CSSA grant checks 'too lax'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am

Ombudsman says welfare staff failed to make sure claims were valid

The Ombudsman has hit out at frontline staff at the Social Welfare Department, saying some lack common sense and practical judgment when handling applications for special grants.

In a damning report released yesterday, the watchdog outlined several cases of extreme abuse of special grants under the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme. Special grants are given to CSSA recipients who face exceptional hardship.

In one case, a CSSA recipient who had been on the scheme since 2003 was given seven HK$1,000 payments to settle seven applications for special grants for glasses between May 2004 and May last year.

The maximum amount a frontline official can approve for spectacles is HK$1,000.

The welfare recipient's applications in two instances were for Gucci frames on the grounds that the previous glasses were damaged in accidents. The reason given for another application was that the glasses had been damaged in a fight.

The same recipient also made five applications for special grants for dental treatment, for which he was given HK$6,400 between 2004 and last year. The applications were made by simply submitting quotations, without evidence of payment or proof of treatment.

The same man also defaulted on rent of HK$7,650 from June 2006 to March last year. He was given the money, but he did not use it to pay the rent.

'This case only came to light when the recipient complained about the department checking his quotations for glasses,' Ombudsman Alice Tai Yuen-ying said.

'The recipient was so spoiled that he thought it was wrong for the department to check his quotations. The department questioned his quotations so he came to us to complain ... That is what I think is the ridiculous side of the case.'

In another case, a welfare recipient claimed to have lost money three times: HK$1,900, HK$1,300 and HK$2,000.

Ms Tai said the department granted cash to the recipient and readily gave in to his refusal to receive assistance in kind. She pointed out that such easy indulgence could well encourage carelessness and similar applications.

'It is like receiving salaries from employers. If you lose the money, will your employer give you money again?' she said.

In two other cases, recipients applied for special grants with forged receipts to make claims for the purchase of adult diapers and rent resulting in overpayment of HK$86,000 and HK$35,000, respectively. The diaper case went unnoticed over four years, during which 17 reviews were carried out, while the rent case was reviewed every six months and went unnoticed for 28 months.

The diaper case came to light when an official phoned a pharmacy to check diaper prices claimed on the forged receipt. The rent fraud was exposed when an official made a phone call to the landlord.

Ms Tai said: 'All it took was a phone call to a pharmacy to identify the flaw in one case. We feel that a good system relies on good people to run it. Overall, in Hong Kong, our CSSA system is a healthy system.'

The Social Welfare Department welcomed the report, saying: 'We will closely study the report and the recommendations with a view to achieving more effective administration of the special grants.'