INDEPENDENT NEWS

Bradford: Where to For Welfare?

Published: Wed 21 Mar 2007 03:22 PM
Where to For Welfare?
Sue Bradford MP, Green Party Social Development Spokesperson
Public Forum, University of Auckland, 21st March 2007
Kia ora koutou,
First of all, I”d like to thank the organisers very much for organising the conference and this panel today. I’m really sorry I couldn’t be here for the earlier workshops and discussion, but ironically I had to be in Wellington this morning to hear submissions on the Social Security Amendment Bill and then to participate in consideration of my Mothers with Babies in Prison bill at another select committee.
On the whole not enough attention is paid to the debate around the future of welfare in this country except at a very simplistic level, and I welcome any opportunity to go a little further and deeper. I hope there will be more opportunities like this in the time between now and the next election, and not just in the final crowded weeks before polling day either.
You have heard a lot already today about the details of the Government’s recent reforms, and I don’t want to bore you needlessly with more complex analysis of matters of which you’re already well aware.
However, I will just recap very briefly a few of the main problems the Green Party has seen with Labour’s approach to welfare over the last few years.
Remember the Jobs Jolt in 2003-4? That’s when I think they first started going badly astray, with the creation of official no go zones in many parts of provincial and rural New Zealand, the extension of worktesting to 55 – 59 year olds, and the introduction of intrusive drug and alcohol testing without the backup of adequate a & d services.
Then we had Working for Families. In Budget 2004 Dr Cullen introduced and pushed through under urgency the Government’s Future Directions (Working For Families) Bill, which removed the Special Benefit and replaced it with TAS, the Temporary Additional Support allowance.
I don’t think it was any accident that Labour wanted this dealt with as quickly as possible, quietly removing the necessary discretion of this benefit of last resort for people in the most difficult of situations, without even a nod to the usual select committee and other processes involving public scrutiny.
At the same time, of course, the Government was entrenching discrimination against the children of beneficiaries with the retention of the discriminatory Child Tax Credit (now known as the In Work Payment).
Since then we‘ve had the gradually stepped moves towards the so-called ‘Single Core Benefit’, with its overarching implication that all beneficiaries will be expected to be in paid employment to the maximum extent of their assessed capacity for work.
The latest manifestation of this is the Social Security Amendment Bill on which many of you have made excellent submissions – good on you.
Beneficiary advocacy, disabled peoples and a number of church and community organisations have come forward to strongly and clearly oppose key elements of this latest attack on the fundamentals of our welfare system.
While of course there are some good aspects of the latest bill, not least the ending of the high-income stand down, the Green Party shares the broader concerns of many submitters.
We oppose the way in which the new bill changes the framework of the social security system to one which is regulated, inflexible and mean spirited, focused on alleviating hardship and pushing people into paid work at almost any cost, rather than allowing beneficiaries an income which maximises their dignity and honours the fact that they may be raising children, have major impairments or illness, and/or be carrying out voluntary work in the community.
I found it highly significant – and sad - that when the Social Security Amendment Bill had its first reading in Parliament; the only party that voted against it was the Greens.
Labour and National seem to be drawing closer and closer together on welfare policy, with their seemingly mutual drive towards greater worktesting of invalids, sickness and sole parent beneficiaries, their unwillingness to address the problem that benefits simply aren’t enough for either individuals or families to live on, and their lack of recognition of the worth of parenting as a valid job in its own right.
Nor does either party, or indeed any other party than ours, seem to care about the ongoing maladministration of welfare in this country, which sees alarming discrepancies in the way different people and different regions are treated by the Department of Work and Income.
I don’t know how many of you have any familiarity at all with how beneficiaries in places like Kaiti, Wairoa and Ruatoria are treated, but I believe at one level it comes down to the continuation of the kind of systemic racism for which the Department of Social Welfare was notorious in decades past.
Alongside this the much-vaunted Government promise that all beneficiaries can and should receive their full and correct entitlements upon application to the department is so far from being standard practice as to be a somewhat sick joke.
Given this background, and the fact that the Social Security Amendment Bill is almost certain to pass, I think it will in fact lay a framework that National will be delighted to pick up and use as a basis for its own reforms should it become the lead player in a Government in the near future.
If we keep on going in the direction we’re currently heading, under either a Labour- or National-led Government, the future looks like this:
- Beneficiaries will continue to suffer almost global income inadequacy, constant debt burden and social exclusion.
- Many children of beneficiaries will continue to experience lifelong consequences of a childhood spent in poverty.
- People with mental, physical and intellectual impairments will come under increasing pressure as a result of worktesting requirements, resulting in even greater stress, sickness and sadness for many.
- Sole parents and the spouses of beneficiaries will face ever increasing demands to join the paid workforce, often to the detriment of their own and their children’s’ welfare.
- Those at the bottom of the economic heap, and those living in the more depressed regions and suburbs will continue to pay the heaviest price.
- Poverty will continue to affect women, children, tangata whenua and Pacific Island peoples the most.
- If the drive towards the Single Core Benefit proposal goes on as currently conceived, the welfare system overall will become ever increasingly one of inflexibility, insufficiency and coercion.
- If unemployment starts rising sharply again, as it inevitably will at some point, all these factors will be exacerbated.
The future doesn’t have to look like this.
The Green Party continues to advocate for a very different vision of welfare for Aotearoa New Zealand.
We believe that whether in or out of paid work all New Zealanders deserve a standard of living that enables them to participate in and feel part of their local community, and that offers them enough money to support themselves and their family with dignity.
We also believe that while paid work adds meaning to our lives and the ability to participate in employment is a fundamental human right, at the same time we should as a society also honour those who do the work of raising children, caring for others and/or contributing voluntarily to their community.
I don’t have time here to go into the full detail of how we’d like to see our income support system reformed but for a start, we would like to see the Social Security Act 1964 and its myriad of amendments scrapped, and a new bill written based on three key principles – simplicity, sufficiency and universality.
We want structural discrimination against the children of beneficiaries removed from Working for Families, for as long as that system is in place.
We support a full and wide ranging public debate and well funded Government research to take place on the nature and possibility of a UBI (Universal Basic Income) as applied to New Zealand.
In terms of reforms to the existing income support apparatus, some of the key things we want to see achieved include:
- Benefits at levels where income is enough for all basic needs, linked to a fixed percentage of the average wage – like NZ super.
- A simple two-tier system made up of a universal base rate with add-ons for dependants, disability or chronic illness.
- No forced work testing for people 55 and over, invalids and sickness beneficiaries or DPBs – instead all people in these categories should have access to the employment and vocational services of Work and Income without the creeping levels of harassment currently being applied; and
- A Work and Income department that treats people using its services with respect and sensitivity; informs people of their full entitlements – and provides same; and treats people with equity regardless of geography, ethnicity, gender, disability or other status.
We would also like to see the minimum wage raised to $13 an hour immediately. This would significantly reduce the current need for second and third tier income support. Wages are still far too low in this country.
Issues around housing need also need urgently to be addressed.
All this stands alongside our commitment to full employment and to the fundamental Green Charter principle of social and economic justice.
We are also excruciatingly aware of the possible implications of peak oil and climate change on the standard of living of all New Zealanders. We need to simplify and future proof our welfare system in the face of what lies ahead.
It is not fashionable or popular to speak up for the rights of unemployed people and beneficiaries in Parliament at the moment – I don’t think it ever was.
But there are a few of us there doing the best we can and I believe for the sake of all those who have been left out and left behind by the current economic upswing, it is imperative that we continue to work with you here in this room today for a different kind of future than that envisaged by the parties of so-called mainstream New Zealand.
ENDS

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