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Act flogging wrong party on benefit debt - again

Act flogging the wrong party on benefit debt, again

Revelations that debt repayments by the current top five sickness beneficiaries in the country stretched into decades had little to do with the current Government, Associate Minister of Social Services and Employment Rick Barker said.

“The debts in question were discovered between 1997 and 2001 and cover a period going back about 20 years.

“In 1999 the Ministry of Social Development introduced new early intervention programmes to prevent people getting caught up in a cycle of benefit debt, which clearly under the previous National Government these cases mushroomed in.

“Although some time has passed since these debts were first incurred, Work and Income is absolutely committed to recovering the debt. Responses to recent Parliamentary Questions on this issue show that four out of the five cases highlighted have been prosecuted.

“In assessing a client’s ability to repay debt, Work and Income initially looks to sell any assets they have to meet that debt. However, this is often not possible so the department is left to deal with the client in their current financial position.

“As far as I am concerned, if a client is prosecuted for benefit debt and ordered to repay Work and Income a regular amount of money then that’s a good thing. It shows this Government is taking a strong line on benefit debt.

“And Work and Income has certainly tightened the noose on benefit debt, a fact cemented by a 300 per cent increase in prosecutions of this kind in recent years.

“In 1996-1997, 534 people were prosecuted for benefit fraud but by 2001-2002 prosecutions climbed to 1987.

“Clearly, the cases highlighted represent the highest range of benefit debt but they do not represent the rule. The Government is taking a tough stance on all types of benefit fraud and that is something even Act cannot ignore.

“Increased prosecutions coupled with early intervention programmes have also seen both the amount of fraud detected and average size of individual fraud overpayments decrease.

“In 1999 the Ministry detected just over 13,000 cases of fraud compared to 10,000 last year, while the average amount of individual overpayments fell by nearly $6000 per case to $4,500. “To suggest the Government is sitting on its hands at the expense of the taxpayer while benefit debt continues is clearly incorrect.

“The Government actively monitors beneficiary payments to ensure they are being paid correctly and legitimately and is assiduous in following up where it has reason to believe that there has been benefit fraud.

“The problem faced by Work and Income rests with individual clients who choose to lie about their circumstances to gain a benefit they would not normally be entitled to.

“Fabrication in order to gain a benefit is unlawful and this Government will continue to prosecute those who break the law, however long that takes.”

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