Government under-delivery continues with ‘dismal’ social welfare tweaks

The Government year of under-delivery continued last week with an announcement of social welfare reforms tweaks being buried on Friday afternoon when it would have been anticipated that most news coverage would have been of Pike River mine re-entry – which also didn’t deliver.

Green co-leader Marama Davidson sounds deflated and resigned to under-delivery this term at least.

Yes I affirmed that these first steps and changes have come too late for too many.

I know change is long overdue, and people deserve support now. Can guarantee I’m committed to that change and the hard work it requires. It’s right people demand we just sort this out asap.

Sue Bradford:

“The government’s response to the findings of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) is dismal.”

A Welfare Expert Advisory Group was set up with an expectation it would report back with transformative reforms – which it did, with 42 recommendations. But the Government announcement on Friday indicated that only one of these would be implemented straight away, and another two would have to wait another year. And these are really only relatively minor tweaks.

In the 2017 election campaign the Green Party nearly died in a ditch when  co-leader Metiria Turei launched a major promotion for social welfare reform by revealing her experiences with claiming more benefits than she was eligible for. Support for the Green Party slumped.

Turei resigned and the Greens survived the election, but their number of MPs dropped from 14 to 8, and their share of the vote dropped from10.7% to 6.3%. They managed to negotiate their way into Government with Labour, but outside of Cabinet, and with what have turned out to be vague commitments. On social welfare the Confidence & Supply Agreement states:

Fair Society

10. Overhaul the welfare system, ensure access to entitlements, remove excessive sanctions and review Working For Families so that everyone has a standard of living and income that enables them to live in dignity and participate in their communities, and lifts children and their families out of poverty.

In April 2018 Marama Davidson was appointed as the new female co-leader of the Greens – Marama Davidson wins Green Party co-leadership race

She spoke about winning back voters who the Green Party had lost to Labour in the 2017 election – but also reaching out to new voters from her own background in poorer communities.

“In order to be a genuine and relevant voice for modern Aotearoa, we need to reflect its diverse reality. We need more members from all backgrounds and communities,” Davidson said.

“I know what it is to struggle to find a home to rent. I know what it is to not have enough food for your tamariki. And I know that no parent should have to go through that.”

“The community I come from is at the coalface of the most pressing issues we face as a society: rising poverty and inequality, the housing and homelessness crisis, polluted rivers and poor health and education outcomes.”

She said a massive economic shift was needed to a system that put the wellbeing of people and the environment above simple GDP growth.

Co-leader James Shaw said Davidson’s campaign had “lit a wildfire through the party.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called Davidson to congratulate her.

“The Green Party is a valued confidence and supply partner of this Government and I look forward to working with Marama to build a stronger, fairer and more inclusive country,” Ardern said.

“I am sure our work will be strengthened with the addition of Marama Davidson helping to leading this important work alongside me, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, and Green Co-leader James Shaw.”

It looks like Davidson has not strengthened much if anything on social welfare reform.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) was established in May 2018, with twelve ‘experts’ appointed. The Terms of Reference stated:

1. …It is timely at this critical juncture to evaluate whether our social welfare system remains fit for purpose in contemporary New Zealand.

2. The Government’s vision is for a welfare system that ensures people have an adequate income and standard of living, are treated with and can live in dignity and are able to participate meaningfully in their communities.

Objective

5. The Welfare Expert Advisory Group (the WEAG) is being established to provide advice to the Government on options that could best give effect to its vision for the future direction of the social welfare system.

They delivered their Report to the Minister for Social Development on 26 February 2019.

On Friday afternoon (3 May 2019) the Government announced that “its vision for the future direction of the social welfare system” would amount to a few minor tweaks.

Marama Davidson’s initial response promoted just one of the tweaks:

The Confidence and Supply Agreement between the and commits to removing excessive sanctions. This starts with today’s announcement.

In response to comments on Twitter she acknowledged the failure to deliver urgent reform.

Davidson:

I know change is long overdue, and people deserve support now. Can guarantee I’m committed to that change and the hard work it requires. It’s right people demand we just sort this out asap.

She sounds disappointed and deflated.

Sue Bradford (The Spinoff): No hope for progressive welfare reform from this government

The government’s response to the findings of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) is dismal.

It appears the only substantive welfare reform we can expect during this parliamentary term is the removal of the financial sanction against sole parents who can’t or won’t name their child’s father. That’s great, but that’s it.

Both Labour and the Greens went into the 2017 election promising the elimination of this sanction. It could have been axed as soon as they took power. Instead, it is now clear that the government has deliberately delayed action until the WEAG reported back, just so they could point to at least one reform of substance after the expenditure of $2 million on the working group.

The sole parent sanction won’t be removed until April next year, and the Government has confirmed there will be no backdating.

…I am so angry that this government has not had the courage of any convictions in responding to the WEAG’s heartfelt mahi.

We are seeing the weakest possible response to the WEAG’s sterling efforts. There is no commitment to any significant change during this parliamentary term. To talk about transforming welfare in three, five or 10 years as Sepuloni does is simply meaningless.

Any beneficiary expecting a sudden onset of empathy from this government can forget about that, apart from those who will directly benefit from the ending of the naming-father sanction.

None of the existing lot are going to do anything serious. It would require a kind of courage and commitment not in evidence when it comes to standing up for the rights and wellbeing of beneficiaries. The Greens have a legacy of fine welfare policies and Marama Davidson and others do seriously support the kind of recommendations made by the WEAG. However,  this is not backed up by the practice of the Greens in this term of Parliament, near-silenced in their role as support party, and with a tendency to skitter away from hard battles under any kind of pressure.

That’s scathing of the Government, but especially scathing of Bradford’s own Green Party (she may have ditched them now but was an MP and stood for leadership in the past).

If we’re ever going to hope for transformative and progressive welfare reform, it is now clear it will need to be championed by a party that is not yet in Parliament.

There is no sign of such a party, so it not just a dismal under-delivery, the outlook for social welfare reform looks dismal.

 

 

 

No questions asked (no sanctions) welfare

One of just three changes as a result of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group report is contentious – it will remove (next year) a sanction (reduction in sole parent benefit) for mothers who don’t name the father of their child or children:

The Government will scrap the discriminatory sanction that cuts income to women and their children if the name of the child’s father is not declared to the Government.

Removing the section 192 sanction will cost $113.4 million over 4 years and will come into effect on 1 April 2020.

The Green Party has wanted a range of sanctions and requirements for getting benefits removed for some time. It was championed by Metiria Turei as she crashed and burned her political career just before the 2017 election, and her successor as Green co-leader, Marama Davidson, has also promoted much higher benefits with no questions asked.

It doesn’t actually start today, it starts in April 2020.

National imposed the sanctions and oppose their removal. Stuff: Government to scrap benefit sanction for solo mums, among welfare changes

National’s spokeswoman for social development, Louise Upston, said her party disagreed with the bulk of the report, “which would see fewer obligations imposed on beneficiaries and fewer incentives to get back into work”.

“Increasing the abatement threshold for people on benefits means people can keep more of what they earn. This is a welcome incentive to encourage more people into work.

“National believes that New Zealanders should be given a hand up, not a hand out and those who can work, should.”

ACT leader David Seymour…

…said removing sanctions on women who don’t name the father of their child is a complete reversal of position for Labour.

“In 2004, Social Development Minister Steve Maharey said: ‘It is a rort, and I have said time and time again in this Parliament that fathers must front up to their obligations, and we will make sure they do … It is not unreasonable to penalise financially those who do not.’

“This change will mean taxpayers will assume greater responsibility for supporting children, rather than their fathers.

Auckland Action Against Poverty…

…said it was glad to see the Government “finally taking action to stop punishing sole parents and children”.

It urged the Government to also ensure that every woman who had been penalised by the sanction received back pay, however the Minister told media this would not happen.

From the WEAG report:

The current benefit system is based on a one of conditionality and sanctions. We heard overwhelmingly through our consultation that such a system diminishes trust, causes anger and resentment, and contributes to toxic levels of stress. The application of obligations and sanctions in New Zealand (and elsewhere) is problematic.

The empirical literature provides no single, overarching answer to whether obligations and sanctions in welfare systems bring about the desired forms of behavioural change, such as movement into paid work or whether the positive effects of obligations outweigh the negative (Watts & Fitzpatrick, 2018: 111).

Research does indicate that obligations and sanctions can be costly to administer and comply with and have many harmful unintended consequences that compound social harm and disconnectedness (for example, movement in and out of insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment; disengagement from the social security system; increased poverty; increased crime to survive; worsened ill-health and impairments) (Economic and Social Research Council, 2018; Watts & Fitzpatrick 2018; Butterworth et al, 2006; Kiely & Butterworth, 2013; Davis, 2018). There is even less evidence that non-work-related obligations and associated sanctions achieve the stated aims of intended behavioural modification.

A high number of obligation failures15 are disputed (46%) and almost all (98%) of these disputes are upheld with the failure being overturned.

Require mutuality of expectations and responsibilities

The current obligations and sanctions regime must be immediately reformed into a system of mutual expectations and responsibilities that are applied according to the circumstances of the individual. They must be applied in a way that meets the values of the system, with robust checks and balances to mitigate potential negative impacts on individuals and their families and whānau.

Removing the father naming sanction makes it easier for fathers to avoid responsibility.

The report recommended a range of obligations and sanctions be removed.

  • the requirement to complete specific activities before a benefit is granted (pre-benefit activities)
  • the sanction where benefit payments stop if people have a warrant out for their arrest, and continue data matching with the Ministry of Justice and take a proactive supportive approach to contacting these people
  • social obligations that require people receiving a benefit to take all reasonable steps to have their children enrolled with a medical practice, be up to date with their Wellchild/Tamariki Ora checks and be attending early childhood education or school
  • pre-employment drug testing and provide specialised support for people with substance use disorders
  • the mandatory work ability assessment for people with health conditions or a disability and link workability assessments to return to work plans
  • the requirement to reapply for a benefit every 52 weeks – MSD is expected to provide full and correct entitlements through regular reviews (at least annually)
  • work obligations when an additional child is included in a benefit (the subsequent child rule)
  • the sanction on not naming another parent (was section 70A in the Social Security Act 1964 and is now section 192 of the Social Security Act 2018).

Only the last of those is being being removed by the Government, so most sanctions will remain.

The cost of removing the s192 parent naming sanction is estimated to cost $113.4 million over 4 years, which is $28.35 million annually.

“Around 24,000 children will be significantly better off as a result of this change, with many sole parents’ incomes increasing by an average of $34 a week,” Carmel Sepuloni said.

That’s a lot of children with unnamed fathers.

Doing some calculations the budget suggests about 16,000 solo mothers will have an income (benefit) increase, that’s a lot who don’t name fathers – it’s nearly a quarter of the total of about 60,000 receiving Sole Parent Support  (some of those will be fathers).

Why don’t mothers name fathers?

Some will genuinely not know who the father is, or will be uncertain. And some mothers will have legitimate reasons for having nothing to do with fathers.

In other cases men named as fathers may deny they are the parent.

And there must be some arrangements of silence of convenience, where the mother doesn’t name the father so he doesn’t have to pay maintenance, but under the table support arrangements are made.

$28.35 million annually is not a lot in the whole scheme of social welfare, which has a current  annual budget of $30.6 billion.

This is a small win for the Greens, but when the sanction is removed many children and low income families will be better off, which generally is a good thing.

It may cost a bit more as more solo mothers are likely to choose to not name the fathers, which is likely to reduce the number fathers paying maintenance, but this is likely to be not substantial.

Welfare advisory group – 42 recommendations, 3 to be implemented

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) report has been released containing 42 ‘key recommendations’. The Government has announced that one will start to be implemented soon, and another two next year.

This was initiated by the Green Party Confidence and Supply Agreement with Labour.

Overhaul the welfare system, ensure access to entitlements, remove excessive sanctions and review Working For Families so that everyone has a standard of living and income that enables them to live in dignity and participate in their communities, and lifts children and their families out of poverty.

The Government has announced that three recommendations will be implemented.

  • Removing the section 192 sanction will cost $113.4 million over 4 years and will come into effect on 1 April 2020.
  • Increasing the abatement thresholds of main benefits over the next four years will benefit around 73,000 low income individuals and families and is a total investment of $97.1 million over 4 years and will come into effect on 1 April 2020.
  • $76.3 million will be allocated to fund up to 263 new front line staff over four years to help support more people into work
  • The combined cost of these three pre-budget announcements is $286.8 million over the next 4 years.

That’s about $70 million per year. That’s very frugal (you could say paltry) compared to the NZ First $1 billion per year that was available from last year’s budget.

Carmel Sepuloni (Minister of Social Development):


Supporting people into work and income security – priorities in welfare reforms

The Government is taking immediate action to support people into work and improve income security for New Zealanders on benefits, in response to the release of the Government’s Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) report today.

The WEAG report, Whakamana Tāngata: Restoring Dignity to Social Security in New Zealand, contains 42 key recommendations that call for a systematic overhaul of New Zealand’s welfare system with a renewed focus on support to help those on benefits into sustainable work, improved income adequacy to ensure families on benefits are not living in poverty and a culture change in MSD to ensure people are treated with respect.

“Our welfare system is not providing the right support for people in need. This is contributing to issues of inequality and hardship which have been long-term problems for New Zealand that this Government is committed to fixing,” Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni said.

“The release of the expert working group report and the three announcements made in response to it, represent good first steps to improving the system, but major change will take years.

“In Budget 2019 we will be allocating funds to employ up to 263 frontline staff over four years to support more people into good work, allowing beneficiaries to keep more of what they earn when they do work by lifting the abatement threshold and eliminating a discriminatory sanction that cruelly singled out 24,000 children raised by sole parents.

“Our plans will result in fewer children growing up in extreme poverty and see more people moving off benefits and into decent long term work.

“The Government can’t deliver on every recommendation at once. We are taking a balanced approach and are committed to delivering change over the longer term and prioritising areas like housing and mental health which impact on all New Zealanders but especially those in the welfare system.

“We have decided not to implement the report’s recommendations to increase benefit levels by up to 47% immediately. As we have said, we will be looking at a staged implementation of the report. There are a range of ways to improve people’s financial wellbeing and reduce the number of people on benefits that live in poverty, in line with our commitment to reduce the overall rates of child poverty in New Zealand, and we will be looking at these over the coming years,” Carmel Sepuloni said.

Green Party Co-Leader Marama Davidson says the report released today creates a vital roadmap for significant change and the new budget initiatives our Government is implementing will provide a solid start on that journey.

“We are committed to an inclusive society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and supported to participate fully in the community,” Marama Davidson said.

Minister for Children Tracey Martin says that we need a welfare system that is fair to everyone and that supports child wellbeing.

“We need to ensure all parents and caregivers have the resources and ability to provide the best possible care for their children, Tracey Martin said.

Government announcements

The Government will be repealing Section 192, formerly known as Section 70A, that cut incomes to parents and their children if the name of the other parent was not declared to the Government.

“Around 24,000 children will be significantly better off as a result of this change, with many sole parents’ incomes increasing by an average of $34 a week,” Carmel Sepuloni said.

“This will have a meaningful impact on some of New Zealand’s poorest families and fixes an unfair and discriminatory sanction that penalised children because they didn’t have a named father.

“The Government supports parental freedom, and ensuring sole parents and their children are not pushed into poverty because of a private parenting decision that the Government has no need to be involved in.

“National was briefed in 2016 that there was insufficient evidence to support the discriminatory sanction as it didn’t achieve its initial purpose to get money from the partner that’s not named in the birth certificate.

73,000 individuals and their families will be better off by the Government raising abatement thresholds for those on benefits who work.

“This is about ensuring wage fairness and making sure low income beneficiaries can take home more of what they earn.

“This change is about catching up with the times. Abatement thresholds for Jobseeker Support haven’t changed in over 20 years and many people find they are no better off for working, after travel and childcare costs.

“We are supporting more people into work by funding up to 263 new frontline staff over four years.

“The report shows that proactive employment case management is integral to ensuring that people are upskilled and trained so they are matched to sustainable and meaningful employment” Carmel Sepuloni said.

The full report: http://www.weag.govt.nz/assets/documents/WEAG-report/aed960c3ce/WEAG-Report.pdf

Bennett accusations follow Sepuloni stand down

Paula Bennet has been accused of complicity in the standing down of Labour welfare spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni.

One News reports that Labour welfare spokesperson stood down as mother faces benefit fraud charges.

The Labour Party’s welfare spokesperson has been stood down from that role following a ONE News revelation.

Mr Little decided to stand Carmel Sepuloni down after ONE News revealed the accusations against her mother.

Beverley Anne Sepuloni is due to appear in the New Plymouth District Court tomorrow morning on 19 charges laid a month ago. She’s accused of claiming the sickness benefit in 2006 when she shouldn’t have. She’s also accused of applying for the disability allowance in 2008 when she shouldn’t have.

It’s alleged she claimed rent subsidies between 2003 and 2010 which she wasn’t entitled to. And she’s also accused of failing to tell welfare officials – for 10-and-a-half years – that she was living with a partner.

So that sounds like something that’s sad and embarrassing for Sepuloni but Andrew Little acted quickly and appropriately once the news broke.

It could raise questions but until facts are known and the outcome of the case is known that’s as far as this story should go.

Except that at The Standard some commenters have turned it around into dirty smears against Paula Bennett.

Lynn Prentice posted Carmel stood down for possible conflict of interest.

I have to say that this is such a relief after having many years of  dithering around the Labour caucus in many previous incidents since I started with this blog. Good on Carmel and Andrew!

With what is currently known that should be what the story is about so far, embarrassing for Sepuloni but appropriate action by Little.

But Prentice also said:

While I’m sure that we will still get the dribbling trolls, this is how potential conflicts of interest should be handled.

He was right, some commenters have questioned what Sepuloni might have known. That is yet to be determined.

But the major trolling emeregd as attacking smears on Paula Bennett, absent any evidence.

Anne:

Yes, mickysavage! I’m too angry to say too much at thIs moment, but I will repeat two words in capital letters:

PAULA BENNETT?

Ant:

Yeah, wouldn’t be surprised if they chucked Carmel’s whole family under the microscope after she became opposition spokesperson, they can be a vindictive bunch.

Felix:

Standard operating procedure for this government suggests the opposite. It’s actually more of a stretch to assume they had nothing to do with it.

Ed:

Obviously the thought was that perhaps Paula Bennett had been advised of an upcoming prosecution, and seeing a fairly unusual name made further enquiries. If that is the case (and it may of course not be), I hope the reporter does let Carmel know where the information came from . . .

DoublePlusGood

I think it’s also possible that Bennett ordered some digging on the Sepuloni name, and went after the mother.

Alpha z

paula bennet minster for welfare, & opposit of carmel sepuloni at parlement & elections. may be extra special utu from bennet & Tolley against carmel. can be or not, but I think yes.

ankerrawshark:

I too wonder where TVNZ got the heads up from/??? Wouldn’t put it past the Nacts….

So the resident Standard trolls have turned a positive Labour story into a smearfest.

And in contrast to assuming Bennett’s guilt some assume Sepuloni (senior) must be innocent, like Murray Rawshark:

Standing down is the right thing to do in these circumstances, even though her mum is most likely innocent. Many cases of so-called benefit fraud arise because WINZ are so useless and incompetent.

Different standards of presumed guilt or innocence based on politics.

Beverley Anne Sepuloni is due to appear in the New Plymouth District Court this morning. The media isn’t totally reliant on tip-offs from politicians. This  would have become public knowledge without any help from Bennett or National so why would they get involved?

And if someone did alert One News so what? Andrew Little saw it as important enough to stand down his spokesperson as a precaution. The sooner he found out the better.

And the sooner Carmel Sepuloni found out the better as well.

Can we afford inefficient social welfare?

Frank Macskasy as posted a detailed plea at The Daily Blog to “feed the kids” in (some) schools:

Can we afford to have “a chat on food in schools”?

While no one wants to see kids going hungry this is ineffieciently throwing money at one small part of a much bigger problem, and it doesn’t even address any of the causes.

I commented the following on his post:

I see two significant problems.

There’s no dispute that some families really struggle, they really struggle caring for their kids, feeding them, clothing them, providing them with a decent place to live, giving them decent medical care.

Social welfare is not enough for many people. Wages and tax credits and other means of assitance are not enough for many people. And this obviously affects a lot of kids.

We also have a problem with a huge social welfare cost.

All governments have to make decisions about how much money is provided and how much is allocated to “people in need”.

There are a wide variety of circumstances and needs.

The country cannot afford to just keep giving more money across the board.

Choosing one small part of this problem like hungry kids in schools and giving a sub group of kids going to school more will help some kids, but it will also give to kids who don’t need it.

Mana say their Feed the Kids bill will cost about $100m a year. That’s not much out of the whole budget.

BUT

It gives more than is necessary, not all the targeted kids need it.

And you could pick many small groups to target. Governments have been doing this for decades. It helps some and gives more to others who don’t need it.

And all these small innefficiencies in targeting add up to huge inefficiencies.

And some like the Feed The Kids bill doesn’t even address the causes of the problem.

I don’t think trying to guilt people into supporting a small well meaning but inefficent programme to feed some kids helps.

There are much bigger problems that deserve far better attention.