On The Nation: Welfare Debate

Published: Sat 9 Sep 2017 12:53 PM
On The Nation: Welfare Debate
Social Development Minister Anne Tolley says there should be an investigation into historic abuse in state care if evidence emerges that some staff accused of abuse were moved to other care facilities rather than being investigated or reported to police. The Nation has spoken to a number of former state care workers and state wards who say this was the case.
Tolley admits the Government’s target of getting 56,000 more people off the benefit by June 2018 is “aspirational” and she won’t say whether they will make that deadline.
Labour’s social development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni says her party wants to revisit sanctions for beneficiaries, but currently has no policy on it other than dropping the sanction on solo parents who won’t name the other parent of their child.
Sepuloni also says Labour will not campaign on tagging benefits to wages, as recommended by the Children’s Commissioner. But Tolley says she has always been open to that and the ministry is looking at it.
Sepuloni says Work and Income staff are purposely withholding benefits from some people. But Tolley denies that.
Lisa Owen: Well, National’s announced tough new sanctions on beneficiaries this week, saying they’ll cut payments in half for young people who refuse drug rehabilitation, training or work experience. Now, critics say it’s ‘beneficiary bashing’, but National says sanctions work. So what is the best way to provide for those who need help? Well, joining me now are National’s Social Development Spokesperson Anne Tolley and Labour’s Carmel Sepuloni. Good morning to you both.
Anne Tolley: Morning.
Carmel Sepuloni: Morning.
I just want to start by asking why we pay benefits. Is it to give people a dignified life, or is it simply to keep hungry people off the streets?
Tolley: Well, I think there’s two different types of people that we support. The first is about 93,000 that have a severe disability or an illness means New Zealanders want to support them. We don’t expect anything of them, and that’s just part of our compassionate society. But we do have a significant number of people who are looking for work, who are capable of working, and so most of them, it’s just a light touch to help them along the way. Other people have significant barriers to getting employment, and we need to be helping them.
But should a benefit allow dignity and not just survival?
Tolley: Well, I think because it is just a temporary thing, we want to make sure that, yes, they can live and they can support themselves and their families. The best way to do that, of course, is through employment.
Okay. Carmel Sepuloni, what do you think?
Sepuloni: I think that what we’ve recently heard from the government is same old, same old. It’s what we’ve had for the last nine years, and, actually, what we’re seeing is that families aren’t better off. In the last year, we’ve had 50,000 more families put applications in for hardship grants because they are really struggling.
So my original question – whether we should pay enough for a dignified existence on a benefit or we’re just simply giving a backstop to get the basics, like food – what should it be?
Sepuloni: It should be about paying enough, but it should be about investing in people as well. I think there’s a lack of a focus in the welfare system on upskilling and training, and we’re really going to need that, moving forward, given the nature of work is changing and we’re going to see more and more people go on and off benefit.
Okay. We’ll talk a bit more about those things later, but what I want to know is how in touch you are with these people’s situations. So I’m going to give you an example. Let’s say it’s a person who’s on a jobseeker’s benefit, they have got one child and they’re living in Auckland. About how much would they get on the benefit, Anne Tolley?
Tolley: So, if they’re a sole parent?
Sole parent – job-seeking sole parent.
Tolley: $329 a week plus their family tax credit and then plus whatever accommodation supplement.
Carmel, is she right?
Sepuloni: She’s right.
Yeah, you’re both right. So is that enough to have a dignified existence? In Auckland, your housing cost will obviously be significant.
Sepuloni: Well, what we want to see is—The persisting poverty is actually happening in the age group from 0 to 3, and that’s why Labour’s announced that we want to introduce Best Start, a universal payment from 0 to 1 of $60 a week to actually support low- to middle-income families so that they are better off. There does need to be a focus on putting a little bit more money in the pockets of low- to middle-income people and, actually – I’m going to say this – tax cuts, with $400 million of that going to the top 10% of income earners is not the way to do it.
Anne Tolley?
Tolley: So, National’s done two things. The first time that we got the Budget– the books back in the black, we were the first government in 43 years to lift the rate of the benefit for—
25 bucks.
Tolley: $25 a week. And I know the electorate that I represent, the East Coast electorate, has some of the people living in the highest deprivation in the country. And I know from talking to people on the ground, sure, they’d always like more, but it made a significant difference.
Tolley: Now, next year, from 1 April, a solo mum living in Gisborne with two children, not paying anywhere near the accommodation costs that an Auckland family are paying, she will get in her hand extra another $121 a week. So as well as her $329, she will get another $353 a week, which is a significant increase for her.
Fair point.
Sepuloni: 70% of families are going to be better off under our Families Package, and that’s because we will not implement the $1.5 billion of tax cuts where almost a third of that—
Tolley: This woman isn’t getting a tax cut. This is not about tax cuts.
Sepuloni: …almost a third of that is going to go to the top 10% of income earners.
Tolley: This woman living in Gisborne will not get a tax cut. This is just the family tax credit and the Accommodation Supplement.
Sepuloni: So let’s just think – one on hand, they want to talk about targeting, and then on the other hand, they want to give politicians an additional thousand dollars a year – an additional thousand dollars that we do not need.
Ms Sepuloni, Anne Tolley is right. That woman won’t get a tax cut, so that’s additional money that she will get.
Tolley: And Labour voted against it.
Sepuloni: But under ours, if she’s got a 0- to 3-year-old, she’ll get $60 additional a week. That’s going to really help her out.
Okay. All right, you mentioned hardship grants and hardship assistance. We’ve had an increase in the past year – 34% more being given out in hardship grants; $11.5 million for food; $7 million for health visits – you know, doctors’ visits – close to $2.5 million for electricity bills. Is that a system that--? Does that signal to you that we’re routinely providing the basics for people to survive?
Tolley: Well, I think there’s a number of things. First of all, we’ve made it much easier for people to apply for those, so, for instance, your hardship grants, you can apply now over your phone.
Tolley: So you are expecting to get a bit of an increase.
$78 million.
Tolley: Secondly, I think the very good information that we get about what is happening to our New Zealand families led us into that $2 billion Family Incomes Package, because we know there are still low-income families that are really struggling, and all those facts tell us. So, first of all you’ve got to earn the money, and as the books have got back into the black and we’ve had some surpluses, the first thing we’ve done is reinvested those back into families.
So your package is going to solve all of these problems?
Tolley: No, of course it’s not, but it’s going to go a long way to helping people. And we’ve said if the economy keeps growing and we are seeing many more jobs created and all of that, then we can do it again.
But what I want to know is – are you fine with $78 million being given out in hardship assistance? Because that might signal to some people that the system is failing.
Tolley: Well, actually, to those people, it means the system is working, that when they need the help, that it’s there. And that’s the sort of system that we want to have.
$78 million – is it working? Are they getting the money when they need it?
Sepuloni: It’s not working. And I think we need to keep in mind here that some of the people accessing the hardship grants are on benefits; some are working poor that are actually struggling to survive. And so the government’s entire focus has been on pushing people off benefits but with no regard for whether or not they will in fact be better off, and that’s why I want to return to the fact that we need to have more of a focus on upskilling and training rather than just pushing people into the next minimum-wage job that comes along, because we want to make sure that their families are better off.
Tolley: But hang on. If you’re a young 25-year-old, young New Zealander and you’re on a benefit and we help you get into a job, you get three times as much even if it’s just on the minimum wage. You get three times as much.
If the job is full-time.
Tolley: If that job is full-time, absolutely. If it’s half-time, you’re going to get one and a half times more than being on the benefit. So a way for people to get out of poverty is for us to help them get into employment, and it might be just a bottom rung of the ladder, but that gives them—When you talk to employers, what are they looking for? They’re wanting experience, they’re wanting qualifications and they’re wanting people that will turn up every day. We help with all of that.
Let's give Carmel a right of reply.
Sepuloni: Just adding one more thing. I guess, one of the concerns is too that the Superu report that was released earlier this year showed that 25% of people were back on a benefit within two years, and I think that's where we see the real lack of focus on upskilling and training.
Tolley: Yes, but 44% were still in work.
Sepuloni: It has to be on looking to long-term prospects and making sure that they go into secure, meaningful employment.
I want to talk a little about getting people off the benefit. Anne Tolley, your government has a goal of reducing the number of beneficiaries by 25%. That means, to meet your target in 10 months’ time, you've got 56,000 more beneficiaries that you need to get off the benefit, and you've only got 10 months to do it. How are you going to do it?
Tolley: Well, we're working very closely with employers, because, in the end, they're the ones that make the decisions.
Are you going to do it? It's 10 months.
Tolley: Oh, I'd love to say yes, but, you know, if you don't put an aspirational target out, it means you keep on doing the same old things.
'Aspirational' sounds like it's not going to happen. If you're honest with us today, is it realistic that you can get 56,000 people off the benefit in 10 months?
Tolley: Well, I've worked very hard, and there's a lot of employers out there that have been working with us, and we are making great progress. Whether we'll hit the target, well, you know, that remains to be seen. But what it's meant is we've had to think differently, we've had to work in different ways with employers, and we've certainly had to think about how we work with some of our more complex—
So you've got no idea whether this is achievable?
Tolley: Well, I know we're on the right track to achieve that target, and that's what I'm focused on.
Carmel Sepuloni, most research shows that children who are raised in households that are dependent on benefits have worse outcomes in life. So, surely, you would want to move people off as well. What would your target be?
Sepuloni: Absolutely, we want to move people off, but our target is about upskilling and training them so that they are better off and better able to provide for their families. Let's just remember, Lisa, that, actually, 40% of the kids living in poverty are living in working family households, and so that's a real concern for us.
But in terms of tracking these people, to know whether you've achieved your goals, you must, presumably, have a target. So how many people would you like to move off the benefit?
Sepuloni: This is what we've said that we're going to do — we are going to actually track what the outcomes are for beneficiaries. So, of course, we want to get people off benefit, but we want them to be able to stay off because they're in meaningful employment. The government hasn't been tracking what actually happens to people when they go off benefit. So it's a very crude target just to say 'to get people off', because then you get people like I've met with and social services who are saying they're really concerned. They're seeing an increasing number of New Zealanders who aren't getting welfare and aren't getting any income from employment, and that's to be concerned about, I think.
That is a fair point. Mrs Tolley, where are people going when they come off the benefit? I think the figures show about 30% are going into jobs—
Tolley: No, 44% of people self-identify—
So, where are the rest going?
Tolley: Well, look the reality is—
How do you know that they're going on to a better life?
Tolley: Look, there's a whole lot of people that don't want the state in their lives. Tracking people is awful. They go off the benefit—
Sepuloni: Not at an individual level, Lisa, can I say.
Tolley: They go off the benefit for a whole variety of reasons.
How can you claim success, though, for that when you don't actually know if they're earning more money than they were on the benefit—?
Tolley: We do track if they come back on to benefit, and we do have a close look at what has happened. As I say, we do do a lot of training. We do provide a lot of opportunities for people to retrain.
But you don't know what's happening to those people. You've got no idea.
Tolley: We have 44% who self-identify to us that they're going off into work. You know, people go overseas. They age into superannuation. There's a whole lot of reasons why.
All right, so you don't know. I just want to raise with you some information that was released to the nation under the Official Information Act. It shows about 150,000 beneficiaries in low-income families are missing out on about $200 million a year in entitlements. Why? Why aren't they getting what they're entitled to?
Tolley: Well, you know, each individual would have a different story. We do our very best. We've got about 7000 staff in MSD. Any year, front-line staff deal with 1.7 million people. 1.7 million interviews face-to-face.
Have you got too few staff to do the job properly?
Tolley: No. We've got 120,000 now who are individually case managed. That means they meet with a case manager every 28 days. And those case managers do their very best to make sure that everyone gets what they're entitled to.
Well, I know advice that came with those numbers to you talked about the fact that it was too hard to get certain entitlements. Some people had to fill out 10 forms. Appointments ran over and weren't on time, and people who had jobs had to go back.
Tolley: Yep.
So it sounds like that the whole experience, as people are telling us, is dehumanising and too bureaucratic.
Tolley: Well, I'd say I agree with at times, it's too bureaucratic, and we're doing our very best, as I say, through making... 60% of applications are done online or through their phones. We provide cheap as data so it doesn't cost people anything. So we do what we can. But there are a lot of people. There are a lot of interactions. And I go up and down the country and talk to staff. They get up every day to come to work to make sure that they get the help for those people.
Before we go to the break, I want to give Carmel Sepuloni a chance to answer to that. $200 million in the kitty that's unclaimed each year from people who are likely entitled to it. Why do you think that is the case?
Sepuloni: It's the culture that's developed in WINZ offices under the National government. So, withholding anything that they are entitled to.
Tolley: Staff don't do that. They don't do that. That's a terrible thing to say.
Sepuloni: They are overstretched in terms of the demand that's on them.
So you actually think that some staff will not offer up what people are entitled to?
Tolley: I think that's terrible.
Sepuloni I think that they are overstretched because there's been—
Tolley: Carmel, those are great staff.
Sepuloni: Oh, come on, Anne Tolley.
Tolley: They are.
Sepuloni: I'm actually talking about the culture that you've set as a Minister of Social Development, and I've seen it from so many people.
Tolley: I've been in and out of offices. Those staff are absolutely dedicated.
Sepuloni: We shouldn't need Auckland Action Against Poverty to run workshops to inform people about what they are entitled to. That information should be provided to people when they go to a WINZ office.
Tolley: Of course it's provided.
We are going to talk more about this, but we'll be back after the break with more from Anne Tolley and Carmel Sepuloni.
Welcome back to The Nation’s welfare debate with Anne Tolley and Carmel Sepuloni. Before we went to the break, Ms Sepuloni said there is a culture problem within your ministry and that she thinks that some people aren’t being offered what they’re entitled to. What’s your response to that?
Tolley: Well, I think that’s a terrible thing to say. Look, I was just in the Paeroa office yesterday, and I’ve been in offices up and down the country, and the staff get up every day and come to work to make sure that they are giving that assistance to people who need it. And so I think it’s a real indictment on the staff. Do they make mistakes from time to time? Yes. Are there people–? It’s a very complicated system.
Are they proactively offering people everything that they’re entitled to?
Tolley: Yes, they do. Well, from what I’ve seen, yes they do, but sometimes– It is a very complicated system, and individual circumstances can be quite difficult and can change quite rapidly.
Okay. If it’s so complicated, why not just simplify it? Why not do what the Greens are suggesting and just raise base benefits by 20%, make it really easy?
Tolley: Because what we’ve found is that that sort of broad brush, where you have a universal service, often doesn’t give the very targeted help to those who are the most vulnerable and are the least likely to take advantage.
Sepuloni: So how does $1.5 million in tax cuts make sense, then? It’s a very broad brush.
Tolley: Because that’s only part of– That’s for those hardworking people who are now earning the average wage, which is lifting, has lifted under this National government as we’ve had a strong economy, and they are now paying close to the top tax bracket. So it’s only fair that they be allowed to keep more of their own money.
Sepuloni: You’re creating two classes of New Zealanders here – the deserving and you’re looking at beneficiaries as if they’re undeserving and they don’t want to work.
Tolley: Let me finish. The Family Incomes Package helps people with the accommodation supplement, which hasn’t been changed since the early days of your government.
We’ve heard about the Families Package. Anne Tolley.
Tolley: Your government never lifted benefits numbers. And Working for Families also gets lifted.
Sepuloni: We actually introduced Working for Families, minister, and that lifted thousands of children out of poverty, and your party voted against it at the time.
All right. I just want to ask you, then – Anne Tolley has dismissed the idea of a base raise in benefits; 20% raise in benefits is what the Greens are saying – would you make things simpler and adopt that?
Sepuloni: We’ve taken on the recommendation from the Expert Advisory Group on solutions for poverty to the children’s commissioner and said we’re going to introduce a universal payment for children from 0 to 1 and then make it targeted,…
So no raising the baseline benefits.
Sepuloni: …lifting Working for Families, lifting the accommodation supplement,…
Tolley: You voted against lifting the benefit. You voted against that.
Sepuloni: …introducing a winter payment.
Tolley: $25 a week.
Sepuloni: 70,000 families will be better off under our families package than what they will under National’s.
Okay. So if you’re adopting recommendations made by the children’s commissioner, the children’s commissioner has raised the fact that maybe benefits should be tagged to medium wage in the same way that super is. Why not do that? If you’re adopting those recommendations of that office, what’s wrong with that one?
Sepuloni: I think that’s something worth looking at, but I can’t say that that’s in our policy going into this election.
You wouldn’t commit to it?
Sepuloni: At this stage, I can’t say it’s in our policy going into the election.
Is it something you’d look at, Anne Tolley?
Tolley: I have already asked MSD to have a look at what effect that would have, because the information that we have–
So at this stage, you’re not ruling that out. You’re investigating more.
Tolley: I’ve always said we look at that wide range of information we have, actually what’s happening in our families, and we are always looking to find ways to assist those at the very bottom.
Okay. I want to move on because we’re running out of time. In a press statement this week, you said that– this is the one about sanctions for young people on job seeker benefits–
Tolley: It isn’t really about sanctions. It’s about looking at a very small group of young people–
You have said in your press statement– I’m sorry, but in your press statement, you say one in five beneficiaries tell us that drug use is a barrier to get a job. How many did you ask?
Tolley: Oh, we did a snapshot.
Okay, how many people did you ask?
Tolley: I don’t know. They went across four offices. But–
Did you ask the people themselves?
Tolley: It’s not a scientific study. Yes, we did. Yes.
You asked the people themselves?
Tolley: So, when you go into a WINZ office–
How do you know one in five if you don’t even know what your sample size is?
Tolley: Well, we did a snapshot. But what they do is when an employer lists a job–
Ms Tolley, this is really important.
Tolley: It is. Let me finish. When an employer puts an ad in with WINZ, they have a whole list of criteria, and one of them is that they have to pass a drug and alcohol test. And young people self-identify whether they will or not.
So you don’t know how many people you asked. You don’t know how many offices it was across.
Tolley: I don’t know. Yes, it was across four offices.
Right, but you have no idea how many people you asked. You don’t know the sample size.
Tolley: So, it was just a snapshot, because what employers are telling us–
Yet you were saying this about this group of people.
Tolley: No, no, no. The policy is actually about a very targeted group of young people between 18 and – this is important – 18 and 25, who are on a benefit for six months, and there’s about 16,000 of them. This is about getting them individual case management so that we look at what are the impediments–
So you didn’t actually have evidence for that statement. So you didn’t actually have evidence for that statement, Mrs Tolley.
Tolley: Yes, we do. Yes, we do have– We have good evidence.
No, you had a snapshot, you said.
Tolley: We have good evidence from about 60% of jobs that require a drug and alcohol–
Sepuloni: Can I add something to this, Lisa?
Tolley: No, can I get the policy out? Because you are misrepresenting the policy. It’s about identifying what are the barriers to young people getting unemployment.
No, I’m discussing what you said about drug users in your press statement.
Tolley: Sometimes it’s work experience. Sometimes it’s qualifications.
Okay. We need to move on, sorry, Mrs Tolley; we’re running out of time.
Tolley: Sometimes it’s recreational drug use. But that’s what the policy is about.
Sepuloni: But can I add–?
Would you ditch sanctions? Would Labour ditch all sanctions? I know you want to ditch the sanction where a beneficiary is docked for not naming the other parent of a child. But what about all the other sanctions? Are you going to get rid of those too?
Sepuloni: The first step is actually rewriting the Social Security Act principles, and one of those that we’re going to put in there, which will have a big impact on the rest of the act, actually, is inserting a principle that requires a child impact lens be put over everything that’s in there. And so if we assess that sanctions are having a negative impact on children, if that assessment is made once we put that principle in the act, then of course that’s something we’re going to have to consider doing. I think that’s fair and reasonable to think about that.
What about sanctions on beneficiaries who don’t have children?
Sepuloni: Well, let’s just– Can we go back to what she said earlier?
No, I just want an answer to that. You’ve been very vocal – Labour’s been very vocal – about sanctions. So are you going to ditch sanctions?
Sepuloni: I think we need to revisit them because, actually, the vast majority of people who have been sanctioned have been sanctioned because they missed an appointment.
So you don’t have a policy on it?
Sepuloni: We need to revisit them. That’s the policy.
Okay, revisiting. Consultation with the committee.
Sepuloni: Yeah, revisiting. Consult and look at them and actually see whether or not they have been working.
Tolley: 95% of people actually comply, so you can never– If you’ve got children, you can never lose more than 50% of your benefit. But 95% of people re-comply within four weeks. So it doesn’t have a huge effect, but what it does do is put some obligations on people. They are being supported by the taxpayer. And, for instance, our sole parents, we ask them to have their children registered in ECE, to get immunised and to keep up with their Well Child checks. I mean, really, that is–
Sepuloni: So often it’s because someone’s missed an appointment or there’s been a breakdown in communication between WINZ offices and the person concerned.
Tolley: And just a phone call or a text, and they’re back on. Simple.
Sepuloni: But losing a benefit for a couple of days can really harm a family that are already living in poverty.
Tolley: That happens only when they haven’t made a phone call or a text.
Sepuloni: I do need to just go back to the drug issue.
We’re out of time, but I do want to ask Ms Tolley one more unrelated question before we leave. An inquiry into the abuse in state care. Now, you’ve said in the past that there’s no need for an inquiry of that nature. I just want to know, if evidence comes to light that staff within those institutions reported sexual abuse of children and then the offenders, the alleged offenders, were simply moved in the system rather than sacked, would you think that was sufficient to warrant an inquiry?
Tolley: Well, I certainly think that it’s sufficient to do some investigation into, but does it warrant a full public commission of inquiry?
What do you mean by investigation?
Tolley: Well, I’d like to know the details of how that happened. The difficulty is–
So you give a commitment that you, as minister, would look into it more closely if it came up, if there was evidence that staff had been shifted around?
Tolley: Absolutely. That would be horrendous to know that that happened – that the Ministry was aware of abuse happening and looked to cover it up.
All right. Thank you both for joining me this morning.
Transcript provided by Able.

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