National MP hits jarring note in disability rights debate

National MP Alastair Scott won few new supporters for the Government in a disability rights debate in Wellington, saying ‘love has consequences’ when asked about disabled people losing benefits when they move in with partners.

The comments jarred with an audience calling for the removal of means testing for the partners of disabled people on benefits, as well as for stringent accessibility legislation.

Rarely is the political divide more starkly outlined than it was at the pre-election meeting held at Wellington City Library on Thursday evening.

National is already on the back foot with many disabled voters after Disability Issues Minister Nicky Wagner Wagner's tweet last month that she would "rather be out on the harbour" than in disability meetings.

Standing in for Wagner at the meeting organised by the Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA), Wairarapa MP Alastair Scott found himself shouted down as he rebutted calls for benefit reform and increasing regulation on accessibility.

The Greens, meanwhile, promised a review of the benefits system, significant increases in the ORS ('ongoing resourcing scheme') for disabled students, rent-to-buy schemes to help disabled people into their own homes, and wide-ranging accessibility legislation including requirements on private developers to include a mandatory minimum number of accessible homes in new developments.

Adopting the "Crip the Vote" hashtag used in both the US and UK elections to engage voters and politicians in discussions about disability issues, the DPA had invited party representatives to front up and answer some pointed questions. The atrocious weather meant MPs intending to speak were stranded out of Wellington, resulting in the Greens being represented by Rongotai candidate Teall Crossen, and Labour by Ohariu candidate Greg O'Connor. National sent Scott, and NZ First was represented by Ria Bond.

Supported Living Payments in the spotlight

Former public servant Bronwyn Haines told the meeting about the long process to be granted the Supported Living Payment (SLP) after her muscular dystrophy left her unable to work, then making the difficult decision to move in with her partner, resulting in the loss of all her income support payments and a significant portion of her homecare allowance because her partner earns over $40,000.

"Our current welfare system removes autonomy, choice and supports for people with disabilities who want to live in the same house as their partner," Haines said – illustrating how the issue of financial independence for de facto couples highlighted by Baz Macdonald in Newsroom is particularly relevant for people with permanent disabilities.

"It's just a consequence of joining with another person and increasing that household income," he said.

"There will be abatements, as anyone – it doesn’t matter if you are on a disability or an SLP – there is going to be an abatement, as you describe, which is going to be difficult for the pocket to manage, but it is not just your benefit, there are a lot of people in the same situation, disability or non-disability."

Asked if National would consider removing the means-testing of spouses under the supported living payment scheme, Scott said: "I think I covered it earlier - when you fall in love there are consequences."

The remark drew gasps from the audience.

"The benefits are based on household incomes, not so much on individual incomes, that's the main point. There is no policy decision to change it at this point."

National MP Alastair Scott addresses the DPA pre-election meeting with the assistance of a sign language interpreter. Source: DPA Facebook stream

O'Connor said his own experience as the parent of a disabled son had taught him that "the world can be a very expensive place" for disabled people - and to automatically apply the same criteria to disabled people when they moved in with a partner failed to take that into account.

"Each individual should receive a benefit for what their needs are, and actually the fact that they have a new love of their life, their partner, their income should be irrelevant. It should be on one thing: what are the needs of that individual. So as far as means-testing the new partner, the new housemate, … it's what the needs of the individual are that should always be the determinant."

Crossen described the current system as inequitable and unfair, and told the audience to await a major announcement on the issue - and on Sunday the Greens announced an income support policy that would see benefits rise and abatements reduce. The party promised an "increasing emphasis on treating all adults as individuals for income support purposes" and said a two-tier system of benefit payments would be phased in which would see all beneficiaries get a universal base rate sufficient to live on, with top-ups for those with dependants, or with disability or chronic illness.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce later described the Greens' proposals as "a very expensive list of promises", adding that "once again there is no hint as to how the cost would be met."

Bond said NZ First would review the allocation of income support for disabled people, looking at the abatement thresholds.

Mandatory accessibility requirements for new builds?

Any election discussion in 2017 would not be complete without debate over housing.

The DPA ideally wants a mandatory requirement that 25 percent of all new build housing be designed to comply with universal design principles.

The MPs and candidates were also asked if they would commit to requiring the retro-fitting, within 10 years, of all social housing run by Housing New Zealand, local government and community housing providers to make it accessible.

"regulation is a dangerous word"

O'Connor did not agree to a target, but said Labour would require Housing New Zealand to make homes accessible when they came to renovate and retro-fit old stock, not just when building new homes. He said a target of 25 percent accessible new builds would be challenging in many New Zealand cities, because we often build on sites where "in other countries only billy goats live”.

Scott pointed out that all Housing New Zealand new builds incorporate "lifetime design principles" such as hallways and doorways wide enough for wheelchairs.

"On a practical basis, old builds in various parts of the country would not be able to be retro-fitted with ramps, for example. In Wellington, for example, it would be a ridiculous proposition," he said.

Scott gave the example of his mother-in-law building her own new home and designing it specifically for her needs as she ages, but said developers couldn’t be obliged to include wheelchair access and other accessibility features.

Responding to a call from the audience that you could do it through regulation, he responded that "regulation is a dangerous word" and questioned how the costs would be covered or shared across a development.

Crossen said she disagreed that you could not regulate the private sector.

"While the Government sees housing as a commodity, as part of a market, we see homes as a right for every New Zealander – and we are committed to mandatory enforceable accessibility legislation that would cover all areas from building code to new housing.

"I can’t commit to a target. We expect exact targets for accessible housing to be covered in that legislation .. but the principle we are absolutely committed to."

She said the Greens would also help disabled people own their own homes.

"We are committed to providing pathways to home ownership for disabled people who don’t often have security of income to get a mortgage, through our 'Home for Life' policy. Our policy will see the state build homes and make them available to families and disabled people on a progressive rent-to-own basis, paying only as much as their income can manage."

A divide over disability legislation

Asked if he supported mandatory enforceable accessibility legislation, similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Scott said overseas examples were blunt instruments that had not resulted in cultural change, although the Government was always interested in watching for examples "that might work in the future".

To applause, Crossen said the Greens would "bring in mandatory enforceable accessibility legislation as proposed by the Access Alliance to make Aotearoa New Zealand 100 percent accessible for everyone".

"This would set national standards for accessibility across all areas of New Zealand life and the economy. Existing laws aren't strong enough to ensure accessibility. Goodwill is not enough."

O'Connor compared it to the introduction of health and safety legislation following the Pike River disaster.

"For years governments of both hue have tried to encourage individuals and businesses to adopt better practices around health and safety and it simply wasn't working.

"The same thing really needs to happen around accessibility. A certain amount will need to be achieved through education, through working with industry bodies, the reality of it is that it will only be with well-thought legislation and enforceable sanctions that we will actually get the access we really require."

Bond said NZ First was currently updating its disability policies, but said she felt New Zealand "could no longer work without [accessibility] legislation".

A boost to workplace support?

Perhaps to Scott's relief, the discussion then turned to the level of the payment for workplace support, currently set at $16,900 a year for disabled people requiring supports such as sign language interpreters.

Deaf Aotearoa President Oliver Ferguson described how he had to ration the support, making it difficult to meet his job requirements, and asked if parties would consider increasing the payment.

They all agreed to look into the issue, with Scott saying he would take it up with the Disability Issues Minister.

"That is one thing that I will be taking back to Nicky Wagner, because as you know in New Zealand we have a very high employment rate across the general population, one of the highest in the world, 72 percent. For disabled it is lower, around 60 percent, and any barriers to employment is an issue for our Government."

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