Parliament: Make self-employed income relief scheme applications less onerous, say MPs

The process of applying for relief for self-employed people who have lost their incomes during the Covid-19 pandemic should be made less onerous, MPs suggested in Parliament yesterday.

First-time MP Derrick Goh (Nee Soon GRC) said in his maiden speech that he had received much feedback from residents who were not able to access the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (Sirs) for various reasons.

He cited three groups of people who were upset and felt the scheme was unfair in some way.

First, there were those whose applications were rejected but who did not know why. Mr Goh said some unsuccessful applicants received a rejection letter that did not state a reason, and the answers on the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) website were not clear or specific enough to their situation.

The NTUC is responsible for processing Sirs claims.

"Many were disappointed and described NTUC's response as cold and not helpful," Mr Goh said.

Second, there were those who knew the reason for their rejection but could not come to terms with it, or did not fully comprehend the basis for the rejection. Mr Goh said these included some who lived in properties with an annual value of more than $21,000, which disqualified them from the scheme.

Third, there were applicants who did not know why they did not qualify for Sirs and did not understand the eligibility criteria. Mr Goh said they included hawkers and freelancers who had not been declaring their net trade income.

"Whatever their reasons for not doing so, they are hard hit in this pandemic," he said. "Perhaps, instead of an outright rejection, they could be brought back into the fold and set on the right path, by nudging them to start tax filings and adopting e-payments... to qualify for some portion of Sirs assistance."

Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) of the Workers' Party noted that many MPs "would have been inundated by appeals from Singaporeans whose Sirs applications have been turned down".

He suggested that certain requirements for aid, such as interviewing the relatives of an applicant to determine if the applicant is receiving family support, could be replaced by a simple declaration.

The interviews can be embarrassing for the applicant and also take up the time and resources of social workers and public servants, he added.

Responding to Mr Perera, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said she accepted his points on making improvements to the application process. But she also defended the NTUC, saying it was not easy to reach self-employed individuals who are "by their very nature" not captured in government systems.

The NTUC stepped up to take in appeals "under very, very difficult constraints" just as Singapore was entering the circuit breaker, she said. "It was very difficult to get people to come on board and set up the system, get it properly tested and ensure that it was able to respond to the volume of appeals.

"But NTUC, to its credit, accepted that if there were appeals, it must mean that there is a need, therefore they soldiered on and put on more manpower, which they didn't really have the budget for."

As a result, some 180,000 people were able to get their Sirs payouts, Mrs Teo said.

Mr Perera asked why the NTUC, instead of a ministry or statutory board, was tasked with administering Sirs when it did not have enough resources.

Mrs Teo replied that it is not unusual for the Government to partner organisations like the NTUC. She noted that the Singapore Business Federation is helping to administer the SGUnited Traineeships Programme, and other organisations have also helped with previous schemes.

"When the opportunity presents itself, other organisations, besides the Government, want to deliver help to Singaporeans. We don't stop them. In fact, we welcome it."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2020, with the headline Parliament: Make self-employed income relief scheme applications less onerous, say MPs. Subscribe