The Department of Social Development briefed the Select Committee on Health and Social Services on the Social Assistance Amendment Bill [B8B-2018]. The Bill had been introduced to Parliament in 2018 before lapsing. This year, it had been recommended for approval by the Committee, passed to the National Assembly, and transferred to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence. The Bill sought to make a few changes to the Social Assistance Act.
Members asked several questions pertaining to the additional amounts added to social welfare grants, the number of social workers in the Department’s service, its plans to resolve backlog issues, and how it would make the appeals process more accessible and clearer. They also requested clarity on issues pertaining to the inspectorate and the make-up of the independent tribunal
The Chairperson welcomed Members of the Select Committee and support staff, and referred to the presence of chairpersons and members from legislatures and social development committees at the meeting. She requested a moment of silence for the loss of two Members -- one a Member of the National Assembly, and an icon in Social Services.
Apologies were received from the Minister and Deputy Minister. The Minister was attending a National Coronavirus Command Council Meeting, and the Deputy Minister had another meeting scheduled prior to the current meeting. The Acting Director General was present, and would present on behalf of the Department of Social Development (DSD).
Ms N Ndongeni (ANC, Eastern Cape) asked if the apologies were in writing, and accepted them.
The Chairperson requested that all present Members introduce themselves. Members of the legislatures of the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, Gauteng and North West were not present.
The Chairperson said that all introductions were being made to ensure that the process pertaining to the Bill was followed. The Bill had been referred to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on 9 June 2020. The process would be that of a six-week cycle, and this briefing was the first part of the process. Provincial briefings would be expected to take place from 31 August to 4 September. She acknowledged that the request by the legislature to be a part of the process would make the work easier. Members of the Select Committee would be expected to host briefings on the Bill in their provinces, followed by public hearings for two weeks (7-18 September). The negotiating meeting mandates for the Select Committee was scheduled for 22 September, and the final mandates meeting for finalising and reporting on the Bill was scheduled for 29 September.
DSD briefing on Social Assistance Development Bill
Mr Linton Mchunu, Acting Director General, Department of Social Development (DSD), said that the DSD had received invitations from the Eastern Cape and Western Cape legislatures for a briefing on the Bill. He asked for guidance from the Chairperson on managing the process of briefing on the Bill, and emphasised the Department’s willingness and availability to be a part of the process.
He said that the Bill had been introduced to Parliament on 13 April 2018, but had lapsed due to changes from the fifth to sixth administration. It was then revised in 2019, and the new Committee had considered the Bill. After receiving verbal and written comments from various civil society organisations, as well as making minor changes, the Committee had recommended the Bill for approval in March 2020. It was passed to the National Assembly, and then transferred to the NCOP for concurrence on 9 June.
The Bill seeks to provide a few changes to the Social Assistance Act, and DSD wants to get the Minister of Finance to make additional amounts payable on top of the existing social grant payments, as this would enable the Minister to implement the extended child support grant policy which allowed for the above-mentioned payment process.
The policy had been approved by Cabinet in 2016, and was part of the comprehensive legal solution to the current foster care challenges experienced by the DSD, which was currently facing backlogs relating to foster care. The Bill would also repeal the process of internal considerations within the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA), and provide for direct appeals to the Independent Tribunal for Social Assistance Appeals. It currently took long for the DSD to conclude appeals, and the Bill would assist in this regard by significantly reducing the time period in which appeals were finalised. The Bill also changed the organisational form of the Inspectorate for Social Assistance from a government department to that of a government component. The Bill was also part of a High Court ruling to implement a comprehensive legal solution to foster care-related matters faced by the DSD, so it had to provide positive feedback to the court before November in order to complete the first part of the legal comprehensive solution.
Legislation’s key provisions
Ms Brenda Sibeko, Deputy Director General: Comprehensive Social Security, DSD, described the key provisions in the legislation.
- It would allow for the provision of additional amounts to old people, essentially regularising the practice of paying additional amounts of R20 on the Older Persons Grant (OPG) for those above the age of 75 years.
- The provisions would resolve the current issue South Africa faced regarding the increasing number of orphans. Many orphans lived in safe environments, but due to high levels of poverty the Foster Care Grant (FCG) had become the default grant over Child Support Grant (CSG). Some families taking care of orphans had managed to navigate the foster care system, while many others had been unable to do so, due to overwhelming numbers. The key policy intervention was to increase the value of the CSG for orphans and child-headed households.
- Removal of the reconsideration provision sought to remove the reconsideration method within SASSA and allow for direct access to an appeal to the Tribunal regarding a grant application or review by SASSA.
- Section 24 (1) incorrectly classified the Inspectorate as a government department. The view of the Department was that it should be a government component, rather than a government department.
- It added a clause that the Minister must, after appointment with Parliament, allocate a member.
He requested the NCOP to note the amendment and support the National Assembly (NA).
Ms A Maleka (ANC, Mpumalanga) said that from her understanding, the Social Assistance Amendment Bill included new child support, plus a grant designed to lessen the financial impact on families who had been removed from the foster care system and were no longer receiving the foster care grant. The grant allowed for a top-up of R210 to the current Child Support Grant (CSG) of R425, to compensate families for orphan care. She asked the DSD to provide a breakdown of the number of children who would be eligible for the CSG top-up, instead of foster care.
Ms S Luthuli (EFF, KwaZulu-Natal) referred to the issue of children in rural areas often being unable to access documents due to the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) offices not being within reach, thus causing added transport cost issues. Often children living in rural areas in the care of relatives were particularly disadvantaged, as they faced the burden of long distance and multiple trips. She asked what the DSD was doing to ensure that services such as foster care placement and foster care grants were available to children in rural areas.
Secondly, she mentioned that the shortage of social service practitioners and the lack of funding to non-governmental child protection organisations were seen as obstacles to improving the effectiveness of the foster care system, so what plans did the DSD have in place to recruit more social workers in the field of foster care, and provide more funding in that regard?
Ms Ndongeni said that this information was new to her. Since the start of the lockdown on 27 March, the media had been reporting on social workers’ struggles in following up on cases, worsening the mounting backlog of foster care grants and placements. She asked how the DSD planned to address the mounting backlog of foster care grants and placements.
She supported the establishment of the inspectorate function independently, both on the side of the DSD and SASSA, and then went on to suggest that the skills and expertise of the inspectorate should be included, but not limited, to at least one person who had a legal background and experience in law, and at least one person with experience or expert knowledge in forensic auditing and risk management.
Ms D Christians (DA, Northern Cape) queried the status of over 129 000 foster care orders being valid until 26 November 2020, and seemingly needing to be extended before this date, otherwise they would lapse. She asked the DSD to shed light on what the current status of these foster care orders was, and the progress on their extension.
Her second question pertained to the lack of social workers in the country. It was common knowledge that the transfer of a foster care grant did not need a court order, but it did require a social worker’s investigation, a home visit and a report. However, due to the lack of social workers in the country and especially since the start of the lockdown on 27 March, it had been recorded that social workers had been battling to follow up on cases, and that had worsened and increased the backlog of foster care grants. She asked how the DSD was addressing the mounting backlog of foster care grants and the replacement of the vulnerable children.
Mr W Weber (FF+, Mpumalanga legislature) stressed that he could not be against the support of orphan children, but he was concerned that this would be an extra expense for the government. The spending was such that it seemed as though there was no limit to the government’s ability to spend. The reality was that there was a limit to government’s ability to spend, and this limit would be reached. He had reservations on the government’s ability to spend more and more.
Ms N Swartbooi-Ntombela, Chairperson of the Social Development portfolio in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, asked that the briefing/presentation be circulated to all for the sake of access and to make it easier for questions to arise. She did not have a problem with the Bill, but she was still waiting for the NCOP to come and brief the portfolio committees in the provinces, so she could not have an in-depth engagement with the Bill.
When looking at orphans and child-headed households, would it mean that new applicants would receive a grant that already included the top-up? Secondly, applicants who faced issues when applying for grants were expected to appeal, but did not understand the appeal process. Could SASSA publicise the appeal process in order to help applicants to become familiar with this process?
Mr J Buthane (EFF, Limpopo legislature) said it would be difficult to engage and the process could be cumbersome. He thought it would be prudent to be taken in more detail through the Bill so that when each Member spoke, they did so from a perspective of having knowledge about what they were saying. He had noticed that the discussions were not streamlined and co-ordinated. He was not certain if this meeting being followed by public participation would be useful, if Members present at the meeting had not even got much information on what was being discussed.
He said Limpopo had 1 000 social workers who were not doing anything and had not been absorbed. Some had been trained by the Department. During the period in which Covid-19 had first emerged, they had tried to make use of some social workers, but that had not helped, as the process had failed to capture the spirit of assisting with the backlog of the 1 000 social workers mentioned earlier. He asked that the Department address the Members better on the issue.
Mr E Nchabeleng (ANC, Limpopo) said that the presentation had been provided some time ago. The National Assembly had interacted with it, showing that it had been in the public domain for some time. He emphasised that he was not speaking on behalf of the Department. In one of the presentations, Members had openly been lobbied to support the inputs of the NA, so he wanted to find out from the Department if Members’ support would make things easier for it in terms of programme implementation and all matters related to service delivery. If so, Members would want to check with the legal team -- both Parliament’s lawyers and the state legal advisors.
The Chairperson said that the meeting was a Parliamentary briefing, and she would allow Mr Mchunu to shed light on the questions raised. At the beginning of the meeting, she had highlighted the process that would take place going forward. Due to Covid-19, some legislatures had requested to be included in this process so as to make things easier when some Members, together with the Department, went to various provinces to introduce the Bill. Only the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape made a request for a briefing on the Bill.
She said the process of getting to the Bill had been a long one, and asked how the Department planned on implementing the new legislation that would result from it. Looking at the backlog of foster care applications and even with the Department of Justice, most Members were familiar with how this Bill could improve the lives of foster children. According to her understanding, the implementation of the Bill would not depend solely on the DSD, as there should be regular engagements with other role players in the field of foster care. She asked if the DSD engaged regularly with the judiciary and the Department of Justice and Correctional Services nationally and provincially to strengthen the relations for the improvement of the foster care service.
The Chairperson mentioned that the Department had reported a shortage of social worker several times. She wanted to know the current number of social workers in the Department’s service, and how many it would require to implement the Bill. If the Bill was to be approved, what mattered most was the implementation aspect -- for assurance sake, and to ensure an effective foster care system in the country. It was also recommended that civil society engagements, consultation and participation in governance, implementation and monitoring processes became a routine and were funded. She was pleased that the Minister had already engaged with Treasury so that when the Bill was approved by the end of September. as predicted by the NCOP, there would be no further backlog due to a lack of funds.
Ms S Luthuli (EFF, KwaZulu-Natal) commented on members of the legislatures’ remarks concerning the availability of documents prior to the meeting. She believed that when members of the legislature formed part of these meetings, they did not come as an audience or visitors, but came to engage and make work easier. She wanted clarity on whether they had received the documents, so as to ensure fairness in their engagement.
The Chairperson answered that the documents had been forwarded to all provincial legislatures, and confirmed that she had received a message from KwaZulu-Natal stating that the documents were sent to the committee coordinator, and it had been requested that she send them to the members. From the NCOP’s side, all the documents had been sent.
Ms Sibeko answered the question surrounding the number of children who would qualify for the extended Child Support Grant. She said an estimate of 600 000 qualifying children had been made, and through implementation, 380 000 would remain in the foster child system, so the expectation was to reduce the number of children in the foster child system. Concerning costs, it should be noted that by bringing more children into the extended CSG, a bit more income would be provided for the children. However, some of the costs for that would be paid for through the reduction in the demands on the foster child system, because the foster child system paid slightly more than what would be required.
With regard to access to relevant documentation, the current regulations already made provisions that allowed children to provide alternative documents in order to access grants, and this also provided parents with more time to obtain the correct documents.
Part of the motivation for the proposed legislation was to reduce the burden on social workers, allowing them to perform the essential work of identifying children who were in need of support and care, and putting them through the court system in order to be allocated to foster parents, instead of dealing with children who were already in safe environments. The view of DSD was that children who were living with their extended families were not necessarily in need of care, and they should not be clogging up the foster child care system, hence the proposal to provide an additional amount for children who were orphaned so that they did not go into that system. Overall, the aim was to reduce the burden on social workers.
There was a plan developed which required reporting to the court on a regular basis and stating the plans to handle the backlog. As of June, the last court report period, the number of children that still needed to be re-evaluated for foster child services was 48 000, and none of them would lose their grant because the grant had been extended until November 2020. The backlog was being attended to within the Department.
She did not have the number of social workers in the country, and requested that the Chairperson allow the numbers to be presented at a later stage in writing.
Regarding appeals, it was correct to say some may not be familiar with the appeals process, but SASSA was supposed to inform individuals when they had been rejected and even then, they should inform them about the option to appeal. They should then provide the individual with the relevant form for appealing. Through the new legislation, the Department would have to inform all stakeholders that they could appeal directly through them, and did not have to go through SASSA. The current system included going to various provinces regularly, but the Department was now expected to communicate often and effectively in order to close any gaps that may exist and ensure that people were aware of the appeals process and the modifications that would come with the change in legislation.
The Department was confident that once the Bill passed, the money would be made available, because Treasury had initially allocated money for it, but it had been reversed primarily because the Bill was not in place. When announcing grants for the current year, the Minister had even asked about the extended CSG.
The Chairperson requested Ms Sibeko to send the number of social workers to the Committee’s secretary who would then share it with other Members.
Ms Sibeko concurred with the comment on the appointed inspectorate personnel having legal expertise, forensic auditing expertise and risk management, and added that it was provided for in the legislation, particularly in the section that dealt with the inspectorate. That capacity would definitely be included in the inspectorate.
Mr Mchunu highlighted that the Department had plans to drastically reduce the backlog, and intended to report to the court on a regular basis. However, Covid-19 had posed some challenges, leading to social workers’ inability to perform certain field work, although catch-up plans were under way. Lockdown level 3 and 2 had allowed some of these duties to resume again.
The Department had indeed been having quarterly meetings with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the DHA to resolve some of the challenges pertaining to the processing of work. He agreed that the country faced a shortage of social workers, but said that the Department had tried to employ 1 800 social workers recently, many of whom would be dealing with GBV and Covid-19, but some would be working on foster care-related matters. The Department was working towards ensuring that social workers were provided with the necessary tools to conduct their work, and was also pushing provinces to absorb more social workers. The Free State was an example of this. They had agreed and started absorbing more social workers, including those who were being processed from the national site.
Lastly, the Department encouraged social workers to take their cases to the courts for review. It had not been an easy task working during Covid-19, but the Department had been finding new ways to adapt to new norms of engaging with social workers on foster care processes. The Department reports to the courts every two months on the progress being achieved, and they would be submitting a report before the end of August. They had requested some extensions which had been granted, and they were working around those deadlines. Other questions would be responded to in writing, possible by next week.
Mr L Govender (IFP, KwaZulu-Natal legislature) asked about the appointment of an independent tribunal by the Minister. Would it be made up of persons from within DSD, or persons independent of the Department? If so, how many persons would make up the tribunal, and had there been a budget allocated to fund it?
Ms Sibeko said that the independent tribunal was already in existence, and had been in existence since the inception of SASSA. It was also already funded. The Department advertised in order for panellists to apply to become members of the tribunal, and the Minister made the appointments. The tribunal was made up of a panel of doctors and lawyers who listened and considered the appeals of people who were unhappy with the decisions made by SASSA. The panellists were independent and only handled appeals and the decision-making process attached to that, while the DSD did all the administrative work. They were paid according to the number of appeals they handled. New changes had been made, whereby the Portfolio Committee deliberated on these applications before passing them on to the Minister for appointment.
The Committee was told that of the number of panellists who were current members of the tribunal, 19 were independent legal practitioners and 15 were medical practitioners, all of whom had at least five years’ post qualification experience within the disability or social security system.
Mr Govender said that clause 18 on page four of the Bill stated that the Minister must, after consultation with Parliament, appoint an independent tribunal. However, a tribunal already existed, so there seemed to be a disjuncture. He asked for clarity on that.
Ms Sibeko said that she had not clarified correctly the first time. Going forward, when another tribunal was to be established, the process would require Parliamentary involvement. This was part of the amendment, an aspect which was not there before.
The Chairperson referred to the issue raised by Mr Buthane about unemployed social workers, and asked to make a request relating to the Minister’s indication the previous year, that social workers and auxiliary social workers could forward their details to the Department for when they would be needed to assist with the backlog of social workers. She asked if Mr Mchunu could assist Members on how to follow the legal process of assisting unemployed social workers and auxiliary workers to become part of the system.
Mr Mchunu said the Department would share two email addresses with the Committee, and would engage with the various provinces to find out when their recruitment processes would be unfolding. It would provide the contact details to the Committee’s office in order to for them to be shared with the provinces.
The Chairperson emphasised that the meeting was a Parliamentary briefing session, and documents had been sent to the various legislatures, and if documents were not shared, Members should ask for them from their appropriate channels.
The Chairperson reiterated that what Mr Mchunu had said about the Eastern Cape and Western Cape’s request to have their briefings in their provinces, and added that in the next week the briefings would take place. After that, the provinces were expected to embark on public hearings for two weeks. She made it clear that she did not know how this would transpire because of Covid-19, but mentioned that the legislatures should use their discretion. Thereafter, the legislatures would have to submit their negotiating mandates to the NCOP, and the DSD would assist with briefings at the request of the provinces. If any province felt that they needed assistance with the briefing meetings, they should contact the DSD.
The meeting was adjourned.
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