Sweeping benefit changes 'horrifying'

MAARTEN HOLL/Dominion Post

Proposed welfare reforms that aim to push people into work are "vile" and the punitive sanctions on beneficiaries will only put further strain on community organisations, advocates say.

Eight Cabinet ministers have been appointed to the ministerial group that will consider the Welfare Working Group's 43 recommendations.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that National would campaign on any changes the ministerial group decided on.

STANDING: Sue Bradford wants to wrestle Paula Bennett's seat off her.
STANDING: Sue Bradford wants to wrestle Paula Bennett's seat off her.

The Welfare Working Group aimed to cut the number of people on a benefit from 360,000 to 100,000 by 2021. It suggested the creation of a single Jobseeker Support benefit to replace the dole, domestic purposes, sickness and other benefits. All but the seriously ill and disabled would be required to find work.

The Government has ruled out requiring women who have a child while on a benefit to return to work when their baby is 14 weeks old, but all other recommendations remain on the table.

They include tying the benefit to a requirement ensuring parents make their children go to school and get regular health checks; cutting payments to those with alcohol and drug problems who refuse treatment and providing long-term reversible contraception.

The Group's report was released on February 22, the same day as the fatal Christchurch earthquake and the Government response was delayed as a result.

Mr Key said the Government, like many New Zealanders, believed the welfare system was working as it should.

He refused to comment on specific recommendations, except to say the 14-week requirement made him "uneasy".

Former Green MP Sue Bradford said she was terrified about what might come from what she dubbed the biggest welfare shake-up since the 1930s.

"It's likely that a substantial part, if not all, of the (Working Welfare Group chair Paula) Rebstock recommendations will form part of National's welfare strategy for the election."

The reforms aimed to increase the harassment of beneficiaries and to interfere with their lives even more, Ms Bradford said. "Given that we have 271,000 jobless at the moment, that it's not about getting jobs for people, it's about harassing them to the point that they're going to go off the benefit regardless."

If implemented, the reforms would push people further into crime, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health problems and suicide.

There were no jobs for people to go into and the Government would be better focusing on improving training, Ms Bradford said.

Taking away the 14-week threshold option may be a way for the Government to introduce another recommendation that all parents on benefits be required to look for work when their youngest child is one, rather than the current three years.

She said the changes were "vile" and "absolutely horrifying".

Salvation Army Major Campbell Roberts said monetary sanctions against beneficiaries who did not meet certain requirements would put pressure on community organisations.

"What's going to happen to them during that period of time ... children still have to be cared for, there's still got to be food in the house."

There was also nothing in the Welfare Working Group's report about the value of caring for children, Mr Roberts said.

Access to childcare services was particularly difficult in low socio-economic areas and was often a great distance from the home and work.


The Welfare Working Group's recommendations include:

Requiring mothers who have a baby while on a benefit to go back to work when their additional child is 14 weeks.

Providing beneficiaries with long-term reversible contraception.

Requiring single parents to look for 20 hours work a week once their youngest child is three and 30 hours a week when the youngest turns six.

Tying the benefit to a requirement that solo parents ensure their children go to school and get regular health checks.

Requiring 16 and 17-year-olds on a benefit to be in education, training, paid work or a combination of the three.

Providing teen parent facilities so teenage mothers can continue their education.

Requiring beneficiaries aged under 18 to live with a responsible adult or under adult supervision.

Cutting benefits for people with drug and alcohol problems who refuse to attend treatment and counselling services.

Beneficiaries who do not meet work test, drug and alcohol and other requirements would have their payments cut for two weeks by 25 per cent for the first breach, 50 per cent for the second and completely for the third. A fourth failure would result in a 13-week stand-down.

The high-powered ministerial group includes:

Social Development and Employment Minister Paula Bennet

Finance Minister Bill English

Justice Minister Simon Power

Health and State Services Minister Tony Ryall

Education Minister Anne Tolley

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce

Women's Affairs Minister Hekia Parata


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