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Speech: Rich - Beyond welfare dependency


Speech: Rich - Beyond welfare dependency

A speech by National Party Social Services spokeswoman Katherine Rich to the 2004 National Party Annual Conference.

Beyond welfare dependency

Delegates, I have nothing against hip-hop, I promise you.

Nor do I have anything fundamentally against the promotion of gay sport or macadamia nuts. Nor stilt walking, genealogy studies, pacific karaoke or craft trips to Melbourne.

But I do start to wonder when the taxpayer is asked to fork out for them.

What do these things have in common? - They have all been the lucky recipients of extraordinary taxpayer funding.

A few months back, when I started leafing through the hundreds of grants made by the so-called 'social entrepreneur fund' I could barely believe my eyes.

Hip-hop tours? Really? Is this a good reason for taking tax from hard-working Kiwis?

Not only did I find out that the taxpayer had coughed up more than $25,000 for a mother and daughter to "do a whole lot of travelling for hip-hop", but also that you and I - the taxpayer - were generous enough to give them extra time "chilling out" in Hawaii, Paris and Fiji. In all, that trip was 70 days long.

Now wasn't that nice of us all?

Steve Maharey said the people involved in the scheme were "community champions". He said the fund they were drawing from would promote '"stunning examples of human innovation".

Some of these projects are stunning examples all right, but not of those things.

National is asking fundamental questions about the state of our nation - questions that this Labour Government is too afraid to ask.

National is not afraid to talk about the issues that are deeply disturbing Kiwis. We are not afraid of shaking out the PC nonsense.

Do we want a country with one law for all, regardless of race?

Do we want a country where those who do the crime do the time? And do we want a country with a strong economy and a high standard of living?

Do we want a country where our young get a quality education, and do we want a country where welfare is the safety net - not a life sentence?

It is this last subject that I will speak on today.

Here are the hard numbers.

-There are now more than 300,000 people receiving a benefit and we spend nearly $1 million each hour on the welfare system.

-We are now spending nearly as much on the DPB as we did on the dole when unemployment was at its peak a decade ago.

-The number on the DPB has increased from 17,000 in 1975 to about 109,000 today.

-The number of people on sickness and invalids' benefits has grown explosively - from 14,000 in 1940 to more than 115,000 today. 30,000 have joined this queue since Labour took office. And this in a country which we all think has one of the world's most healthy environments.

According to the Ministry of Social Development, one in seven working-age New Zealanders are on a benefit, and Maori are significantly over-represented, at 30% of the working-age people on a benefit.

For very good reasons, welfare is being identified as a major challenge for Don Brash and National when we become the next Government.

It doesn't matter whether you speak to people from the right or the left of the political spectrum.

Everyone agrees that the way welfare is provided in New Zealand is in many cases hurting more than it helps.

We need to build a better welfare system for this country.

We need a genuine safety net, not one that creates inter-generational welfare dependency.

In too many of our communities, welfare has become a life sentence.

New Zealand's welfare system now is a far cry from that begun in 1898 when it was established primarily as an old age pension.

Over the years since, there have been many changes, but never was welfare intended to be anything more than a temporary stop-gap for those in need.

And haven't things changed: in 1950 there were only 12 people on the dole.

Dramatic increases in welfare numbers can be explained by many factors - but none so great as those brought about as a result of the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security.

The single most influential factor was the establishment of the Domestic Purposes Benefit which aimed to assist abandoned women.

Promoters of the DPB predicted that the number needing assistance would never be more than 20,000, including widows.

At present more than 109,000 men and women receive the DPB - and that doesn't include widows.

But the welfare numbers don't stop there.

One in four Kiwi kids live in welfare-dependent homes.

When it comes to making the lives of those children better, we know welfare reform is only part of the solution. We know that we need to break the cycle and start changing lives for good.

But to break the welfare cycle, I believe we have to target the roots - those children.

If we can get the parents into some activity - training or retraining - where they can earn, and be seen to earn, their welfare cheque, then children will see that their parents are constructively engaged in the community and not marginalised by it.

If we can do that then we also give ourselves a better chance of addressing another one of our major societal problems - crime.

One of New Zealand's few longitudinal studies found that sole parenthood is the strongest predictor at birth for a range of problem behaviours exhibited by teenagers.

Most mothers do a great job in difficult circumstances, but when we have young mothers not well educated and perhaps themselves from welfare dependent families, then we have a real recipe for disaster.

If we can break the welfare cycle we will go a long way to nipping youth crime - often the first step in a life of crime - in the bud.

Our views, though, aren't shared by the present Government. The recent Budget is a perfect example of how Labour is prepared to force more working families into state dependence.

Labour obviously believes that the more beneficiaries it creates, the bigger its pool of potential voters.

Why else would Labour have removed the work-test for those on the DPB?

Why else would they have cracked down on unemployment in areas where the unemployed don't live?

Labour is soft on welfare and we are all paying the price for it.

Labour is guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

We're paying for it in higher taxes, we're paying for it with the extra demands on health and education, and we're paying for it with our crime problem.

Without doubt the welfare trap is one of our biggest enemies - and one of our greatest hurdles.

It damages people's lives by killing initiative, energy and potential. And official figures say it is only going to get worse.

Treasury says many more of our young are destined to join those not working - and Labour says that's okay.

Well it's not okay. I don't think it's okay - the New Zealand public don't think it's okay - and, believe it or not, most of those depending on the state for an income don't think it's okay.

"A life spent on welfare is no life at all". That's not my comment, but one from one of my constituents who has spent a fair chunk of his life on welfare.

I get to see the human face of poverty regularly through constituency work.

Coming from one of the poorest electorates in New Zealand I have met a lot of people who just want an opportunity, a little motivation or training to restore their sense of 'community' and of belonging.

Leaving large numbers of Kiwis at home to stare at a wall isn't caring, as Labour would have you believe. It's the cruelty of indifference.

Despite what critics say, getting more people back into the community and contributing to our society is not being punitive.

There is really only one ticket out of poverty - and it's not the one drawn on telly on a Saturday night. There is really only one ticket out of poverty and that ticket is regular - rewarding - work.

For those who refuse, or for those who think the benefit is a right - rather than a privilege - we need to send a strong message to them that National imagines better things for our community.

We need to strike a workable balance between conservatism and compassion. If we do that it will make a difference to tens of thousands - if not hundreds of thousands -of lives.

Some of our critics will argue otherwise - that balance between conservatism and compassion is a core National Party principle that underpins our policies.

In 1967 Rob Muldoon said, and I quote:

"The welfare state, in my view...in its best form is a good thing and it will be retained, with the idea of putting a floor under people - not a ceiling above which they can't rise - a floor under the population."

A floor for support but not a ceiling to limit future growth - that's in stark contrast to what Labour is saying.

Unlike Labour, National doesn't believe that making more middle-class Kiwi families dependent on the state is something to crow about.

For many families Michael Joseph Savage's safety net has now become a drift net for intergenerational dependence.

It wasn't so long ago that a man like my grandfather, a lamb-buyer for a freezing works, was completely, utterly - and proudly - independent.

He supported a wife and three kids.

In 2004, under Labour, he would be automatically classified as poor.

He would be expected to gratefully accept a handout and be given the message that he didn't need to work any harder - because the state would make sure it wasn't worth his while even if he did.

He was fiercely proud of his independence. And, like many Kiwis, he would have been appalled at the thought of becoming a Work and Income client just to survive.

It seems to me that Labour is more interested in making the welfare portfolio an academic subject rather than something that improves the lives of those within the system.

We need to get back to some basics.

We need to talk plainly about the problems we face as a country and stop disguising complex welfare problems with euphemisms.

The new-age Labour lingo might look impressive in a university textbook but it bears little reality to some of the lives welfare purports to assist.

New Zealanders don't want to talk about job seeker agreements, capacity building exercises or interconnectedness.

They want to talk about jobs, training, and how they can get the government out of their lives.

They want to talk about commonsense solutions that involve getting people back to work.

They want Work and Income staff to be free to ask the basic questions about why someone is not independent and what it will take to get them there.

Earlier in the year my office took a case to the WINZ benefit review board and we had a rare win.

To cut a long story short it turned out that my constituent couldn't read.

This is a young, able-bodied man with loads of working potential, who'd spent three years on the dole.

Three years on the dole and no one had noticed something as fundamental as the fact that he couldn't read!

Perhaps no one cared as they wrote out another cheque and sent him on his way.

It's little wonder that employers have less and less faith in the services provided by these ballooning government bureaucracies.

When we took on this man's case, my agent asked why no one had ever asked him whether he could read and was told by departmental officials that (quote) -'we aren't allowed to ask that question'.

It's hard to believe isn't it?

Not being able to read is a pretty major barrier to finding and keeping a job - I am told that Work and Income isn't allowed to ask for fear of hurting someone's feelings.

National is committed to getting our welfare system back on track.

For those who are able-bodied, we want a return to the basics of working or doing some kind of training in return for welfare support.

The PC Brigade can protest all they like but the fact remains that work for the dole worked.

In Australia right now, a successful work for the dole scheme is in place.

It has helped cut unemployment and the community has seen benefits from the range of work being undertaken by those who are now contributing to the towns and cities that they live in.

Most people would think that might be something worth exploring.

You'd think that if it's working then the least we could do is take a look. You'd think that since we're right next-door, taking a look over the fence wouldn't be too much to ask.

The simple fact is that our bureaucrats haven't bothered because the Minister simply isn't interested.

Hundreds of analysts and policy wonks and no one has looked closely at the Australian work for the dole scheme.

Hundreds of analysts and policy wonks and no one has seriously looked at the United States welfare reforms either.

Why are we refusing to learn from other countries and cherry pick their best ideas?

Labour's blinkered ideology, that's why.

Regardless of your ideological leaning, policy-makers should be looking at new solutions to see if they can work here.

But instead, New Zealanders who rely on a benefit to survive are being written off by a Minister who refuses to accept anything but his own narrow ideologically blinkered view of the world.

The soft bigotry of low expectations.

That's a world where the poor are on a benefit - and everybody else pays for it. That's a world where the poor are on a benefit - and this Government keeps them there.

So, let's be brave and do what the Minister won't - actually discuss the Australian model.

It has been in place across the Tasman since 1997 and since then it has helped nearly 300,000 Australians. Last year alone, about 55,000 took part in the scheme.

There, unemployed people who do not begin a mutual obligation activity within six weeks of being required to do so are referred to work for the dole.

Job seekers 18-years-old or more who get income support for six months have to take part in the scheme.

I see a New Zealand work for the dole scheme operating along lines very similar to that - although we are not planning to make policy announcements until later in the year.

National is also committed to reintroducing work tests on some benefits.

There is no doubt in my mind that greater work testing must be reintroduced.

Tougher work testing requirements introduced by National in 1999 lasted only a year before the Labour Government tossed them out. That was against all overseas advice and contrary evidence showing they are a crucial ingredient of an effective welfare package.

National believes they should form part of our plan for a comprehensive attack on welfare dependency.

Let me repeat: the state will always provide some sort of social assistance. No one in this country will be left without any support - but we do think those who receive money from the state should be expected to give other Kiwis something genuine in return.

Government intervention into people's lives should not be taken lightly, but when some of us need support, there is an opportunity, if not an obligation, to use that intervention for long-term gain.

Those opportunities are many. Training, work experience, pre-school education choices, immunisation, pursuing child maintenance, even parenting courses.

There are also opportunities with regard to truancy, which remains a big problem in New Zealand. If there is an opportunity to ensure that a greater number of children get the education they need, then the welfare system may be another way of encouraging attendance.

Because education is one of the best tickets out of poverty that a child can get, it makes sense to link educational attendance to welfare eligibility for parents. Then that constituent of mine might not have had his life blighted by not being able to read.

But of course we all know the real ticket out of welfare dependency is work - any kind of work.

A job leads to another job that may lead to a career. Work restores pride and a work ethic that welfare dependency can destroy.

A Living Standards Study by the Ministry of Social Development indicated that of two people on the same income, one working and the other on welfare, the person in work had a higher standard of living.

National will promote a work-first culture within the social and employment agencies.

We will ensure that Work and Income NZ promotes a work-first culture, so when an unemployed person fronts at Work and Income, the first discussion will be about job opportunities and not about which benefit is the most suitable for their circumstances.

The Ministry of Social Development estimates that case managers spend only 30% of their time trying to put beneficiaries into work. The other 70% of the time the case managers are not actually moving anyone forward, they are doing what they call "administering income support", with a lot of that time spent administering discretionary hardship assistance".

We will put emphasis on job placement assistance and on-the-job-training.

National will also examine the possibility of contracting out employment services to those who will earn their money by the number of people they place in jobs.

In Australia, contracting services to private sector and community groups is proving successful, with fees paid according to assessed placement difficulty, and contract renewal dependent on job placement rates.

None of this is and never will be a simple cost-cutting exercise. Far from it.

The restructuring needed is sensitive and complex and will sometimes cost more than maintaining the status quo.

But National is the only party that can make and implement the difficult welfare decisions that have to be made for the good of this country and its people.

It is my view that an ideal welfare system offers:

* A genuine safety net for those who need it.

* Temporary support for able-bodied people while they get back on to their feet, not a lifestyle choice.

* A support network which asks the tough questions about why someone is not working, not simply a transfer of cash.

* Encouragement to return to work, to achieve for them and their families, and to instil confidence that people can depend on themselves.

* Reciprocal obligations. * Certainty and fairness.

Have no doubt whatsoever that the basics of New Zealand's welfare system will not change under a National Government. There will always be a genuine safety net for those in need.

I accept that there will always be those who will never work, with the best will in the world, because of a mental or physical disability. For those people there will always be a safety net.

But for others, there will be changes because there must be changes.

We are looking at a range of measures which include:

* Implementing work for the dole.

* Reintroducing work-test requirements for some benefits.

* Bring back a "work first" approach by the Ministry of Social Development.

* Make sure all liable parents support their children. * Improve the collection of child support.

Let's be clear, what we are proposing does not amount to cost cutting - but equally, we will not be wasting money on hip-hop tours and stilt walking.

In fact, I do not see welfare as a cost. I see it as an investment.

An investment in our people and an investment in our collective futures.

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