The Catalan Government’s decision to modify the payment of a social grant creates problems for the poorest and generates a political storm

A grant allocated to the poorest, which is supposed to be their only income, was not paid regularly on August 1st as the Catalan Government changed the payment method. The official explanation is that the change was taken to avoid fraud and be able to ensure the sustainability of this grant system. From now on, the 37,000 beneficiaries will have to personally go the bank with a pay check that will be sent to them. In mid-August, most of the beneficiaries had already received the money. The opposition has heavily criticised the Government, which has recognised errors but stressed that many people were getting money without meeting the conditions. 500 beneficiaries and social workers protested on Thursday in Barcelona.

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

August 19, 2011 10:48 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- It is called the Minimum Insertion Income (PIRMI in Catalan) and it is the grant allocated to the people that do not have any other income and have lost the right to access other subsidies such as the unemployment grant. Around 37,000 people receive the PIRMI in Catalonia, which is paid by the Catalan Government and also managed by the municipalities. Globally the PIRMI is the only income for some 110,000 people, according to social workers. The quantity varies among beneficiaries considering different factors, such as dependents, but it represents some 420 euros on average and in no case can it be higher than the minimum wage, which is in Spain 641.40 euros this 2011. The Catalan Government, which took office last Christmas and is reducing public spending by 10% this year, detected irregularities in this grant system and suspected that some beneficiaries were committing fraud as they were receiving too much money or did not qualify to receive it at all. The payment had regularly been done through bank transfer the first day of the month. However, on August 1st, none of the 37,000 beneficiaries received the money. Many panicked, as the PIRMI is genuinly the only money they have to buy food and pay basic bills such as rent. Since early August there have been social protests and constant complaints from the opposition parties. The Catalan Government, which is run by the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalists (CiU), has given explanations and announced that most of the beneficiaries have already received the money. After the opposition’s heavy criticism, the Ministers responsible will provide the Catalan Parliament with explanations.

When the 37,000 beneficiaries saw that the PIRMI had not been transferred to their bank accounts, many panicked and went to the Catalan Ministry of Social Affairs to ask for an explanation. It was the moment the Catalan Government explained the situation. The Government had taken the decision to change the payment method, but without warning the beneficiaries in advance. All the beneficiaries would receive a registered letter in the first days of August with an explanation of the new system and a pay check that had to be personally cashed at the bank. The Government justified this change as they wanted to see how many people were actually living in Catalonia, as they had hints that a significant number of the current beneficiaries were not fulfilling this obligatory condition. The Government announced that all the 37,000 files will be re-examined one by one, as they had also found that some people were actually getting a quantity way higher than the average PIRMI and even the minimum wage. On the third week of August, there were still people that had not received the money, although most of the beneficiaries received it by this point (between 75 and 80% of them, according to different Government sources).

Since early August, this issue has been occupying a large part of the political debate in Catalonia, with statements and counter-statements from all kind of actors involved, a true snow ball effect. It has been the political summer storm. The Left-Wing opposition parties have been the most critical with the Government, although the Conservative People’s Party (PP), which negotiated the 2011 budget with the Government, has also joined the hard complaints. The Catalan Government gave explanations via the press, including the Catalan President, Artur Mas, but the ministers involved did not talk about it until last Thursday. The PIRMI is paid by the Labour Department but coordinated by the Social Affairs one. Finally, after the Left-Wing parties officially asked for it, the Catalan Minister for Social Affairs and the Minister for Labour will have to give explanations to the Catalan Parliament on August 26th.

The Government explanations

However, both ministers talked on Thursday to the press. Josep Lluís Cleries, the Catalan Minister for Social Affairs, acknowledged errors in the change of the PIRMI’s payment. Cleries, accordingly, apologised for all the inconveniences caused. Nevertheless he emphasised the change was needed and that, on August 18th, only 20% of the beneficiaries had not received the money yet. Cleries stated that the Government will look at what happened in those cases. Cleries wanted to emphasise that all the people who have the right to receive this grant will continue receiving it, and he apologised to them for the inconveniences “this control measure” caused them. Nevertheless, Cleries considered these inconveniences as “unavoidable”.

However, Francesc Xavier Mena, the Catalan Minister for Labour, had a completely different approach and accused a large number of beneficiaries of committing fraud. Mena accused that thousands of Moroccans of receiving this grant while no longer live in Catalonia, which is an obligatory condition to get the PIRMI. Mena said that it affects “many” of the 9,000 Moroccans currently benefiting from the PIRMI. “We know this because we have detected money transfers to banks all over the world”, he explained. In this line, Mena accused the previous Catalan Government of not having properly monitored the PIRMI system, as many payments were giving too much money, were giving money to people who did not qualify for it or were combining with other grants or irregular incomes, according to him. According to the Labour Ministry, 4,000 beneficiaries are getting more money than the minimum wage. In addition, the Labour Minister insisted that many beneficiaries changed their home and did not communicate to the administration, as they are obliged to do (as it may affect their income and basic needs). Finally, Mena stated that 25% of the beneficiaries had not cashed the checks yet.

The protests

The explanation from the Catalan Government outraged many social workers, who insisted that they are correctly performing their job. Less than 500 social workers and PIRMI beneficiaries protested on Thursday in front of the Catalan Government’s palace. In addition, the main trade unions have demanded that the Government should immediately pay the PIRMI and said that it should not have been touched. Besides, many experts such as those of the Catalan Council on Economic and Social Work (CTESC) criticised the Government’s decision. The CTESC issued a statement on Thursday warning on the “worrying social impact” the PIRMI reform may have. The CTESC thinks that the “the money savings [the PIRMI modification may bring] could be overtaken by the social costs materialised in the form of direct suffering”. This group of experts thought that the reform “limits the access to this grant to many families that are in a [fragile] social and economical situation” and thus “unprotected”.

Regarding the opposition political parties, all of them have been criticising the Catalan Government on the last days. The Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), which was part of the former Government, criticised the Catalan Government run by CiU for not taking care of the poorest, for overreacting,  and for “killing flies with cannon balls”. The exact same words had been used by the Conservative People’s Party (PP) some day ago. Its Catalan President, Alícia Sánchez-Camacho, who has been during the last months an ally of CiU in the Catalan Parliament, stated yesterday that the Catalan Government had unprotected thousands of families, “the poorest ones”, and she asked to save money from other budget items. The Catalan Green Socialist Party (ICV-EUiA) was the harshest one and characterised  the Catalan Government as “miserable”. The Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC) also accused the Government of abandoning the weakest members of the society. Finally, the smallest parties in the Catalan Parliament, SI and C’s, were less vocal but also critical for having created a mess and for not saving money or getting money from other places.