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BC Welfare Ministry Inspires Most Complaints

Ombudsperson details how her office fights to ensure government treats vulnerable people fairly.

By Andrew MacLeod 21 Jun 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Nearly 20 per cent of files Ombudsperson Kim Carter’s office opened in 2012-2013 involved the social development ministry.

For nearly three years, the Ministry of Social Development had underpaid benefits to Evan, a long-term recipient of disability assistance living in northern British Columbia. The ministry admitted staff made a mistake, but would only reimburse Evan for one year, telling him tough luck for the other two.

Evan's case is one of a few dozen outlined in the 77-page 2012-2013 annual report from B.C.'s Ombudsperson Kim Carter, the independent officer of the legislature who can investigate whether people are treated fairly by the government. The case is one of several about complaints involving the ministry that deals with income and disability assistance.

"The ministry confirmed that, due to an error on its part, an underpayment had occurred on Evan's file for 34 months," said the report. "The ministry did not have a specific policy or legislative direction about reimbursing for an underpayment, but indicated that its usual practice is to reimburse the person for a maximum of 12 months, as it had done in this case."

The social development ministry reviewed the matter and agreed to pay Evan what it owed him for the full time it had underpaid him, but only after the Ombudsperson's office questioned the policy.

Ludmila also required help from the Ombudsperson's office to get the Ministry of Social Development to apply common sense. Living in the north, she had received income assistance in the summer, but was returning to school in the fall hoping to improve her chance of finding a job. As a full-time student she would be eligible for loans and other financial aid, but not for income assistance.

"The instructors of the post-secondary program she enrolled in had invited students to attend an orientation day on August 31," the Ombudsperson's report said. "Ludmila attended this event, which she described as non-compulsory, informal, introductory, and non-instructional. At the event, she met her instructors and fellow students, and participated in organized social events with students from other programs. No classes were held. Classes began the following day, on September 1."

The ministry staff, however, counted August as the month she started school, disqualifying her for benefits a month earlier than she would have been otherwise.

"We reviewed the program syllabus and related correspondence and discussed these documents with the ministry, as they appeared to confirm that no classes were held before September 1," the report said. The ministry reversed its decision.

Welfare system attracts most complaints

Nearly 20 per cent of the files the Ombudsperson's office opened in 2012-2013 involved the social development ministry, a slight increase from a year earlier. Those 983 files put it well ahead of runners-up the children and families ministry (641 files), justice (591 files), Workers' Compensation Board (304 files), ICBC (296 files) and health (135 files).

Carter's report also provides an update on several systemic investigations, including the "Last Resort: Improving Fairness and Accountability in British Columbia's Income Assistance Program" report from March 2009. It made 28 recommendations, and the government said at the time it would implement all but one of them.

"Unfortunately, this year I again have to report that the ministry has not implemented the six recommendations relating to the [Persons with Persistent Multiple Barriers to Employment] program it accepted and committed to implement over four years ago," says the annual report. "While the ministry states that it continues to review the PPMB program as a whole, it has not identified any progress in this area and neither have we."

Nor has the government met its promise to schedule and conduct "file reviews or audits evaluating compliance with legislation and ministry policies."

Asked why the ministry's been so slow to implement her recommendations for the PPMB program, Carter said, "I'm not sure. Perhaps because it's the middle child, so to speak." There's less clarity about the role of the PPMB category than there is about regular income assistance or benefits for people with disabilities, she said.

On the broader question of why so many of her office's files involve the social development ministry, Carter offered various thoughts.

"The people who are most dependent on the government are the most likely to come to us," she said, pointing out that in many cases the main public bodies she addresses all deal with people in times in their lives when they are in need. Justice, the third biggest source of Ombudsperson file openings, includes both the family maintenance enforcement program and the provincial corrections system.

In many cases the people complaining to the Ombudsperson's office would be unable to afford to hire a lawyer and coming to her office is a way to get help without that barrier, she said.

"It's reflective of the fact we have populations that do face challenges," she said. "It's a reflection of imbalance in not only power between the government authorities and the people who are dependent on them... sometimes there are people who just can't plug into the new processes."

New minister McRae unavailable

In some cases a ministry believes it has a policy, but it's not communicated clearly to staff on the front lines who deal with clients, Carter said. In others they have discretion for how to deal with situations, but there's a lack of direction on how to apply it, she said.

"You may have places that have shortages of staff," she said.

In general, Carter added, in her experience government agencies do try to treat people fairly and are willing to make systemic changes to improve. "I work on the premise... that we help the agencies as much as we help complainants."

Premier Christy Clark appointed Don McRae as the minister of social development, replacing Moira Stilwell, when she announced her post-election cabinet on June 7. He was unavailable for an interview.

"The Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation takes the well-being of British Columbians who require ministry services very seriously and is committed to providing a high level of service to the approximately 180,000 people receiving ministry supports -- many of whom have considerable needs and challenges," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement responding to The Tyee's questions.

"Individual circumstances vary widely and, for this reason, the ministry appreciates the Ombudsperson's report," it said. "The ministry always looks at ways to improve service and supports for individuals, and reports from the Ombudsperson help us build on efforts to better serve B.C.'s most vulnerable citizens."

Committee should get reports, says Carter

Asked about the delay on the 27 recommendations the ministry agreed to four years ago, the spokesperson said 14 have been fully implemented, six are in progress and "the remaining seven recommendations are of an ongoing nature and regular updates are provided."

The ministry continues to be guided by the report "as it considers how best to approach service improvements in the future," it said.

Michelle Mungall, appointed last week as the NDP's critic for social development, was unavailable for an interview.

Carter said she is requesting to have a legislative committee receive her reports, as is already the practice for the Auditor General and the Representative for Children and Youth. Reports from the Ombudsperson are delivered to the speaker, but not formally discussed.

"It might be beneficial to hear from us," she said. "Not enough people know about the good governance aspects of our work."

A focus of the office's work is to look for places that systemic changes can be made, she said. "We try to avoid trying to solve the same problem 99 times before it gets fixed."  [Tyee]

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