Beneficiaries' income cut under new travel rules
Income support for more than 21,000 beneficiaries has been cut for travel overseas since last July - almost 1200 in the Waikato, the Government says.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the suspended payments had saved the taxpayer $10.5 million since the applicable welfare reforms were introduced last year.
"That's a staggering number of people," she said.
"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," Bennett said.
"Today you're hearing that literally thousands can not only live on it but can afford to travel overseas as well."
Bennett said the benefits of more than 1750 people had been suspended for multiple overseas trips, including 191 people who travelled three times and 1555 who have travelled twice since July.
These figures do not include those on superannuation.
The largest group of suspensions applied to nearly 11,200 people on job seeker benefits, followed by more than 4800 solo parents. A total of 4836 were on a supported living payment.
The benefits of a total of 4880 people were cut because they did not reconnect with Work and Income within eight weeks of their departure.
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.
Under the new rules, beneficiaries must tell Work and Income if they intend to travel and their benefits can be stopped immediately if they fail to do so.
Beneficiaries should be ready and available for work, not prioritising travel, Bennett said.
Federation of Family Budgeting Services chief executive Raewyn Fox said many working-poor families could not afford to go on holiday and she 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," Fox 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.
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."
She said they had been hearing consistently about inefficiencies in the Work and Income system, and the difficulties beneficiaries were having in dealing with the agency and this could be contributing to the high number.
"We are consistently getting feedback from people about the breakdowns in the system."
They had been advocating for an audit of the system, Logie said.
It was also possible that many of those on the job seekers benefit were overseas looking for work or had recently lost jobs and had overseas holidays booked previously, Logie said.
The system was "not doing justice to what social security is supposed to be about".