The Government is heralding a clampdown on the number of beneficiaries travelling overseas, although opponents say some are being wrongly penalised.
Figures show that more than 21,000 beneficiaries, excluding superannuitants, have had their benefits cut since an overhaul last July, including 1750 who travelled overseas more than once.
"That's a staggering number of people," Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said.
A total of 4880 people also had their benefits axed because they did not reconnect with Work and Income within eight weeks of their departure.
"Every day we hear stories of how people cannot live on the benefit. Today you're hearing that literally thousands can not only live on it but can afford to travel overseas as well," Bennett said yesterday.
Under the new rules, beneficiaries must tell Work and Income if they intend to travel and can have their benefit stopped immediately if they fail to do so, though people who do not have work obligations can travel for up to 28 days a year.
Labour's welfare spokeswoman Sue Moroney said it was an example of the Government "using every excuse and every technicality they can to get people off benefits to make themselves look good".
"Really what I would celebrate is if they were going into paid work because then we'd know that was progress."
Figures were not kept on where and why the people were going and how many were granted permission to leave.
It was likely many had "given up on the local job market" and headed overseas for better opportunities, Moroney said.
"We don't know how many people are off at short notice to go and see sick relatives and haven't had time to give Work and Income notice. We just don't know because the minister has been very cagey with the information about why those people were travelling."
Moroney said she had been hearing regularly about benefits being cut because of Work and Income failures. But Bennett was confident that Work and Income was getting it right.
In January there were 3693 suspensions but only 38 cases where people were later back-paid based on compassionate grounds such as a family tragedy, she said.
The department was open to considering cases on compassionate grounds. One man's family had paid for him to travel to Australia 11 times since January to visit his sick grandson and he had not been penalised.
In a lot of cases it was family and friends paying for beneficiaries to travel for a holiday, Bennett said.
Green Party welfare spokeswoman Jan Logie said 21,000 was a "huge number of people for the Government to be removing from income support".
"It's really unclear to me if people are aware of the new rules and the risk of losing their benefit."
It was also possible that many of those on the jobseekers benefit were overseas looking for work or had recently lost jobs and had overseas holidays booked previously.
The director of Porirua's Agape Budgeting Service, Brian McGettigan, supported the policy but said many beneficiaries were being caught out as they did not realise they would be caught at the border.
The number would come down once people realised they could not get away with it and faced having to get by with their benefit suspended.
Beneficiaries could generally not afford to travel but were taking out loans to get to important family events overseas, such as funerals. The problem was particularly acute in the Pacific Island community, he said.
- The Dominion Post
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