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Unreasonable Demands

The headline in the Manawatu Evening Standard article on Tuesday is that "Campaigner's Demands Unreasonable, says MP"

That is really interesting coming from the Minister in charge of the Department.

What I was asking for was that two specific matters be addressed ( correct benefit entitlements awarded and appropriate behaviour to claimants) and the department's progress on them monitored and reported on.

Neither matter is new or exceptional, both are specified in the Department's own Charter which was released some time ago and one in the Minister's contract with the Chief Executive. To many people the Charter is a sick joke.

As for reporting, I asked for progress to be reported monthly - I was prepared to put the Name and Shame campaign on hold for 4 weeks to give the Department a reasonable chance to show that action was being taken. (I didn't ask for three reports as he claims, just one.)

Once again, he ignored the issue of non-respectful and judgemental behaviour.

The frequency of reporting is really interesting. The department had a national inter-office competition for some time soon after it was reconfigured in the business (factory line production ) mode. Performance figures for every office in the country were produced each week and circulated nationally so that each office could see where they figured in the performance (throughput) stakes.

Both the numbers being awarded Special Benefit and those being warned about inappropriate behaviour are very low if they exist at all especially with regard to correcting behaviour, in almost all offices in the country. It would therefore be a very simple matter to compile and report the two statistics.We need them office by office to know exactly what is going on.

The Special Benefit figures speak for themselves: only 7 get it from the Feilding Office (out of 432 estimated to qualify), 23 from the Palmerston North Main St office (out of 1070) and 4 at Waipukurau (out of 133). As numbers they should not be difficult for anyone to record.,

As percentages, 1.6%, 2.6% & 3% resp, they do not meet any acceptable standard of performance. They are appalling.

But the fascinating thing is that in another part of the same region, under the control of the same Regional Commissioner, Kapiti has the highest rate in the country at 55.9% (540 out of 966).

These figures apply to last August. But the picture they show has been around for some time, getting steadily worse in fact and the Minister and the Departmental staff are well aware of this. This worsening has not changed with the new government. Perhaps PSA Shennan ( a staunch a Labour Party supporter) could explain why? He can't blame that on the previous government unless this government has been unable to undo what was done then.

That I consider is the real reason that the Minister considers the campaign demands unreasonable because it shows that he (the emperor) has no clothes and he has been unable to get the department to make him any. The figures and the steady stream of real horror stories that go with them spell out the real story in place of his and similar pronouncements at all levels of the department, generally by spin (PR) doctors that all is well. The increasing number of advocacy groups and the establishment of their national network also testify to this.

The Department (current and predecessors) for years has ignored High Court rulings that it is up to it to inform claimants of their entitlements and only recently decided not to appeal the latest such decision. The Minister (current) for some reason denied that he knew the Department was planning to appeal when in fact he did know and had been warned that the issue would be raised at the last national Foodbank conference where he demonstrated so clearly his inability to bring the department into line with both his statements and those of the courts.

The department has around 5000 staff, many are specialists. It should not be up to resource starved community groups to do the departments job for it and insist it does what its Charter says and the Minister - CEO contract requires.

I am accused of putting staff at risk. They are at risk because of the climate of anger, frustration and fear that appalling staff decisions and attitudes over the years has generated. Everywhere one goes the same stories are heard time after time. While there are some very good staff and good managers, the figures and horror stories speak for themselves - from old and young, long terms beneficiaries and first time applicants.

We are driven to this approach by the deep seated and intransigent attitude of the Department and the inability of those in positions of responsibility to produce change in acceptable time frames.

Reasonable approaches have been well and truly tried: over the last 10 years by the City Council's Low Income Sub-Committee and the Mayor and Council staff, and over the last three years by the Poverty Action Group which carried on the spirit of the Hikoi of Hope in our city.

When I was asked by he Minister to name names I was must unwilling, as that enables them to be scapegoated (even if their behaviour deserves addressing) and lets the Minister and the rest of the Department off the hook. There are major system issues to be deal with from Head Office down to the local office; staff at all levels who keep the culture intact. I eventually specified the receptionists as I had already done so on air. But they and the misery and distress their decisions and attitudes cause are only the tip of the iceberg as one worker in a Palmerston North social service agency so accurately described to me.

If the Minister has given up and is unable to meet the eminently reasonable requests, I sincerely hope the Chief Executive has not.

I look forward to meeting him tomorrow.

The two requirements: The first is that - that people are getting their entitlements, the measure will be the most readily quantifiable - the number receiving Special Benefit increase dramatically. Secondly, the terms of the Department's Charter be implemented, particularly that claimants are treated with respect and in a non-judgemental way and that breaches of these be the subject of firstly a verbal warning followed by a written warning leading to dismissal if the behaviour is not rectified. (In at least one instance, a case manager who had numerous complaints made against her on these grounds was promoted and not dismissed. Such practices are totally unacceptable.)


Ian Ritchie
Spokesperson, Palmerston North Poverty Action Group
Feilding R D 7
ph/fax 06 3289 618 h
06 354 3804 w

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