice for managing and accounting for public funds.
However, the Commissioner also concluded that ‘assistance grants’ previously disbursed by other ministries of government, and the House of Assembly, were not properly administered, which left the programmes open to abusive and fraudulent practices.
The Government of National Unity, in the COI Implementation Framework, stated our commitment to transitioning all government assistance grants to the Social Development Department, by the end of June 2022.
Today, I am pleased to announce that Cabinet has decided on the following transitional arrangements:
- For persons who have been receiving scheduled grants from the House of Assembly, a three-month transition grant will be implemented by Social Development Department from July to September, 2022. To be clear, this grant will only be paid to individuals who were previously approved for monthly or bi-monthly assistance grants from the House of Assembly.
- During the three-month transition period, each grant recipient will be assessed to determine if they are eligible for enrolment into the Public Assistance Programme. For persons who do not qualify for Public Assistance, benefit payments will stop at the end of September. However, if any fraud or deception is discovered during the assessment process, grant payments will cease immediately, and steps taken to recover any fraudulent payments.
Alongside the transitional arrangements, the Public Assistance Committee will continue to consider applications for various types of short-, medium- and long-term grants; and make referrals to employment and livelihood support services.
The Public Assistance Act of 2013 stipulates that, in addition to establishing financial need, the Committee must verify that applicants fall into at least one of the following categories. The beneficiary must be:
· A Belonger, or holder of a Certificate of Residence; or
· Married to a Belonger and living together with that person in the Virgin Islands; or
· responsible for the care of a dependent person who is a Belonger or resident.
Priority is given to vulnerable children, persons over 65, unemployed persons, and persons with disabilities. However, emergency assistance can be provided to other poor and vulnerable households to meet basic needs, in special circumstances.
I am very happy to be joined today by Mrs. Annie Malone Frett, Chief Social Development Officer, who, in a short while, will further explain how the Transition programme will be rolled out. She will also provide information on other support services available to needy households through the Social Development Department.
We are mindful that all of these changes are happening during the hurricane season, and at a time when global events are placing increasing pressures on household budgets. The Government of National Unity is sensitive to these pressures and will continue to build capacity to rapidly deliver financial assistance to low-income and worst-affected households during times of emergency. To achieve this, Cabinet has directed the Ministry of Health and Social Development to urgently develop a contingency plan to cope with any surge in demand, with appropriate emergency funding mechanisms.
The Government of National Unity is also committed to implementing the other COI recommendations related to Assistance Grants; and will complete a comprehensive review of our social assistance and benefits system by the end of November 2022. This will provide a framework for revamping individual and household benefits, as well as community development grants to Non-Profit, Civic Organizations, in line with ‘best practice’ approaches for reducing poverty and vulnerability.
I will keep you informed of these and other initiatives as we progress, and I welcome your feedback and suggestions.
Finally, I wish to thank you for the trust and confidence placed in me, my other colleagues in Government, as well as my Ministry team; as we join hands to identify and meet the social needs in our Territory.