KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — Public Assistance here is not “a free for all” but Minister of Social Development Frederick Stephenson says ministry officials who deny assistance to Vincentians because of politics “will be dealt with”.
Stephenson, however, told Parliament on Thursday that he did not know this was being done. “Mr. Speaker, I am not aware of that. And if that is brought to my attention, those persons will be dealt with,” he said.
He noted that some Vincentians feel that the welfare payments are “a free for all and also an old age pension,” adding, “But, it is not so; it’s for the needy,” even as he said suggestion of discrimination “was intended for political mischief”.
“… being a supporter of the Unity Labour Party [ULP] is not a condition for receiving Public Assistance,” said Stephenson as he responded to a question from Senator Anesia Baptiste of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP).
As of September, 5,516 Vincentians — about 5 per cent of the nation’s population — were receiving Public Assistance, costing the government EC$1.2 million per year.
Stephenson said that the Family Affairs Division gives due diligence to every request for Public Assistance according to the Public Assistance Act and that “there are no strings attached to this process”.
The Act says that persons wishing to receive Public Assistance should apply to the Public Assistance Board, via the board members for their respective constituencies.
“These requests are then processed by the Family Affairs Division. It is neither the policy nor practice of the Ministry or the Family Affairs Division to instruct anyone seeking Public Assistance to see their constituency representative before they can be considered,” Stephenson said.
He further said that everyone eligible to receive Public Assistance “have access to the programme irrespective of their political affiliation.
“So to suggest that a person seeking Public Assistance must be a supporter of the Unity Labour Party is not reflective of the profound love and the unwavering compassion and support for the poor that this ULP government has exemplified since it broke the NDP yoke of bondage from off the poor in 2001,” Stephenson said.
He noted that since the ULP came to office in 2001 it has increased Public Assistance payments four-fold to EC$200 and EC$220 per person per month.
“I guess probably that is why you have a lot of persons want to get on,” said Stephenson, who explained that the programme “seeks to enhance the socio-economic status of the poor, the needy, and the indigent in our society”.
“My government and the Ministry continue to serve the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines with dignity, pride, equity, and fairness, irrespective of their political affiliation,” he further said.