Drugs stopping people working

More than 5000 people are collecting benefits because drug and alcohol addiction is preventing them from working.

Figures released to Fairfax by the Ministry of Social Development, show that, as of June 30, 5349 people were collecting either a sickness-related or invalids benefit, citing consequences of drug and alcohol addiction as their reason for being unable to work.

While the national figures had decreased slightly over the past five years, the number of people in this category spending 10 or more years on the benefits increased.

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In 2009, 1181 people had spent four to 10 years collecting the benefit, and 291 people had been doing so for more than 10 years.

This year, 1394 people had spent four to 10 years on the benefit, and 485 had been on it for 10 years or more.

According to Work and Income, a single person with no children, aged 25 or over, could receive payments of up to $206.21 per week for the base benefit, plus an accommodation allowance of up to $145 a week.

New welfare reforms, which came into effect July 15, included fewer benefit categories and compulsory drug testing for jobseekers when required by employers.

A new way of dealing with hardcore beneficiaries was also touted by the Government as showing "some of the best results from any case management trial" when it was piloted last year.

However, Ministry of Social Development deputy chief executive Debbie Power said it was more complicated for people suffering severe health issues, particularly if they were related to drug or alcohol addiction.

Those who had been diagnosed with substance dependence had their work obligations deferred until an independent doctor cleared them for work, she said.

"Often these clients suffer from multiple medical issues that include the effects of substance dependence and their circumstances influence the length of time they are in receipt of financial assistance."

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the reforms had worked to bring down overall numbers.

"Under the old system, drug abusers could stay on benefit almost indefinitely, but now we're working with people much more closely to address barriers to work.

"People do have a responsibility to do what they can to get well, not expect the taxpayer to fund their habit while on benefit. "

The reforms meant jobseekers needed to be drug-free, but those with addictions were given the appropriate help, she said.

Labour's social development spokeswoman Sue Moroney said the figures showed the Government's reforms were not working.

"In fact, they've made things worse," she said.

"The number of Kiwis consigned to long-term unemployment has increased by more than 4000 people since the so-called reforms were introduced in July."

Alcohol Drug Association of New Zealand (Adanz) chief executive Paul Rout said it was hard to get a complete picture about why more people were spending longer on the benefit.

"You need to know the full range of health issues that that person presents with to really understand the details behind the statistics.

"The key thing from our end is that people are being given the appropriate level of support and offers of assistance and treatment, as they require it. "

Alcohol or drug-related conditions could include anything from liver disease to gastrointestinal problems, and bacterial infections.

Rout said Adanz would be supportive of any efforts to better address the broader alcohol and drug issues of beneficiaries.

Fairfax Media