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10 ways the Government can help beneficiaries

Both Labour and the Greens campaigned on improving life for beneficiaries and part of the Labour-Greens Confidence and Supply agreement includes an overhaul of the welfare system.

Attempts to bring attention to the plight of many beneficiaries under the current system cost Green’s co-leader Metiria Turei her job.

Turei stepped down after publicly admitting she committed benefit fraud as a solo mum 20 years ago.

Catriona MacLennan, a lawyer who advocates for beneficiaries, says the new Government needs to act urgently. Here are 10 steps she thinks should be a priority:

- Set benefits at liveable levels. This is the most urgent and important action that needs to be taken.

- Begin an immediate review of all Ministry of Social Development cases before the courts and all enforcement by MSD of alleged beneficiary debts and have a moratorium on further enforcement action while the review is completed.

- Write off debts owed by beneficiaries to Work and Income. The total figure is approximately $200 million. Almost no beneficiaries will ever be in a position to repay the money. The debts are a millstone around their necks for life. MSD’s pursuit of beneficiaries who can never realistically repay money is in marked contrast to the lenient approach to other debtors. In the 2015 Budget, the previous Government announced it would write off up to $1.7 billion owing in child support penalties. Between 2008 and 2014, Inland Revenue wrote off $5 billion in tax debt. If debts are to continue to be established against beneficiaries – which seems pointless – there should be a three-year time limit on enforcing them and they should be written off if they have not been paid within that time. This is what is done in our criminal justice system. We do not hound people for their whole lives for repayment in the courts. Other sanctions and penalties against beneficiaries should also be abolished.

- Close the tip line people can call to dob in beneficiaries. Allegations against beneficiaries are frequently made maliciously by disgruntled ex-partners but MSD does not appear to consider the motives of those making complaints. Even if they are untrue, an investigation may follow and it can take months or years for beneficiaries to clear their names. It is an absolute denial of natural justice that neither the beneficiary nor their lawyer is allowed to know who has made the allegation, and the person making the complaint is never called to account by being available for cross-examination in court.

- Abolish Benefits Review Committees and set up an independent body to deal with complaints about decisions by MSD. Benefits Review Committees consist of three people, two of who are MSD employees. They are accordingly not independent. A Social Security Ombudsperson is needed.

- Delete from the law the current sanctions of between $22 and $28 a week levied against parents who cannot name the other parent in law. Those sanctions apply 97.7 per cent to women and 52.8 per cent to Māori, affecting 13,616 women whose families are already on very low incomes and in desperate financial need. The primary reason for not providing the name of the father is threats and fear of violence.

- Change utterly the culture of the Ministry of Social Development so that every staff member is required to be certain that all beneficiaries are provided with all of the financial support to which they are legally entitled. Currently, people seeking help face major difficulties in obtaining their legal entitlements. Research demonstrates that those accompanied by an advocate have a better chance of receiving assistance. Hundreds of people have queued in recent years to receive help from Auckland Action Against Poverty at “Impacts” in Mangere and elsewhere. Voluntary groups should not have to do the job a government agency is funded to carry out. Changing the culture will require training all MSD staff about their obligations to treat beneficiaries fairly and respectfully and ensure they receive all the assistance to which they are entitled.

- Reinstate into law the original purposes of the Social Security Act 1938 so that the object of social security is, once again, the simple aim of helping those in need. The wording could be “The purpose of this act is to ensure all New Zealanders in hardship receive the help they need and it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Development to do this.” Reducing poverty should be the aim of social welfare, not reducing the number of beneficiaries.

- Increase the amount beneficiaries can earn before their benefits are abated. This helps them to bridge from benefit to work without actually ending up worse off financially, and also means they can maintain work skills and experience while in receipt of a benefit. That makes it easier for them to obtain a job when they are in a position to do so.

- Stop prosecuting mothers for so-called benefit fraud. The legal test applied by MSD is often incorrect and the evidence used is dubious. Do not send any more mothers to jail for benefit fraud. The people this punishes most are their children.

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