OPINION: Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's plan to penalise beneficiaries who repeatedly fail or refuse to take drug tests when applying for jobs has a laudable aim.
It is to send a wake-up call to the small number of people on welfare who wrongly believe their desire to live in a drug-addled haze means they can shirk their duty to look for work.
However, the measures in the Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill are the legislative equivalent of using a very large sledgehammer to crack a small nut. The bill is poorly targeted and will create an inherent unfairness between law-abiding and sober beneficiaries and, perversely, illegal drug users already in the workforce.
Under the changes, beneficiaries who are asked to undergo drug tests by prospective employers will have their benefits cut if they fail or refuse.
A first failure or refusal will result in a benefit being cut by half unless the culprit agrees to stop using drugs. Beneficiaries could also avoid the sanction after a second offence by passing a further drug test within 30 days. If they fail or refuse to take that test, their benefit would be cancelled for 13 weeks.
The bill reflects Ms Bennett's frustration that beneficiaries can get out of applying for jobs with no sanction simply by refusing a request to take a drug test. This clearly sends the wrong message to those who regard unemployment as a licence to spend their days in a cloud of dope smoke.
But it is important to stress that applies to only a small minority of beneficiaries. Most are totally committed to getting off state assistance as soon as possible.
Coercing them into drug tests against their wishes would create a grotesque inequality solely on the grounds of their employment status. It is not difficult to think of realistic scenarios.
Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says the tests would be unlawful unless there was a valid health and safety reason relevant to the job. Under the bill, employers would be able to request tests for any job, safe in the knowledge that beneficiaries risk cut payments if they refuse.
That could see unemployed people who have never used drugs forced to undergo an invasive and deeply personal procedure that most people already in the workforce never face and have every right to refuse.There is also a danger of unintended consequences. An unemployed occasional drug user could suddenly find themselves being turned down for a job after failing a test that an employed candidate, who is also an occasional drug user, was not asked to take.
The bill would be significantly improved if the focus was narrowed to make clear that employers can ask beneficiaries to undergo the tests only for jobs where there are obvious public safety implications.
If a majority of MPs are not prepared to make that change, there is an easy way to demonstrate they are even-handed: Install breathalysers and drug testing machines in Parliament and require every politician and staffer to undergo regular tests.
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