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Glenn Ramadharsingh: I’m Minister of hand-ups, not handouts
A fresh initiative is being planned to rid the capital city of vagrants. This from Minister of the People and Social Development Dr Glenn Ramadharsingh who stresses, even though his ministry would be respecting the human rights of the socially displaced, zero tolerance for living on the streets would be the order of the day when the programme gets off the ground.
Minister Ramadharsingh discloses that a technology-driven system is being implemented to prevent undesirables from accessing state funds through several programmes of his ministry.
Q: Dr Ramadharsingh, why all this apparent bacchanal about pension payments? What went wrong...the Government being accused of robbing poor people of their pension...?
A: (Chuckles while seated in the conference room of a Port-of-Spain advertising firm Tuesday afternoon) What is happening is there was the opportunity for confusion to be created because the source from where the pension comes was varied but the quantum of the pension is the same.
An opportunity to create confusion...is somebody deliberately...?
(Interrupting) Because when things change...if you are accustomed going to the market and getting your vegetables in one section, fruits in another section and one day you find that has changed...it is total confusion and you would have the opportunity to come and say they do not like you as a customer so they have changed it around. And in all of this, Mr Raphael, not a single pensioner is receiving less than what they are entitled to.
Before going there, weren’t you aware of this opportunity for confusion and what did you...?
(Interrupting again) Well, the decision was taken by the Ministry of Finance, first of all, and we are the implementing agency but this is a good measure. We put out a public statement and took great care and attention to ensure that no one would get less than what is theirs.
This cry by some people that Government is giving with one hand but taking away with the other…?
(Frowning) No. No. That is not true and the facts are there to support what I am saying. Those who are making that claim are not being very honest. All that has happened is a simple readjustment of the source of payments.
Dr Ramadharsingh, have you heard the street talk that you are the minister of hand-outs?
(Vigorously protesting) Nah. Nah. Nah. I am minister of hand-up (smiles). You see when you do ambulatory work, you need to take action to stop the immediate problem before doing in-depth studies as to how you would deal with that problem on a long-term basis. And can anyone tell me what is wrong with bringing relief to people in need?
Mr Minister, you are aware that internationally some governments are discussing and some are even moving away from this notion of a welfare state?
Well having been two years into some serious community-support programmes, I have seen the need for more community training, retraining and reskilling opportunities.
Exactly what do you mean by community-based initiatives?
A family may try to engage in some form of empowering enterprise and you may support them. But what makes the effort sustainable is when there is a community element. So with mentoring, coaching and assistance between the groups or the families at the centre, we have more spectacular results when a community is involved wholeheartedly.
What yardstick is used to determine those who should receive hand-ups?
Certainly...I am not of the view that we should be giving people assistance who indulge in gambling away that money.
How do you prevent those undesirable persons from accessing state funds?
There has to be strengthening of the monitoring and evaluation of our clients; quite frankly what would help us is biometrics. Right now you fill out an application which is processed, and then you get a voucher or a cheque, but it is very difficult to go back and find out things, like if you used the funds for the purpose intended. We are going to use the biometric technique where everyone would have a unique identification.
Do you have any idea of the number of undesirables accessing those funds?
(A worrisome countenance) There would always be persons in the programme who should be pursuing more productive employment, who can do that in most instances.
But it would be very speculative for me to give any kind of figure, but I was told by international experts in the field that when you go biometric you clean up 12 to 15 per cent of wastage.
Dr Ramadharsingh, when the Prime Minister first announced the creation of a ministry of the people it was cried down by her detractors who argued it was a waste of time and money. Can you justify today the existence of your ministry?
(Swiftly retrieving a Commonwealth Secretariat publication entitled The Commonwealth Yearbook 2012 from a pile of documents in front of him.)
Were you expecting me to ask that question? How come you had that book at hand?
I am like a boy scout—always prepared. (Laughs) But this is hot off the press. We just got it and on page 519 the Ministry of the People and Social Development is featured for the work it has done, and I would recommend this as compulsory reading, especially for all those who were saying negative things when this ministry was first proposed by the Honourable Prime Minister.
And when I recently met the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, we had a conversation on this ministry and he was very enamoured with what he heard and indicated his wife was intrigued over the concept of this ministry.
In explaining the rationale for the ministry, Mrs Persad-Bissessar hoped that the days of community protests highlighted by the burning of heavy debris would be over, but we are still seeing these protests...?
Well, I don’t think the Prime Minister meant no single person wouldn’t try to burn tyres again. I think she meant we were going to have a new conversation with the people. And we have had that conversation. The ministry has now taken on a life of its own in every constituency in this country but we still have a lot of work to do, and remember we have been on the block as it were just two years.
Mr Minister, what seems to be most sought after things by persons seeking assistance from your ministry?
In the first year, we interacted with more than 30,000 clients and the second year, when we made another analysis, we came up with 50,000. In our field programmes we found that 60 per cent of the clients who came, came for information. Some had issues with the Ministry of Health, others with the Commission for Self-Help, some others it is Public Utilities, some don’t have a birth paper...
What! Most of them are not coming for hand-outs?
(Animatedly, while slightly turning in his chair) No. The people just wanted to reach out to the Government and I think that is what the Prime Minister meant. It should be a ministry where a man doesn’t get frustrated to the point where he would be forced to burn tyres and block the road.
You are one of the ministers who is very much in the public view, handing out this and that, and the Opposition keeps saying that it is all PR...?
(A perplexed expression) Well, how can you run a ministry of the people in private? That doesn’t make sense. When you accept a public position and in a new ministry as this is, which has to be accepted by the nation as a whole, you have to go out there and lay the foundation...to sell this concept as one that is sound and which would deliver as it is intended to do.
We took a decision not to take pictures giving out hampers but there will be situations where sometimes you are giving something special and the media is there and we don’t hide from the media.
But is it necessary to publish all those photographs, particularly of hamper recipients?
Listen Clevon, for you and me, it may not be a big thing but for that lady who has three children and can only purchase a sweetie, or a soft drink and tell them be quiet until later, a hamper means the world to them.
As your ministry enters its third year, what sort of initiatives have you planned?
Yes. We are working on a programme in the area of the socially displaced.
Yes. I have been working with Mayor Louis Lee Sing, and we have taken off the streets some 40 of them from Christmas up to this time, and they have not returned. They are being reformed and rehabilitated with the assistance of Wayne Chance of the Vision on Mission organisation and several other NGOs.
This initiative would see co-operation between the public and private sectors to clean up the streets and although it is a pro-human rights effort, it would be zero tolerance for living on the streets. We have a lot of legal research to do to finalise this programme and in two weeks’ time this would be taken to the Cabinet for approval.
So that when this programme gets off the ground, no kind of human rights lawyer would accuse anyone of violating anybody’s human rights?
No. This is going to be driven by respecting their rights, and with this harmony the mayor and I have developed, I think he has recognised we need to work together to successfully grapple with this issue.