More than 21,000 beneficiaries have had their income support cut for travelling overseas since last July, the Government says.
But opponents have raised concerns about the number of people affected, dubbing it the latest round of “beneficiary bashing”.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said she was surprised by the “staggering number” of beneficiaries, excluding superannuitants, who were travelling overseas.
"These figures are the number of people who chose to travel knowing their benefit would be suspended.
''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 more than 1750 people have had their benefit suspended for multiple overseas trips since July.
The largest group of suspensions applied to nearly 11,200 people on job seeker benefits, followed by more than 4800 solo parents and about 3500 on the supported living payment.
A total of 4880 people had their benefits cut because they did not reconnect with Work and Income within eight weeks of their departure.
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.
Bennett said the new rules still allowed for some overseas travel such as on compassionate grounds while people who did not have work obligations could 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."
It was likely a number of those people who had left "have given up on the local job market" and headed offshore for better opportunities, she 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 traveling."
She also wanted an assurance that no beneficiaries were having their benefits cut because of Work and Income failures which she said she was hearing about regularly.
There had always been restrictions on beneficiaries travelling overseas, she said.
But Bennett was confident that Work and Income were 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.
They were open to considering cases on compassionate grounds and said one man’s family had paid for him to travel to Australia 11 times since January to visit his sick grandson and who had not been penalised.
In a lot of cases it was family and friends paying for beneficiaries to travel for a holiday, she said.
Green Party welfare spokesperson 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."
While Bennett said they had made every effort to inform beneficiaries about the changes, Logie said they had received regular complaints about inefficiencies in the WINZ system and the difficulties beneficiaries were having in dealing with the agency.
This could be contributing to the high number of people who were affected, she said.
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 system was "not doing justice to what social security is supposed to be about".
Porirua's Agape Budgeting Service director Brian McGettigan said that many beneficiaries were being caught out as they did not realise that New Zealand Customs was sharing information with Work and Income.
"A lot of people have a thing about telling WINZ everything and it's this barrier with WINZ, because they're not friendly, they're not a friendly outfit for most people... so it's that barrier still of 'Well I won't tell them they won't know' and a lot of people still haven't been educated to know that WINZ are now cross correlating with the border and you'll get caught."
He expected the number would come down when people realised they could not get away with it and faced having to get by with their benefit suspended when they got back to New Zealand.
He said it was a fair policy, however.
"I think if you are on a benefit, how on earth can you afford to go because you can't even afford to live in a reasonable way on a benefit."
Many of those beneficiaries were taking out loans to get there, with the problem particularly acute in the Pacific Island community.
"If you are a Pacific Islander and one of your family members is having a funeral and you are the oldest in the family, you've got to go. You don't have a choice... and it's not to just travel, it's gifts and so on. It gets quite high - a lot of money," he said.
"Usually it's a family event but there's an awful lot of people going to Aussie not for family events, too."
Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox said many working-poor families could not afford to go on holiday and questioned how beneficiaries could afford to do so.
"If you're not here and can afford to travel overseas then you shouldn't be getting a benefit."
She said the reasons why those people were travelling needed to be properly understood however, as some might have genuine reasons for doing so.
"Maybe there are the occasional circumstances whereby a single mum struggling to bring up the kids from the Pacific Islands goes back to stay with her mum for a wee while to help her out. That might be a different situation."
She was not hearing concerns or feedback about the issue from the Federation's members.
Auckland Action Against Poverty spokesperson Alastair Russell labelled it the latest round of “beneficiary bashing”.
“How many people have left New Zealand having abandoned all hope of getting a decent job? How many have left because of their experience of on-going Work and Income harassment?” he said.
“Life on a benefit is brutally hard. Children go hungry. Choices are made about what bill goes unpaid. Go into Work and Income and leave your dignity at the door. This is the real world and not the fantasy that Ms Bennett wants us to buy into.”
- Fairfax Media
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