I WAS much taken aback by Minister Donna Cox’s budget debate statement on October 9 that her ministry had issued social support cheques to nearly 2,000 dead people, and that the majority of the cheques cashed were for pensions to senior citizens. But it wasn’t the fact of fraud that surprised me, as I shall explain.
I quote from an address I gave on January 19, 1985, when I was chairman of the George Chambers Cabinet-appointed Public Service Review Task Force. I spoke of the “inability of existing manual systems to cope fully with even modest demands,” and I went on: “The task force discovered to its surprise and dismay that quite a number of questionnaires (for its employee survey) could not be delivered for the most basic of reasons: people were no longer in the service…or had never been heard of by the ministries to which they were allegedly assigned…And yet these persons’ names all appeared in the current files of the relevant agency, the Service Commissions Department!”
In my 1995 book In the Service of the Public, a collection of my articles and speeches on a variety of subjects over the period 1963-1993, I reflected on my 1985 remarks and on other public service musings.
I wrote: “What I did not say (in the 1985 speech) was that further investigations had revealed that at least two persons were dead; one had been dead for seven years. Yet his name was still on the relevant ministry’s payroll, and his salary was still being regularly collected. But the reaction of a senior official of the Service Commissions Department was that it could not have happened. It was happening, you understand, but it could not have happened. Orwell’s world had clearly come into being, on schedule, in 1984.
“It has kept on happening. The Daily Express of December 24, 1992 carried an article on the illegal collecting of salaries from the Labour Intensive Development Programme of the Ministry of Works and Transport. Ghost workers (mostly live ghosts, apparently) were present in their hundreds: persons out of the country were rostered, and several persons were registered to work at two locations at the same time. Nearly one year later, on October 10, 1993, the Sunday Express quoted a senior official of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Social Services as saying there had been an increase in the cashing of cheques bearing the names of deceased pensioners. It was as if time had been standing still.”
So there we were. In 1985 the Service Commissions Department simply would not believe my task force’s finding that dead people were still collecting salaries and pensions. And since this wasn’t happening, there logically was no reason to investigate, let alone reform. That wasn’t all.
A senior minister took a Note to the Cabinet clobbering me for having been so impertinent – a mere public servant, too, whether chairman or not of an independent task force – as to point publicly to a government financial lacuna costing the country millions; I had to be reined in. (Irritated, Chambers had him withdraw the Note.) But that’s our society’s way, isn’t it – undermine and, if possible, destroy the messenger if he’s bringing uncomfortable news; ignore the message. Of course, the rot continued.
Nearly 30 years later, the People’s Partnership government, attempting rectification, introduced a change which seemed straightforward enough: pension applications would be checked against the Registrar-General’s death records.
We now know, from Minister Cox’s intervention, that this procedure hasn’t had the desired effect. Miss Cox said that there had been “a 241 per cent increase in the number of reports to the (police) with the majority of cases, 151 per cent, involving senior citizens’ pensions.” Her ministry had found that “1,995 persons to whom cheques were issued, as recently as August 2021, were confirmed dead…(T)he disability and pension cheques (written to those persons were) being cashed (and) 81 per cent (of them were) senior citizens’ pensions.”
Surprise, surprise! From a mere two physically absent beneficiaries in 1985 to almost 2,000 in 2021! If only our socio-economic development could match this exponential growth! Such fruitful collaboration between the grateful undead, still happily receiving state benefits, and the living, as happily and as gratefully monetising them! Why, we may even have stumbled upon a new export industry which could generate the level of foreign exchange Colm Imbert so badly needs! Perhaps he should invite the IMF down to have a look?
Close on 37 years since I first publicly raised the matter, Minister Cox says she will be setting up a compliance unit to deal with it. I wish her well. I wish the country well.