Less than a month into her tenure, new Minister of Human Services and Social Security, Jennifer Webster, put her staff and the public on notice when she announced earlier this month that high priority will be placed on improving systems through monitoring and evaluation. “We need to know where we were, where we are, where we are going and whether we are on the right track,” Ms Webster told her staff at a specially arranged conference held at the Duke Lodge Hotel, a clear sign of her bringing her accountancy skills to bear. Indeed, the Ministry of Human Services, in fact all ministries and the entire government, could benefit from monitoring and evaluation, checks and balances as well as knowing where they are, where they are going and whether they are on the right track.
Ms Webster also announced at the same forum that the major focus will be on child protection and that to this end, her ministry was looking to involve the wider society more, recognizing that protection of the country’s children required a collective effort by all stakeholders.
Child beggars also fell under the radar of this new minister, as she pointed out that she had noticed an increase in the number of children begging as it neared the Christmas season. Ms Webster, mentioning her personal observations, said she had seen children, sometimes accompanied by their parents, begging outside grocery stores and soliciting cash on high traffic streets. Revealing that a campaign targeted to end this would be implemented, the minister said she would hold discussions with Director of Child Protection Ann Greene and have child beggars taken off the street, “even if it means that we keep them in our care and custody.” Ms Webster’s predecessor, Priya Manickchand, who is now Minister of Education, had the same idea. It worked to an extent, but Ms Manickchand had been faced with serious opposition, especially from the parents who sent their children out to beg and had even been threatened with legal action. While Ms Manickchand had been successful in removing some of the children from the street, they were quickly replaced by numerous others, an indication that perhaps it might be necessary to remove and/or prosecute the parents first. One hopes that Ms Webster has as much or more success in this endeavour as Ms Manickchand.
The new Human Services minister also needs to apply checks and balances in other areas, such as in the single parents’ welfare programme, the uniform voucher distribution programme and especially the old-age pension programme, which for years has been fraught with difficulty. It took a herculean effort by the former minister to streamline the delivery of pension books and ease the annual struggle by old age pensioners. And even after that, stakeholders still believe today that the pension programme’s database is in need of overhauling.
Finally, the Human Services Ministry itself is still in dire need of a makeover. In fact, as stated in this column countless times before, the ministry needs new premises. Ideally, this ministry should be purpose built. It deals with welfare cases, adoptions, fostering, child abuse, domestic violence and other sensitive issues. Though it has been noted that the Child Care and Protection Agency now has its own building inBroad Street, and that this is a step in the right direction, other programmes in the ministry are similarly sensitive and warrant some amount of confidentiality, which the building in Water Street does not cater for. In addition, the ministry ought to be delinked from the Ministry of Labour – yes they both deal with people but under very different circumstances. Placing the two ministries together was a bad idea from the get go.
One hopes that this new administration turns out to be truly sympathetic to the plight of the elderly, women and children and shows this by providing a more caring environment along with increases in pensions and welfare emoluments in general.