Editorial: Bennett not telling the full story

Last updated 05:00 05/04/2014

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OPINION: On the face of it , the announcement that Work and Income has nabbed tens of thousands of beneficiaries for jetsetting overseas, saving the taxpayer $10.5 million in suspended payments, is a big win for the Government, enhancing its "tough on bludgers" reputation.

But Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has done her department and all beneficiaries a disservice by not providing enough detail and context with the big juicy figures that have resulted from a new requirement that clients tell Work and Income when they plan to leave the country.

Since last July, more than 21,000 beneficiaries have had their financial support cut for not doing so. More than 1750 have had their benefit suspended for multiple overseas trips, including 191 people who travelled three times and 1555 who have travelled twice since July.

"Every day we hear stories of how people cannot live on the benefit," said Bennett. "[Now] you're hearing that literally thousands can not only live on it but can afford to travel overseas as well."

Such notions of the unemployed banking up their taxpayer dollars for a holiday slush fund is more than enough to boil the blue-blood of National's base support and play to small-minded middle-class stereotypes of those outside the workforce.

Beneficiaries aren't just spending all that cash on smokes, pokies and Lotto tickets, they're sunbathing on the Gold Coast!

Clearly, a large number of beneficiaries have been receiving payments they were not entitled to. They can't be jobseekers in our country if they're not in our country. And there is certainly nothing wrong with the Government introducing more robust procedures.

But for the minister to skewer with such glee the very people whose interests she is supposed to represent, she should make sure she has sharpened her stick. Why were these people travelling? How many of them were paying for the trips themselves? Do they even return to New Zealand? This data has not been collected.

Beneficiaries are entitled to travel overseas - they are human beings after all - and can do so for up to 28 days so long as it is not denying employment opportunities and Work and Income is informed.

As budget advisers have pointed out, many people are likely oblivious to the rule, particularly if they are making a hasty trip for a family emergency. In such situations it is also reasonable to expect family or friends would assist with travel costs, as would happen for weddings, births or major cultural events.

Winz needs to find out these details before hitting its clients with instant penalties.

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And for Bennett to make vote-baiting assumptions with half the information is irresponsible.

This editorial has also appeared in the Manawatu Standard

- Taranaki Daily News

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