Saturday 15 March 2014

Parliament Highlights - 13 Mar 2014

Committee of Supply Debate: MSF

Scheme to groom pool of social service leaders
Central body to oversee recruitment and deployment of professionals
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

VOLUNTARY welfare organisations (VWOs) are working with the Government to form a central body to oversee the recruitment, tracking and deployment of social service professionals.

The aim is to groom future leaders, make the sector more attractive, and address the perennial bugbear of staff exiting due to the lack of a structured career pathway.

Some 200 to 300 individuals will be part of this pool, which will be overseen by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), a statutory board under the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

Its minister, Mr Chan Chun Sing, said the effort is also in response to workers' feedback that they be deployed in different organisations to "better understand the bigger picture".

Currently, some can spend decades working in the same agency or concentrating on a single area of social work.

Mr Chan told Parliament during the debate on the MSF budget that the new career scheme would complement existing ones, and would lead to more sharing of ideas across VWOs.

"Most importantly, we hope that in 10, 15 years... we will groom a new generation of social service leaders," he added.

These will ideally be individuals who are "not just deep in their respective professional knowledge, but also in breadth of expertise and exposure, and can lead the entire sector".

The scheme will involve new social service scholarship holders, mid-career entrants and existing professionals who are graduates.

The NCSS will set up a taskforce comprising representatives from VWOs, government agencies, companies and academia to work out the details of the scheme, which will be rolled out by year-end.

Yesterday, Mr Chan also announced plans to strengthen manpower support in the sector.

Currently, NCSS looks into the training of social workers only. In future, development opportunities will be opened up to all social service professionals.

These may include therapists and early intervention teachers. This will translate to more uniformity in terms of short-term schemes involving sabbatical leave, or longer-term ones to do with career pathways and training.

The ministry has also adjusted its funding to VWOs, and shared salary benchmarks in the sector, to enable them to pay their employees better, Mr Chan said.

Covenant Family Service Centre senior social worker Ruth Ng welcomed the prospect of being deployed to various agencies.

However, she shared the concerns of Professor Tan Ngoh Tiong, dean of SIM University's School of Human Development and Social Services, about the practicality of moving staff across different fields of work.

He pointed to the different set of aptitudes and skills required for, say, working with the elderly and children with special needs.

The MSF budget was the last of 16 ministries' to be scrutinised, and capped nine days of discussion in the House that was dominated by concerns over health-care affordability, public transport and manpower issues.

Parliament approved $64.37 billion of spending for FY2014, along with $24.78 billion in development estimates.

Leader of the House and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen delivered a report card of the Government's work at the mid-point of the electoral cycle in his closing speech. He said there had been headway in dealing with housing and elderly issues, but areas such as transport and health care remained a work in progress.

Follow-ups done on all the needy featured in media
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

EVERY case of a down-and-out Singaporean that appears on social media or in the newspapers is followed up by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), its minister Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

But it does so behind the scenes. His ministry's policy is also not to reveal the names of the people it helps, to protect their privacy, he added.

In not disclosing who they help, he said his ministry sometimes gets flak for it.

Mr Chan also urged his fellow MPs "not to judge" when stories of any of these families in trouble are highlighted in the media.

"Very often, there are very complicated stories behind each and every case. Very often, the social workers and the community have been quietly working behind the scenes helping these families in need without fanfare," he said.

His explanation on how his ministry helps the needy was in response to comments by Ms Denise Phua (Moulmein-Kallang GRC) that a common response of Singaporeans, when they come across others in need, is to take a photo or video and send it to social or traditional media, instead of contacting agencies that could help.

Mr Chan said: "Those who genuinely want to help... we will be most happy to work with them. But for those with other reasons, it is always difficult."

Last month, one such video by the British Broadcasting Corp made the rounds online. It featured a jobless single mother with six children who said no one in her family could afford to fall ill.

Similarly, a 2009 video by Agence France-Presse featured an elderly woman in Singapore who made a living by scavenging for and selling scrap cardboard.

But checks by Singapore officials later found she owned property, and had savings and a family that wanted to help her, but she did not want to rely on them.

Vulnerable families to be helped by one social worker each
By Janice Tai And Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

A NEW approach of having one social worker hold the hands of each family with complex problems till the family is back on its feet will be tested on 500 such families this year.

These vulnerable families - from those with single parents to those with elderly members or abused children - face issues that go beyond cash-flow problems.

For example, the breadwinner of a family may be in jail while his children struggle with learning difficulties. Others may have chronic health conditions.

"We are going to change the way we want to tackle some of these difficult cases in society," said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing during the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday.

The pilot programme for vulnerable families will involve social workers assessing the needs of the family, and then working with the family to come up with solutions.

Instead of simply referring them to different agencies to deal with the various aspects of their multi-faceted problems, the social workers will coordinate the help from the agencies.

This was among several measures to improve the delivery of social services - especially in the last stage before reaching the recipient, which tends to be less efficient - that Mr Chan announced, in response to several MPs' calls for more integrated and holistic help services.

"We need to have effective 'last-mile delivery' by mobilising community resources and integrating the work of the social service offices, the family service centres and the other help agencies to deliver localised and integrated services," he said.

Plans to better customise solutions and integrate help across agencies include piloting a national database for social service agencies to share data on aid recipients by next year, he revealed.

The database will help those in need get assistance more speedily, as it will eliminate the need for them to repeat their details when they get help from multiple agencies.

Social workers will also be able to check what assistance has already been given, and give further help without wasting time on unnecessary paperwork.

Working more closely with troubled families also requires a deeper understanding of the cultural and religious backgrounds of these families, said Mr Chan.

Particularly for vulnerable Malay/Muslim families, mentors with such understanding and empathy are needed for help to be given effectively, he added.

He called for more successful Malay/Muslim professionals to come forward as mentors to children from such families.

"We need positive role models who can walk the journey with these children," he said in Malay.

His ministry will also work closely with Malay/Muslim organisations to help the families.

Administrative executive Mary Lim, 40, said she looks forward to working with social workers to resolve deep-seated issues in her family. A single mother of three daughters aged seven to 13, she is the family's sole breadwinner.

Medical expenses for her oldest daughter, who was born with opaque corneas and is blind, amount to about $700 each month. This is more than a quarter of Ms Lim's salary.

But her monthly pay of about $2,000 means she cannot qualify for financial assistance to pay for her younger children's school expenses.

She hopes help agencies will be more flexible, and that the application process for different schemes can be simplified.

But beyond financial help, she knows that the needs of her children have to be looked into.

"After the divorce, I know my oldest daughter was quite disappointed. I'm not sure about its impact on the rest," she said.

"Once the financial issues are settled, hopefully the emotional aspects can also be tackled."

Talent scheme needs VWO buy-in
By Lee Hui Chieh, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

SETTING up a shared pool of social service professionals who will be groomed for leadership roles in the sector appears to be a sound approach.

Under the new scheme, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) - which oversees social service agencies - and voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) will team up to recruit and train social service professionals and deploy them to various agencies.

The aim is to make the social services sector more attractive by creating better personal development and career prospects, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing in Parliament yesterday.

The lack of structured career development paths for social service professionals - because most VWOs are small - has often been cited as a problem in drawing new people and retaining existing employees.

But Mr Chan said: “In order for us to make a breakthrough in this, everyone has to think the sector first, and not the individual VWO first.” His comment hints at the challenges of making the scheme succeed. While it may bring fresh talent from beyond the sector, it is open to existing professionals as well.

This means VWOs risk losing their painstakingly recruited and nurtured talent to the central pool - something they would be loath to see, especially given the scarcity.

This fear had been raised earlier for a similar scheme by the NCSS, which is still running.

The Social Service Talent Development Scheme was launched in October 2011 “with the aim of developing a pipeline of well-qualified, highly experienced and well-rounded professionals who would provide leadership for the social service sector”, the NCSS said on its website.

Each year, eight candidates are picked from NCSS scholarship holders or outstanding social service professionals nominated by their employers. They then get fellowships for further training or attachments overseas, or are seconded to the ministry, NCSS or other VWOs.

But the VWOs’ fear has been allayed because their nominees have to return to them after the stints.

For the new scheme to succeed, the VWOs have to be convinced that they will ultimately benefit from it.

Higher household income cap for ComCare
1,800 more families will be eligible when it is raised to $1,900 from July
By Janice Tai And Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

EVERY time two-year-old Ayden gets a fever or cough, his parents have sleepless nights.

Their anxiety is not only because the boy is their only child, but each visit to the doctor sets them back by up to $50.

Ayden's father Pang Xiao Zhang, 30, earns $1,500 a month as a technician, while his mother Angel Tan, 28, makes $300 as a freelance courier.

Rent and utility bills easily eat up one-fifth of their income.

But a change in policy announced yesterday by Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing will bring the Pangs relief.

This means 1,800 more families can now apply for the aid. For families with more dependants, the income cap for each person will be lifted from $550 to $650.

These increases will cost the Government an additional $15.4 million a year.

The changes follow Mr Chan's disclosure last year, during his ministry Budget debate, that the Government was reviewing social assistance schemes to ensure the needy do not fall through the cracks because of rigid criteria.

The eligibility criteria was last relaxed two years ago when the income ceiling for short- to medium-term aid was raised to $1,700, from $1,500. Larger families became eligible too, with the ministry introducing a per capita income criterion of up to $550.

The less rigid criteria is one reason social aid payments to the poor crossed the $100 million mark for the first time to reach $102.4 million in the last financial year ending in March 2013.

But Mr Chan stressed that "the measure of success for our Comcare scheme is not the amount of money we hand out. It is how we are able to use the Comcare scheme to allow people to stand on their feet again".

"Help must come as an integrated package that looks into not just the financial assistance, but the root of the problems (that may range from) job to housing and education," he said.

The help given can be manifold. Households could get monthly cash allowances, vouchers for utility, rent and transport as well as subsidised treatment in polyclinics and hospitals.

Mr Chang Kun Heng, 79, hopes to receive help for his main expenses: $250 a month rent for a two-room flat on Henderson Road and $150 for utility bills.

He does odd jobs, which pay $40 a day. His daughter, a telephone operator in her 40s, brings home about $1,500 a month.

He lives with his wife, daughter and 11-year-old grandson, and their total household income of $1,800 makes the family eligible for the ComCare scheme.

"At my age, I want to work, but no one wants to hire me," he said. We live day to day, and so far, so good. We are lucky," he said.

$56m to help those with disabilities, special needs kids
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

MORE than 50,000 children with special needs and people with disabilities will soon receive more help from the Government to the tune of $56 million a year, Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Low Yen Ling said in Parliament yesterday.

Of this sum, $32 million will go to fund subsidies under the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC).

The programme provides educational and therapy services for those below seven years old who are at risk of developmental issues. The other $24 million will go to defraying transport costs of the disabled who either take public transport, special transport services or taxis.

From October, all Singaporean children enrolled in EIPIC will receive a $500 base subsidy, up from the current $300.

On top of that, more families will be eligible for additional subsidies as the per capita income will be raised from $1,500 to $3,000.

This means a further subsidy of between 10 per cent and 75 per cent, and eight in 10 households with such children will be covered.

These were announced in January.

Those with limited mobility who use special transport services run by voluntary welfare organisations to get to special education schools, day activity centres and sheltered workshops can now also get subsidies from July 1.

Those with per capita income of $2,600 and below can get subsidies of between 30 per cent to 80 per cent, depending on their income.

Those who rely on taxis to go to school or work because they cannot take public transport or use other modes of travel will also get a leg up in defraying their transport expenses.

From October, the Government will subsidise up to half of the fares for taxis, including London cabs.

Those with $1,800 per capita income and below will have their fares subsidised between 10 per cent and 50 per cent.

For Mohamed Shukur, 15, who uses a wheelchair permanently due to a spinal cord injury, this means saving $20 each time he takes a London cab - the only taxi large enough for his wheelchair.

Each ride costs a flat fee of $40.

The family has been getting $800 a month from the LTA Cares Fund, which subsidies taxi rides for low-income families, but it covers only one-way cab trips to MacPherson Secondary School. Going home is a daily struggle by bus, with his mother's help.

"Buses that come are either too crowded or non-wheelchair accessible, so we can wait up to 45 minutes just to get on one," said his mother, Madam Madiah Atan.

The 59-year-old is unable to work as she needs to care for her son.

The two of them, who live in a one-room Bendemeer flat, rely on welfare aid of $370 a month and a $200 allowance from her daughter to get by.

She said: "I am happy about this new subsidy. But we will only use cabs for emergencies, such as when he is sick, as $20 a ride is still big money for us."

Kindergarten fee aid extended to more families
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

MORE families will be given kindergarten subsidies and greater help extended to lower-income households, in a government move to ensure that every child gets a good start in life.

The Kindergarten Fee Assistance Scheme (KiFAS), which targets the lower-income, will be given to middle-income families as well, following a change in the income criteria.

From January next year, the household income ceiling of those eligible for KiFAS will be raised from $3,500 to $6,000 a month.

At the same time, KiFAS will give lower-income families subsidies of up to $160 a month, compared to $108 now.

With the bigger subsidies, families getting the most support could pay as little as $1 a month for their child to attend kindergarten.

These details of the KiFAS changes were given by Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday, after Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced the move in his Budget statement last month.

If lower-income families cannot pay the fees even after receiving subsidies, Mr Chan said, community leaders will "find ways to raise that amount and help (their children) go through kindergarten so that every child will get a good start".

The new KiFAS scheme will also be expanded to include children at kindergarten, nursery or pre-nursery programmes in kindergartens that are run by the Ministry of Education (MOE) or anchor operators such as the PAP Community Foundation (PCF).

Currently, it is open only to children in eligible non-profit kindergartens with no affiliation to racial or religious groups, such as PCF kindergartens.

MOE opened five kindergartens this year, enrolling about 250 children. PCF has 232 kindergartens, with more than 33,000 children.

Monthly fees at MOE kindergartens are $150. Fees at PCF kindergartens vary, but on average, they are $133.30 a month.

The new KiFAS is expected to benefit about 17,000 children a year. This is one in two children, a rise from one in three now.

About $20 million a year will be set aside for it, double the present amount.

Assistant engineer Vincent Low, 33, whose five-year-old son is in Kindergarten 1 at a PCF kindergarten, welcomed the move to include middle-income families.

His family is currently not eligible as their monthly household income is about $3,700.

"It is a pity to miss out on the benefits when we are just a few hundred dollars above the eligible income ceiling," said Mr Low.

With the new scheme, he will save $90 a month next year. He plans to use it to give his two children swimming lessons, among other enrichment activities.

Beyond affordability, Mr Chan also plans to improve the quality of pre-schools.

From May, childcare centres can set aside up to four days a year for staff to go for continuing professional development courses. This would be on top of the 2.5 days they are advised to set aside for staff training, out of the 5.5 days they can close in a year, apart from public holidays and weekends.

The quality certification framework for pre-schools will also be improved by year's end, with a "clearer rating system", said Mr Chan.

A new legal framework will also be launched next year, with kindergartens and childcare centres licensed under the same Act, and new provisions to raise the quality of pre-schools.

New scheme to help children of divorcing parents
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

A PROGRAMME for parents thinking about splitting up will be introduced to ensure their children's needs are considered before they start divorce proceedings.

The programme will include components for parents to understand the importance of positive co-parenting and negative effects of divorces, Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Low Yen Ling said in Parliament yesterday. Her ministry and the Law Ministry will draw up the programme. Details like how and when it will be implemented have yet to be finalised.

"The breakdown of a marriage can be traumatic, especially for the child," said Ms Low.

Urging parents to consider the child's interests, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said: "Let us always remember the child who is at the centre, caught in between, powerless to dictate terms or even to share his or her perspective."

Since 2007, there have been about 7,000 divorces each year, affecting more than 8,000 children.

For children whose parents are going through or have completed divorce proceedings, programmes to help them cope will be expanded. Other programmes to help parents overcome co-parenting difficulties will also be introduced.

The ministry will work with other organisations to raise the capability and capacity of agencies handling divorce-related issues.

More details will be announced later this year, Ms Low said.

She also said two pilot parenting programmes, developed in Australia, will be introduced in 40 primary and secondary schools over two years from next month.

Walk the last mile on social problems
Targeting 500 complex cases will put multi-sectoral solutions to the test
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

IN 2006, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Low-Wage Workers presented its report.

I remember covering it, and getting excited about two of its proposals. The first was the Workfare Income Supplement, a ground-breaking proposal to top up incomes of low-wage workers. It has since become part of the social safety net. The other was its call for a holistic approach to help low-wage workers' families, one that would look at their work and housing, and children's education. Alas, that one remained more an aspirational ideal than a reality. Till now.

Over the years, many MPs in Parliament, social work activists in the community and academics have all agreed on the need for a multi-agency approach to help vulnerable families. These may be families broken by divorce, abuse, drugs or imprisonment. They may struggle with health problems, low wages or all of the above.

As Nominated MP Laurence Lien noted on Wednesday, social problems require a multi-sectoral approach. He had suggested: "Might we have an agency looking after vulnerable families and the issues they face, for example? And even better than a whole-of-government approach, are we able to take a truly whole-of-society approach by involving the community even more deeply?"

MPs Seah Kian Peng and Alex Yam also wanted help for families in crisis. Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing responded to those calls yesterday.

MSF will pilot a programme to help 500 of the most vulnerable families with complex needs. A multi-agency approach will be adopted: "We are going to bring together the various government agencies to do an integrated case management... We want to have dedicated social workers to these families to walk those years with them because it will take us many, many years to manage some of these challenges. Then, progressively, as we take on the hardest cases, it will free up resources for us to take on yet more cases."

MSF will work with agencies such as the Housing Board, the ministries of Education and Health, and the police, as well as voluntary welfare organisations and grassroots bodies, to come up with solutions for these families.

The idea is for MSF officials to "walk" the ground and mobilise local partners to come up with solutions to make sure "the last mile" of social service is effective.

For example, MSF officers who walked the streets at Jalan Kukoh in Outram from midnight to 5am found lots of young people hanging around. Their take: Youth guidance is needed.

Proposing "holistic solutions" is easy; finding a practical way to do it is harder.

MSF's approach bridges ideals with ground reality. Its network of 10 Social Service Offices bring ministry expertise to the ground.

And even though social workers already use a case management approach to help clients, targeting 500 of the most complex cases provides a critical mass of cases to test out multi-sectoral solutions, yet is focused enough to deliver maximum impact.

Singapore's high-density, high-tech and well-networked environment lends itself to such intense case management.

I have a suggestion though: Frame the scheme differently. Dignity matters to all, and especially when you are in need. Some folk might baulk at being on the Vulnerable Families Scheme. Call it Super 500, which can stand for Singaporeans United: Partners Empowering Resilience. Acronyms are easy to coin.

On dignity for the needy, I was glad of one small detail: Mr Chan declined to name people helped by his ministry. He did share stories, but explained: "As a matter of policy, we do not reveal the names of people whom we help. So, I will just call the first person Madam Lim."

I have been struck the past two weeks by the number of stories ministers have shared, about students/workers/patients whose lives have been improved by government policies. Often, names and photographs are given, with personal information about their circumstances, including medical details and even their diet.

To be sure, ministries like MOH assured me that they obtained the consent of people whose stories are shared in ministerial speeches. I know real-life examples help people connect with issues. They also make the job of reporters like me easier, with ready profiles. But I am glad anyway that no needy person had their name or photograph flashed in Parliament for MPs to see, to invite acclaim for MSF's work.

Another thing that has struck me about this year's marathon debate is the tone of "civility and decorum" in the debate, as Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen put it in his comments wrapping up nine-days of debate.

There were no fiery partisan battles, no sharp rebukes from the Speaker. There was some sparring, but no crossing of verbal swords. As political theatre, it was downright dull.

But it was no less substantial.

Coming midway in this term of government sworn in on Oct 10, 2011, the debate is a time to take stock of progress. I would say expansion of public services has progressed well, as has the move towards a more inclusive, and kinder and gentler, society.


'Still more to do in transport, health care'
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2014

LEADER of the House Ng Eng Hen used his closing speech for the Budget and Committee of Supply debates to deliver a progress report on the Government's work at the electoral cycle's midpoint, pointing to improvements, but also identifying sectors which are a work in progress.

There has been headway in fixing housing issues and taking care of the elderly, but more remains to be done in transport, manpower and health care, he said yesterday.

He recalled how in 2011 and the past two Budget debates, MPs had echoed residents' unhappiness with housing, transport and health-care affordability.

They also discussed Singapore's over-reliance on foreign labour, and whether more could be done for the poor, lower-skilled workers, seniors and the disabled.

But since then, there have been significant improvements in some areas, he said, such as the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Package, which won support from all MPs.

Shorter waiting times for more affordable flats also show that the housing problem has been tackled decisively, said Dr Ng, who is also Defence Minister.

But the transport, manpower and health ministries were in the hot seats this year, as the time taken to pass their budgets took up nearly a third of the nine-day debate.

The Health Ministry's 54 "cuts" - a call for a $100 reduction in a ministry's budget which gives MPs a chance to query its budget and comment on its policies - were the highest among the 16 ministries.

The Government needs to improve in areas such as train rides, help for small and medium-sized businesses, and an economy that provides better jobs and higher wages - especially for low-wage and older workers.

Dr Ng said: "If we have completed the first half of the match, the more crucial second half begins when Parliament re-opens after prorogation (in May). We still have much to do.

"This House therefore urges all of us together - Government, MPs and our people - to commit ourselves to the task of improving the lives of all Singaporeans in the remainder of the term."

Speaker Halimah Yaacob echoed his call, reminding MPs they need to ensure that policies reach the people they are meant to help. Many residents she met during house visits in the past fortnight were unaware of the policies being debated in Parliament, she said.

But given that MPs had raised both broad policy issues and concerns affecting their residents, Madam Halimah felt "there is no danger of this House being out of touch with the ground".

She added, however, that this point, raised by Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) during the debate, remained "a useful reminder for all of us".

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