Carmel Sepuloni: No short, sharp fix for stigma

Now in charge of the social development portfolio, Carmel Sepuloni wants to change the way those on benefits are viewed by the public. She explains to Shane Cowlishaw how she’ll do it.

Of all the areas of government, social development is perhaps the most emotive.

On one side are those who believe people should do more to help themselves, that people are too reliant on welfare and take advantage of hardworking taxpayers.

At the other end are those who say it is everyone’s responsibility to look out for those in need, pointing to the fact that nobody wants to be on welfare and many are stigmatised by their reliance on the state.

Overseeing the distribution of social services to New Zealanders in need is the Ministry of Social Development, the country’s largest department with a budget of almost $23 billion.

Their new boss is Carmel Sepuloni, handed the ministerial reins after several years as the Labour Party’s spokesperson in the area.

Of mixed Samoan, Tongan, and Pākehā descent, she became the first MP with Tongan heritage when she entered Parliament in 2008.

She failed to make it back in the following election after an impossibly close electorate race against Paula Bennett, but returned in 2014.

“We have to think long-term. If we think there’s some kind of short, sharp fix to the problems we're facing as a country we’re kidding ourselves.”

After spending her entire political career on the opposition benches, Sepuloni told Newsroom it had been an exciting month grappling with the prospect of achieving goals she had previously only been able to work towards by proposing amendments or making statements to the media.

“Overall it’s to make the welfare system fairer, and more accessible. It’s doing things like what changes do we need to make to make sure people get what they’re entitled to, that their dignity is upheld, and children are taken into consideration with any parts of the policy that is rolled out.”

Throughout her political career, Sepuloni has focused on the need to help the most vulnerable in our society.

But she also has an unfortunate personal experience relating to the social development area.

In 2015 her mother, Beverley Anne Sepuloni, was sentenced to home detention, community work and ordered to pay back $15,000 after being found guilty of benefit fraud for claiming benefits she was not entitled to.

When her mother was charged, Sepoloni was stood down as social development spokesperson.

Now the Minister of an agency that detects the crime, Sepuloni said her experience would not influence in her new role.

“I don’t think anyone blamed me for something a family member had done.”

“I was the social development spokesperson before all that unfolded because I saw the value of the sector and the portfolio and the important changes that could be made, but they were no additional changes that popped into my head once Mum’s situation unfolded.”

Social investment here to stay

During the last term of the National government, there was a buzz phrase that popped up more and more frequently.

“Social investment”, the brainchild of Bill English, took shape and snowballed into its own agency tasked with identifying and targeting investment to those most in need through the use of data.

But it was a notion that the general public struggled to grasp. What exactly did it mean? How would it affect me, and am I being taken advantaged of?

That uneasiness, and concerns about the security of collected data, was quickly pounced upon by Labour and heavily criticised as the previous Government attempted to bed in the policy.

Bill English and Amy Adams launch the Social Investment Agency in July last year. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Following the power shift, Sepuloni was quick to scrap the collection of personalised data by her Ministry.

But despite this, she told Newsroom she was in favour of the concept of social investment and said the new agency would continue under Labour.

“It has a future. They have real potential and I’m not the only Minister that thinks that.

“I support the [social investment] concept, I don’t support the direction the National Government were taking the concept. Their version of social investment was primarily driven by fiscal implications to the State, so 'how much is someone going to potentially cost us long term and how we work with them to mitigate those costs moving forward'. The Labour Party doesn’t like to view New Zealand citizens as fiscal liabilities.”

She had asked officials to look at how other countries had approached the concept, particularly in Europe where the focus was investing in a person, not on how much they could save the country.

In a recent briefing issued by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, senior economist Sarah Hogan said Labour’s early intervention approach, such as the Best Start policy, would greatly influence the path social investment took.

“It concerns me that there still is that stigma or perception because we want to build people up, not kick them and tear them down.”

She noted a raft of political challenges for early intervention, particularly the fact it is a long-term strategy that requires long-term commitment.

“If interest is lost after a short time, the benefits of interventions may never come to light.

“Measuring and demonstrating intermediate outcomes like improved school readiness and child well-being will help to build on success and ensure continuity beyond the next election.”

Sepuloni agrees, noting that while saving money is important it shouldn’t be the driver – the long-term wellbeing of New Zealanders should be.

“There was a lot of fear about the former government's form of social investment, people didn’t really understand what it was.

“We have to think long-term. If we think there’s some kind of short, sharp fix to the problems we're facing as a country we’re kidding ourselves.”

More sanction repeals to come

Before the election, the Greens campaigned strongly on reforming the welfare system.

One focus of those calling for reform was the sanctions imposed on solo mothers who refused (or were unable) to tell authorities who the father of their child was.

Scrapping that section of the Social Securities Act was one of the first moves by Sepuloni and there will likely be further sanction rollbacks.

“Where there’s a detrimental impact and where they’re not achieving their objective, I think they do need to be reviewed and removed.”

She would not say what areas she was looking at but was also considering inserting a clause into the Act that ensured the rights of children would be observed.

Under the new Government, every decision would have a child-impact lens cast over it while another effort would come in the way beneficiaries were treated.

More emphasis would be given to pushing people into training opportunities, rather than adding to the negative stereotype like the previous government had, she said.

“I was really disappointed about the former government’s stigmatising of beneficiaries, I think that was really clear to the general public. You had accusations made by social development ministers that people on benefits were doing drugs, that they could be working but weren’t because they chose not to, that they enjoyed the lifestyle. But I think most people have an understanding of the fact that the lifestyle on a benefit is not the most desirable one.

“It concerns me that there still is that stigma or perception because we want to build people up, not kick them and tear them down.”

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