(CNS): The director of the Needs Assessment Unit (NAU) revealed that her department deals with 2,500 families in the Cayman Islands annually and the unit is chronically underfunded. Tamara Hurlston said appointments for assessments are backed up for months and she is not expecting any additional funding in the forthcoming budget unless the minister responsible for community affairs can beg some more from his Cabinet colleagues from their ministries.
The growing annual welfare bill for the Cayman government is reaching around $50 million but Hurlston told the Public Accounts Committee on Friday, as they reviewed a report from the Office of the Auditor General on welfare programmes, that the NAU has only 24 staff members when it really should have 40. That was why people are queuing from very early in the morning for the ten or so walk-in assessments and why appointments for assessments are being set more than two months ahead.
The unit does its best to deal with emergency assessments as soon as possible but the diversity of needs in the community that it is dealing with is growing, she said, telling the committee that there are still no programmes in place to get people who are in need of temporary help back on their feet.
The NAU has almost 900 people on permanent financial assistance, in addition to the veterans and seamen, and around 1,600 families receiving some kind of temporary support. Hurlston explained that there are no reviews being conducted of those on permanent assistance as the unit does not have the resources. Families receiving temporary assistance only receive help for three months and are reassessed after that to see if they still need help.
She admitted that the NAU does not have any programmes or initiatives in place to transition people from welfare to work because there are still many more families in need of help that they have to assess and there is simply no time to do anything to get people back on their feet.
Almost none of the recommendations from the auditor’s report, Government programmes supporting those in need, have been implemented and government still appears not to have formed any real policies regarding welfare.
As the PAC members questioned the head of the NAU, backbench MLA Winston Connolly described what was happening as “applying a band aid to a gaping wound” and raised his concerns that people were receiving welfare but were not receiving any help to get them back into the workplace.
With around ten per cent of government’s core expenditure going on unmanaged welfare programmes that still do not have strict criteria, Connolly said there needed to be proper structure to the programmes and the necessary resources because the current situation was “rife for losing money”. Government, he added, was just “throwing cash out of the door as there was no bridge from welfare to work” to help those who found themselves in temporary struggles prevent them from becoming permanent ones.
“We can’t just give cash indefinitely,” he said. “It’s continuing to grow … so we have not accomplished anything.”
Hurlston agreed that the department was just fighting fires and was in desperate need of proper funding. “We need to offer some support to help people come of welfare,” she said, as she admitted the department could do no more than hand out services where clients meet the criteria.
PAC asked for details of the criteria but the NAU chief was unable to supply the document at the time the committee met.
Check back to CNS later today for more from PAC and revelations that it is the community affairs minister alone who signs off on all indigent medical cover.