Christchurch tetraplegic man disgusted after benefit slashed without warning
A Christchurch man who has been tetraplegic for more than 30 years was distraught when his disability benefit was more than halved without warning, leaving him scrambling to survive on $170 a week.
Peter Lawrence, 60, had a catastrophic brain injury in the mid-1980s that left him without the use of his arms and legs and needing a wheelchair.
He relies on a supported living benefit and a disability allowance – about $370 a week – to pay his bills, including transport, groceries and medical appointments.
But in May, his weekly income suddenly dropped to about $170.
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Lawrence was told Work and Income required receipts for all of his expenses for the past year, but he said he was not aware of the request before his benefit was cut.
"I was beside myself; it was very distressing."
His stress levels increased as he watched the overdraft on his bank accounts grow. Providing the receipts would have been "virtually impossible", Lawrence said.
Regional commissioner for social development John Henderson said Lawrence was one of 373 long-term disability allowance beneficiaries who were being reviewed.
Work and Income had incorrectly suspended Lawrence's allowance on May 22 without contacting him first, Henderson said.
Christchurch East MP Poto Williams said she went to the Work and Income office to confront the manager after her staff struggled to resolve several slashed benefit cases, including Lawrence's.
The manager agreed to reinstate Lawrence's disability allowance and backdate payments that had been on hold.
Williams said the benefit cuts pointed to a punitive approach by the department.
"[Pete] had no help to try and get that information but here's the thing: he is still disabled.
"For that four weeks that his benefit was cut he wasn't un-disabled and not un-entitled – he was entitled to that benefit."
Williams said she also advocated for a couple who had their disability allowance cut without warning. Their supported living benefit was also suspended for several days this month.
The woman, who had major health problems, suffered a severe asthma attack while their benefit was cut. She spent five days in the intensive care unit at Christchurch Hospital.
Henderson said Lawrence and the couple had since received arrears for their disability allowances.
He apologised to them for for any stress and inconvenience caused.
Williams said her staff were dealing with an increasing number of cases involving Work and Income clients who were not receiving payments they were entitled to.
Staff had supported 77 constituents with issues with their benefits this year and Williams said Work and Income's "delay and obfuscation" needed to stop.
"I think a lot of it is designed to eliminate people out of the system . . . they just give up."
Lawrence received a call from the New Brighton Work and Income manager on Friday to apologise for suspending his disability allowance without warning.
While he appreciated the gesture, Lawrence said the cut was "disgusting" and the experience left him fearful it might happen again.
"You can never know, you have always got to worry about it."