Bennett: No changes at Work and Income

BILL MOORE
Last updated 10:52 02/05/2014

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Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says she is proud of Work and Income's 4500 staff and won't be making changes as a result of a campaign by Nelson woman Sarah Wilson.

Wilson has said the department is inhumane, and that dealing with it is frustrating, depressing, anxiety-inducing, dehumanising and debilitating. Her complaint about her treatment as a beneficiary led to an apology from the Nelson office.

But Bennett, who visited the Nelson office yesterday, said while there she had been approached by a woman tearfully complimenting the work of two staff, and had been shown letters and notes received from people who disagreed with Wilson.

"She has an opinion on how she was dealt with and I think mistakes were made. They owned up to them, apologised and went out of their way to fix it, and I actually give the department and this office full respect for that," Bennett said.

She said she was not undermining Wilson's experience, but there was a counter to it.

"We work with some people that are at the most challenging and distressing times in their lives and their perception of how they're dealt with can sometimes be not perhaps the reality if they were in a different frame of mind."

With 295,000 people on welfare, she had much more to think about than Wilson, she said, and she saw no need to make changes as a result of what Wilson had said.

Although there were some mistakes, Work and Income staff cared about the people they dealt with and wanted to help them - that was why they worked there.

"I'm really proud of them," Bennett said. "I stand not just beside them, I stand in front of them and I'm happy to take any flak for the policies, but I think the work that they're doing is outstanding."

She said her visit to the Nelson office had shown that Wilson's campaign had not demoralised the staff.

"I think they've worked out that they are strong, they've supported each other, and they said that the positive response they've had from the community has actually buoyed them - so good on them."

Bennett, who is also local government minister, also called on Nelson mayor Rachel Reese yesterday in what she said was a relationship-building meeting that covered a range of subjects.

Nelson MP and former local government minister Nick Smith has long argued for the amalgamation of the Nelson city and Tasman district councils, but Bennett said she had no view on it.

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"He's got an opinion but he definitely hasn't swayed me one way or the other. I think my role is to be neutral. I really believe in locals deciding."

The Government had set up a fair process for communities to use if they wanted, and had no plans to be forcing any amalgamations after the election, she said.

On legal highs, the minister said the ban announced this week was the right move but there was still work to do in the medium and long term, and issues to work through between central and local government.

"I think we've learned a bit of a lesson ourselves in central government.

"We want to keep talking and making sure that the changes we do make are able to be implemented in a sensible way - but it's incredibly complex."

Now nearing the end of her third term in Parliament, Bennett said she loved her job and felt she had much more to do on helping vulnerable children, particularly with cross-agency programmes.

- Nelson

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