(May 12, 2015) VANCOUVER (Coast Salish Territories) – In a 40 page complaint filed this morning, nine social service agencies from across the province have asked the Ombudsperson of BC to launch a systemic investigation into service reductions at the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation that shut out many eligible people from accessing income assistance.
The complaint, filed by the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), a law office in Vancouver, alleges that the government has created insurmountable barriers that deprive people of critical income support to which they are legally entitled. The alleged barriers include office closures and significant reductions in office hours, making it difficult for people to speak to Ministry staff in person, channelling calls to under-resourced centralized call centres that serve the whole province and have lengthy wait times, and the creation of a complicated, 90- screen online application process that many vulnerable people have difficulty navigating.
The complaint also points out that most income assistance recipients do not have phones or internet access, and many are not computer literate, so the Ministry’s changes do not make sense for the users of its services. “The government claims that it has expanded access to income assistance services, when it has done just the opposite,” said Lobat Sadrehashemi, staff lawyer at the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC). “Requiring people to use a difficult online form and a backlogged call centre while slashing in-person services has made accessing help a nightmare for many vulnerable people. When you put all these changes together, the result is that people are shut out of services that they have a legal right to access.” The complaint was necessary, the groups said, because the government has failed to respond to numerous direct complaints about the barriers to accessing services.
“We have tried to get the government’s attention, but they haven’t taken our concerns seriously,” said Stephen Portman, of Together Against Poverty Society. “If people can’t access these basic supports, we know that they will end up on the street. That’s why we have no choice but to ask for an independent investigation of the Ministry’s practices. How can the government fix the problem when it claims that it has actually made things better?” The complaint alleges that since all calls to the Ministry have been centralized in provincial call centres, it has become impossible for many people to contact the Ministry for help.
According to the government, average wait times on the phone have increased to more than half an hour. Amber Prince, an advocate at Atira Women’s Resource Society said: “Many women with whom I work have to wait at least 45 minutes just to talk to somebody. And then many of them are told there is a time limit for their call, and if the call goes over, they are disconnected and have to call back all over again, this time with a different Ministry staff person. Nobody should have to accept this kind of treatment by their government.”
In 2005, BCPIAC filed an Ombudsperson complaint about a range of Ministry practices that limited access to welfare services. After a thorough investigation, the Ombudsperson found that the government had created unfair barriers to access and made 25 recommendations to improve “fairness and accountability” in income assistance. While a recent update from the Ombudsperson reports that the Ministry has made some progress on those recommendations, BCPIAC’s new complaint alleges that the government’s ”technological enhancements” have created new, unfair obstacles.