Friday 23 August 2019

Fiddling with the system is a way of life

When I read about the childcare centres which were caught tampering with the attendance records of children in their care, in order to claim more money than was rightfully due to them from the government scheme, I was not really that surprised.

We have become so used to people fiddling with “the system” that we hardly bat an eyelid at the news that people have figured out a way to squeeze more money from what are already quite generous schemes and grants. The scheme pays private and public childcare centres a fixed rate per hour for every booked child, enabling parents to have free childcare.

According to the news report, carried in The Times, the National Audit Office found that some owners of the centres were cheating the system: “It said 60 of them were paid more than €90,000 for booked hours for which children failed to attend.….
In one instance, between November 2015 and January this year, the government paid a childcare centre the sum of €2,534 for two siblings who were, during the same period, recorded as present at two other centres.
A similar incident was recorded between July and December last year, when another centre was paid €4,380 for two children who were recorded at two different centres….
Child attendance records are crucial, since the government pays centres €3.05 per hour for every booking. Before 2015, records were kept manually, providing ample space for manipulation by the centres.
However, an electronic system introduced in January this year did little to curb abuse, the NAO said, since controls were lacking and the ministry still depended on the goodwill of the centres.”

Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is that the Ministry was rather naive in expecting this system to work without any checks and balances. Come on, this is Malta we’re talking about.

On the other, hand, the inevitable debate is whether this is a unique, cunning Maltese trait which is capable of zooming in on a loophole from miles away and exploiting it for all its worth, or whether this is a human trait found the world over. As it happens, one of the 60 owners found to have abused the system was a foreign national who has since left the island, which begs the question as to whether she/he was a quick learner who quickly adapted to the local way of life, or whether it is a question of personality: you are either scheming and dishonest, or you are not.

The sheer greed of such behaviour always takes my breath away, because after all, it is already quite a sweet deal which these centres have going. They have their business practically guaranteed because parents have flocked to enroll their children in free childcare and there are long waiting lists.

The story gets even worse, because despite audit inspectors randomly dropping in to check, and even when an electronic system of individualized keys given to parents to clock attendance (costing €240,000,) was put into place this year, some of the centres STILL managed to figure out a way to get round it. In some cases, the keys were being retained by the centre itself, opening the way to abuse.

And yet, I often have to admit, grudgingly, that it is quite a talent, this ingenious knack which so many people possess when it comes to screwing the system (what is known as “tfotti”). I am continuously torn between being shocked at the casualness with which people do it and almost ruing the fact that I am incapable of doing it myself. Nah, scratch that, I couldn’t go through with it, even if I tried.

At one centre, just listen to this: “11 children had been clocked out of the centre just minutes after NAO officials left the building, even though the kids were not present when the visit took place.”

This goes beyond your everyday fottiment…they have made it into an absolute art form. Of course, this was made possible by the fact that whoever came up with the system really did not factor in the potential for abuse. I think you have to take it as a given that any scheme (especially one which is free) will be abused and you would be foolish to assume otherwise.

The sentence which really caught my eye, however, indicates a situation which is abusive towards the children themselves because there was blatant overcrowding. A centre that was ostensibly licensed for 15 children was found to have 87 children attending instead. Here I’m afraid I have to turn to the parents: how did they allow this to happen? Did they not notice that their children were being packed in like sardines into too small a space?

It is bad enough for a childcare centre to screw the Government (for which read, us the taxpayers) out of money, but it is another to play around with children’s health and safety.

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