Senior citizens may be able to uplift their pensions using their machine readable identification by 2016 as the Human Services and Social Security Ministry plans to scale-back the Pension Scheme’s dependence on the coupon system.
This disclosure was made by ministry officials who on Monday appeared before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament to answer questions about discrepancies flagged in the Auditor General’s 2011 Report on the agency’s finances.
It was the ministry’s Director of Social Services Wentworth Tanner who revealed the ministry’s plan to the PAC, but the committeeexpressed mixed feelings about the ambition. People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) MPs and PAC members Gail Teixeira and Bibi Shadick, both of whom are pensioners themselves, highlighted that there might be complications with moving towards such a system.
Shadick pointed out that many of Guyana’s approximately 45,000 pensioners are fond of their coupon books, since it is familiar, and serves as a form of evidence, and Teixeira suggested that many of the country’s elderly may not be tech-savvy, as would be required with the system alluded to by Tanner.
She suggested that while advancement is good, it may be a good idea to take more time to implement such a programme, and she further suggested that the system might be better suited for the next generation of Old Age Pensioners, who are currently and are likely to remain fluent in the latest technological developments.
News of the innovation was shared with the committee after its members continued to probe the ministry on several discrepancies noted in the Auditor General’s Report. One such discrepancy concerned the cashing of about one million dollars in forged Old Age Pension coupons in 2010.
The Auditor General’s Report reads: “The audit office conducted a review of the Old Age Pension in its second performance/ value for money audit which was issued in 2010. Emanating from the review was a number of concerns, some of which were yet to be corrected by the ministry. In addition, at the time of the reporting of my 2010 report in 2011, the audit office and the police were called on to investigate the encashing of fake old aged pension coupons at a post office.”
The fraud was reportedly uncovered by an employee who, upon checking some coupons, realized that they did not bear the requisite security features.
A post office employee was charged in relation to the matter, but later released. The matter was also said to have been engaging the attention of the court but it is uncertain what progress, if any, has been made in this regard.
Asked why the ministry’s system was not able to protect against the fraud, Permanent Secretary of the Human Services Ministry Lorene Baird, explained to the committee that she occupied a different portfolio at the time the matter occurred, and could therefore offer no details on what transpired and why. Similarly, none of her fellow representatives were able to offer an explanation.
PAC members also expressed concern that the ministry was once lax in the production and transportation of old age pension coupons.
The 2011 Report found that at one point “the contract entered into by the Ministry for the printing of coupons was deficient since clauses such as duration of contract, remedies for breach of contract, ownership and control of printing software, minimum security standards required at the facility and responsibility for the disposal of spoilt coupons were not included.”
Furthermore, it was noted that it was the supplier and not the ministry which exercised control and ownership of the software used to print pension books. Additionally, PAC members heard that “the ministry did not take responsibility for the collection of the pension books from the printing facility or the disposal of spoilt pension books.”
In its response to the Report, the ministry said that it has amended the contract to include a clause which addressed all of the cited discrepancies.
The report also highlighted the fact that the ministry’s “Old Age Pension database was not updated on a regular basis for new applicants and pensioners who had died.” Tanner, however, explained that the ministry has embarked on an initiative where information regarding new applicants is entered into the system on a daily basis.
Further updates are being made to the database in the form of the removal of deceased persons by utilizing death returns submitted to the General Register Office, and the uncollected coupon books from the district issue sheet.
Shadick contended that removing people’s names from the database because they have not uplifted their coupon book for a while might be a bad idea. She told the ministry’s officials that many pensioners face a variety of impediments in accessing a post office. She revealed that pensioners living in far-off locations might not be able to make the trip to a post office as often as they are required and might not have anyone to make the trip for them. Even those living in close proximity to post offices can encounter problems, including limitations on mobility.
She also suggested that pensioners who are abroad for extended periods to receive medical attention may also be unable to pick up their books and would therefore have their names removed from the database. Asked what can be done for persons who fall into these categories, Tanner explained that the ministry only goes back three months, and that any person who missed more than three months cannot receive their pension for the additional months.
Shadick clearly disapproved of this policy, and even when Tanner explained that the ministry’s policy is guided by Guyana’s laws, she opined policy makers might have to find a way to address the situation. In the interim, she urged the ministry to do more in terms of educating the public on the terms surrounding the uplifting of their coupon books and the pensions.
Though not included in the audit report on the ministry, the committee noted that several pensioners have experienced difficulty in accessing their pension books since their identification cards-the older version-have been decommissioned by the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom). Teixeira was disturbed by this news. She exclaimed that an identification card, regardless of when it was issued, should be accepted wherever such documents are required for transactions.
She also upbraided Gecom, which, she says, has no authority under the law to decommission identification cards.