Human Services Minister cites `low prevalence’ of trafficking in persons

-stumbles on pension increase

Repeated assessments have revealed that there is a “low prevalence” of Trafficking in Persons (TIP) here, according to Human Services Minister Jennifer Webster who says that given the potential impact it has on the safety and human rights of citizens, strategies and programmes have been developed to combat it.

Webster last evening in the budget debate made TIP, children, gender equality among others, the focus of her 45-minute presentation but it was her attempts to justify the $625 increase in the Old Age Pension that caused an uproar in the House, resulting in her stuttering and fumbling through her paperwork before moving on to another topic.

The minister while noting that TIP is the second largest criminal activity in the world, said that initiatives aimed at combating it have been undertaken under the guidance of the Ministerial task force which comprises representatives from governmental and non governmental agencies and which is charged by the Home Affairs Minister.

She told the House that investigations of reported incidents of TIP are conducted by the police and all files are reviewed by the Commissioner of Police or an authorized officer. According to Webster, it is the police who are responsible for informing witnesses or alleged victims of the scheduled court appearance while her ministry is primarily responsible for the support of the alleged victims.

Webster noted that communication is a key element in relationship building for effective inter-agency collaboration and it is in this regard the roles and responsibilities of the participating agencies must be understood.

She said that for last year there were 20 alleged TIP victims, nine reports, three convictions and six cases which were brought before the court. One of the cases she said was dismissed while the three convictions were concerned with matters which had occurred in 2012. Three cases, she said were not brought before the court as the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) recommended that no charge be instituted.

“The Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security has never rejected any alleged TIP victims and has rendered support in the form of financial aid, the provision of housing, food and clothing in addition to training opportunities and job placement to reintegrate victims into society. She noted that “in 2013 the ministry supported 30 alleged victims”, some of whom were rescued during the previous year.

She urged persons to report all incidents of TIP and called on all victims to ensure that they testify to ensure the conviction of traffickers. Webster’s ministry has been severely criticized by non-governmental groups over the handling of TIP cases.

During a section of her presentation which dealt with elderly care she choose to respond to earlier comments made by the AFC’s Dr. Veerasammy Ramayya about the increase in old age pension which was announced in this year’s budget. “I would like to perhaps say to this honourable House that the old age pension…from the year 2006 to 2014 we have seen annual increases … the old age pension was meant to be a subsidy. It was never meant to be a living wage”, she said. Webster was unable to continue as comments of disgust came from the other side  one after the other.

After repeating “Mr. Speaker” for about six times and fumbling through papers on her desk for about two minutes, she choose to address the issue of gender equality and empowerment.

The minister in earlier comments on elderly care said that this year the ministry in collaboration with the National Commission on the Elderly will conclude the formulation of minimum standards for all homes and facilities providing care for the elderly. She said that one of the aims is to make the Palms Geriatric facility “a model for elderly care”, as well as in partnership with state-based organizations, centres for the elderly will be established in various communities.

Webster used the opportunity to express outrage at the recent murders of two elderly women in their homes; one had been raped. She said that the protection and abuse of the elderly are issues that have to be addressed.

She spoke of instances where elderly citizens are abandoned at hospitals by the families or are robbed of their pensions. The commission she noted is working to conclude the formulation of legislation for the protection of the elderly.

In addition to the Old Age Pension, she said that the elderly last year benefited from the electricity assistance programe. A total of 7, 026 pensioners were eligible for subsidies under this programme; 898 in Region 2, 951 in Region 3, 2985 in Region 4, 619 in Region 5, 1456 in Region 6 and 117 in Region 7. Webster informed the House that this year the subsidy has been increased by 50 percent so that the total subsidy for this year is $30, 000 for every pensioner.

Noting that the budgetary allocation of the Social Sector is one third of this year’s National Budget, she said that greater emphasis has been given to social programmes for the vulnerable and at risk population – youths, elderly, women and children.

Last year, she said, the Child Care and Protection Agency worked diligently and prevented 2, 432 children from being separated from their families while 519 children were removed from abusive situations. She said too that the government has seen the need to support the placement of children “within the family setting instead of placement in institutional care as a preferred option”. In this regard she said that the ministry will continue to provide alternative care options for children, training and support for parents to prevent the unnecessary separation of children through parent initiatives. She said too that there will be effective monitoring of children placed in home care, mental health and therapeutic services for affected children and their families, foster community awareness and psycho social support for vulnerable children in the school system.

She said that it is also the ministry’s intention to promote foster care.

According to Webster greater emphasis will be placed on monitoring the 19 privately managed children’s homes in Guyana to ensure that they are operating in accordance with the minimum operational standards and guidelines.

Turning her attention to a home in Region Six, from which three girls were charged with wandering, Webster said that a committee set up to enquire into the case, had since submitted its findings along with recommendations.

She said that among the key recommendations made were for the immediate establishment of a Management Committee to review and have oversight responsibility for the operations of the home; to develop and implement procedures that govern the rights of children living in that home; training of personnel on the relevant laws for the protection and rights of children in Guyana; to recruit a tutor to assist the children with homework and assignment and to institute disciplinary action against those officers who fail to execute their duties in the requisite manner in accordance with the Public Service Rules.

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