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Diagnosis Not Good Under Labour

Diagnosis Not Good Under Labour

Weekly Column By Dr Muriel Newman

Sickness Benefit figures, released to me last week by the Social Development Ministry, appear to indicate that New Zealand is becoming a sicker society.

Strangely, despite improving healthcare and increased health spending, the number of sickness beneficiaries has increased 17 per cent over the past two years, to almost 39,000

This rise in the number of sickness beneficiaries has largely been driven by Labour’s policy changes. After Labour’s 1999 election to Government, the Beneficiary Unions presented them with more than 100 demands for social welfare system changes. High on their list of priorities were the scrapping of work for the dole, removing work testing of the Domestic Purposes Benefit, and re-establishing the Sickness Benefit as a stand-alone benefit.

The Labour Government willingly complied with those demands: work for the dole has been scrapped and work testing of the DPB removed.

However, history shows that the rise in the number of sickness beneficiaries is a direct result of the Sickness Benefit’s re-establishment as a stand-alone benefit. Numbers on the Sickness Benefit climbed relentlessly over the years, and successive governments have voiced their concerns that – whether it were sore backs, RSI or stress – the number of people receiving a benefit, because they are too sick to work, has inexorably increased.

Concerned about such rapid growth, the previous national Government attempted to encourage beneficiaries back into the workforce, by including the Sickness Benefit in the newly-created Community Wage. As a result, case managers at the work-focussed WINZ one-stop shop conveyed an expectation to sickness beneficiaries that – one day – they would again be well enough to work.

The worked-focussed strategy proved successful: between 1998 and 2001, for the first time ever, the number of people on a Sickness Benefit fell from 36,000 to 31,000. By reinforcing the fact that the Sickness Benefit provides temporary support until people recover – and that they are expected to recover, or be transferred to the Invalids Benefit – the number of people moving back into work exceeded the numbers falling sick.

The Labour Government inherited this decline in Sickness Benefit numbers in 1999. However, since the trend was not consistent with their long-term goal of expanding the welfare state – nor with their strategy of implementing the Beneficiary Union demand for a stand-alone benefit – Labour changed back to the failed system of old.

Apart from the growth in Sickness Benefit numbers – and the fact that thousands of people have been on this ‘temporary’ benefit for more than 10 years – many people remain concerned about the high number of sickness beneficiaries who appear too sick to work, yet fit enough to commit crimes.

The Court pages of any daily newspaper will show that sickness beneficiaries commit a large proportion of burglaries, assaults and similar crimes. The Department of Corrections census of prison inmates shows that, of the more than 2,000 offenders who committed crimes serious enough to result in a prison sentence, almost 25 percent were receiving a Sickness or Invalid Benefit when they committed their crime.

These people – who claim to be sick but clearly are not – are not only ripping taxpayers off, but giving the Sickness Benefit a bad name. Taxpayers deserve to know that those on the Sickness Benefit are genuinely sick, that those whose conditions are permanent are moved onto the Invalids Benefit, and that those who claim to be sick – to avoid the need to find a job – will be ousted.

The sooner the stand-alone Sickness Benefit is returned into a work-tested regime – so the needs of taxpayers and the genuinely sick are given priority – the better. Further, it is Long past time that capacity testing was introduced, so that those who are well enough to contribute in some manner are encouraged to do so.

Our social welfare system exists to provide a safety net for those in need: welfare for those who cannot support themselves and a hand-up to work, independence and a better future for those who can. Putting safeguards in place, to ensure the system is treated and used fairly with minimal opportunity for abuse, is surely a core role of Government.

The escalation in Sickness Benefit numbers show that Labour is clearly failing in this regard.

Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.
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