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Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is vowing to crack down on benefit abuse after revelations a Christchurch beneficiary family with gang connections has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over 25 years.
Information obtained by The Press shows Marcia Harris and her husband, former gang leader Darryl Harris, have claimed unemployment and sickness benefits continuously since 1984.
They are one of about 300 couples who draw about $1000 a week in benefits from the taxpayer and are the subjects of a government audit.
They have four children, three of whom are also drawing benefits.
In addition, they have received $30,000 in special-needs grants since 2000, including $16,000 in the past two years.
Among the successful applications were grants to put new tyres on the couple's 2007 silver Chrysler saloon and to fence a swimming pool at one of several properties the family owns in Christchurch.
The couple claimed they needed to sell the property and could not do so unless the pool was properly fenced.
Recent efforts to cancel Darryl Harris' sickness benefit failed after he obtained a medical opinion stating he was addicted to cannabis.
The opinion was from one of Work and Income's "designated doctors" after the agency appealed against a medical opinion that Harris was suffering from "stress and anxiety" over being work-tested.
The designated-doctor scheme was introduced this year in a bid to curb the growing number of sickness beneficiaries listing drug and alcohol abuse as the primary reason for being unable to work, which is up 17 per cent on 3842 last year.
This year Marcia Harris was ordered to repay some benefits granted by Work and Income, including one to pay for her car to be released after being impounded. She was driving without a licence at the time.
Work and Income paid for the family to spend 10 nights at a Christchurch hotel, the Towers on the Park, in 2007 after their Islington home burnt down, a review of the family's case found.
Since then the family has been transferred to a special "remote monitoring" unit. The unit deals with Work and Income clients deemed too dangerous for face-to-face meetings with staff.
The grants have continued, with three of the six special-needs grants applied for last month by the Harris family accepted by Work and Income.
"It's absolutely wrong. New Zealanders should know what the system is doing," one source close to the case told The Press.
Work and Income "has tried everything this year and nothing's worked, so your tax dollars are going for him [Darryl Harris] to smoke dope", the source said.
Bennett said she believed Work and Income was doing its best with the tools it had, but it did not have the mechanisms to address the hardest cases.
"New Zealanders expect two things of the welfare system – that it supports people who really need a hand and that it is fair," she said. "Unfortunately, there are cases that prove to us that as it stands, the system isn't always fair."
Bennett said she planned to introduce pledges made by National during last year's election campaign but shelved this year because of the recession.
They include work-testing for domestic purpose beneficiaries whose youngest child has turned six, compulsory budgeting advice sessions for beneficiaries who claim frequent grants, and part-time work obligations for some sickness and invalid beneficiaries.
The Government plans to suspend or reduce benefits for those who refuse to comply with requests to attend work interviews or take up work opportunities.
The Harris family did not answer the door yesterday when a reporter called at their home for comment.
- The Press