'Beneficiaries' artist gets dole back

Work and Income has reinstated benefit payments for a provocative artist who failed to tell the agency he received payment for an exhibition promoting unemployment.

Out-of-work artist Tao Wells received a Creative New Zealand grant which he used to create a "beneficiaries' office" in Wellington.

At the two-week installation on Manners St, he is advocating for the opportunities and benefits of unemployment, saying it is unfair that long-term beneficiaries are labelled bludgers for exploiting the welfare system.

The work is part of a performance art installation series, and Wells was given an artist's fee of $2000 and $1500 for expenses.

He did not tell Work and Income about the grant, and his benefit was suspended on Friday last week after the agency became aware of it.

"I'm trying to be honest. I did receive the amount, but it breaks down to a very low amount."

Wells told The Dominion Post his benefit was reinstated on Wednesday, after he and a beneficiaries' advocate met Work and Income staff. "It was a complete turnaround."

Wells has said he has been "on and off" the unemployment benefit since 1997. He refused to sign a privacy waiver enabling Work and Income to discuss his case with The Dominion Post.

However, Work and Income head Mike Smith said Wells' benefit had been resumed because he had provided evidence that he was available to work and had been applying for jobs.

"Contrary to some of his public statements, he tells us he is keen to work.

"I can assure the public we will be doing everything we can to find him a job."

Wellington People's Centre's benefit rights co-ordinator Kay Brereton said she believed Wells' benefit had been stopped unlawfully as the correct processes had not been followed.

"It seems that, having read the article in The Dominion Post, the ministry came to the conclusion he didn't have eligibility and that's why they stopped it."

Work and Income did not go through the correct work test process to check Wells' eligibility before suspending his benefit, Ms Brereton said.

The agency also stopped and resumed Wells' partner's benefit at the same time, Ms Brereton said – although Work and Income was unable to comment on this without a privacy waiver.

"When it is stopped it's incredibly stressful," Ms Brereton said. "Even if it's $200 a week, if it stops, where's the food going to come from?"

She was pleased Wells was now being assisted by a work broker but believed he had not received sufficient support to do this before appearing in The Dominion Post and discussing his unemployment.

Wells said he was now working with a broker to find work, but he did not believe this contradicted his stance on unemployment. "I do believe we need to work less to consume less. If you're not happy in one job, you're uneconomic and inefficient. You need to be able to quit with no punishment."

Wells could not specify what kind of work he would look for through the broker, but said that, as an artist, he was "always working".

The Dominion Post