Greater flexibility for disbursement of Government assistance funds during Covid-19 pandemic

Parliamentary Question, 5 May 2020

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) what is the total amount from the Unity, Resilience, and Solidarity Budgets that is allocated for increased flexibilities to ComCare due to COVID-19 and how much of this has been utilised; (b) what are the ways in which these increased flexibilities have been exercised and to what extent; and © given the protracted duration of the financial impact from COVID-19, whether the Ministry will consider widening the income eligibility criteria for ComCare schemes to be closer to those for the Temporary Relief Fund and COVID-19 Support Grant.

The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Desmond Lee): Mr Speaker, including the commitment from the Unity Budget and interest from the ComCare Endowment Fund, MOF committed about $180 million for ComCare in FY2020. This is an increase of about 9% from the previous financial year. As the global economic situation rapidly deteriorated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government committed another $60 million for increased ComCare flexibility under the Resilience Budget in March. In sum, the total budget for ComCare in FY2020 is about $240 million.

Social Service Offices (SSOs) have been exercising flexibility to provide immediate assistance to affected individuals through ComCare Interim Assistance. In April this year, SSOs approved 125 applications for ComCare Interim Assistance. This is higher than the monthly average of 72 approved applications in the preceding six months from October 2019 to March 2020.

SSOs are also providing a longer duration of support for ComCare households, which would provide greater assurance to families and individuals whose livelihoods have been affected by COVID-19 as they seek new jobs or retraining opportunities. Since April 2020, SSOs have been providing at least six months of assistance to new recipients of ComCare Short-to-Medium-Term Assistance (SMTA). In April this year, SSOs approved 1,441 applications with six months of assistance or longer, which is higher than the monthly average of 946 approved applications with six months of assistance or longer in the preceding six months, from October 2019 to March 2020.

Households who are already on ComCare will also have their assistance automatically extended for a further six months without them having to approach the SSOs. If any of these households face greater needs during this period, they can contact our SSOs who will assess their circumstances and provide the necessary support. Our SSOs can conduct their interviews and assessment processes electronically, and applicants can submit their supporting documents via email.

ComCare SMTA and Interim Assistance have income eligibility criteria of a monthly household income of $1,900 and below or per capita household income of $650 and below. These are not hard thresholds and each case is considered on its own merit. SSOs take into account the applicants’ circumstances and needs and exercise flexibility as needed to provide the necessary financial assistance and social support.

To help lower and middle income households affected by COVID-19 tide through their financial challenges, the Government has also introduced several help schemes. The Temporary Relief Fund provided one-off assistance in the month of April this year. From May, the COVID-19 Support Grant will help affected employees, while the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) will support self-employed persons.

These measures are part of the Government’s response to mitigate the broad-based impact of COVID-19 on Singaporeans. They complement the mainstay of our social safety nets, including ComCare. The Government will continue to assess the situation and provide more support to affected Singaporeans if needed.

Mr Speaker: Ms Anthea Ong. Keep it short. We are out of time.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister, first and foremost, for the comprehensive firm response. I have two supplementary questions for the Minister.

Would the Minister consider making auto-renewal as well as the six-month period a default practice for the SMTA assistance scheme under ComCare? Also, would the Minister consider looking at how we can perhaps reduce the amount of resources spent on determining whether individuals do or do not qualify for ComCare but have these resources focused on supporting people in more meaningful and impactful ways?

Mr Desmond Lee: Sir, as I have said earlier, we will automatically extend ComCare for a further six months for existing ComCare beneficiaries and do so as a default for new applications which are approved.

As for resources to support other people, I think we need to make sure that we take care of our ComCare beneficiaries, and our officers will reach out to them, support them to make sure that if we need extra resources, we will provide them with it. We will make sure that there is adequate manpower and resourcing nevertheless to process applications for the COVID-19 Support Grant, just as we have processed large numbers of applications for the Temporary Relief Fund.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

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A full-time human, and part-time everything else.