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Winz Accused Of Abusing Power


Winz Accused Of Abusing Power

Work and Income are routinely abusing their power, says the Poor Peoples Embassy.

Staff are suspending the benefits of clients they have run-ins with. Usually no explanation is given in writing. This has been happening for years and seems to be widespread.

Beneficiaries, who are already struggling, are often left without income for up to six weeks or even an indefinite period. Well-off people may have no trouble covering this unofficial "stand-down", but there is no way the country’s poorest citizens can survive for this long, believes the Embassy. No wonder beneficiaries have one of the highest suicide rates of any group in New Zealand.

In one case, an unemployed beneficiary, Ewen Coker, had laid a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner against WINZ open-plan office layout. From the public reception area he had overheard a staff member discuss the details of a woman going into hospital. The Commission office handed the complaint over to WINZ to deal with, citing it had a twelve-month waiting list. (In a newsletter at the time the Commission bragged how a friend of a staff member got action on a complaint the same afternoon.)

In turn, WINZ demanded Mr Coker meet with them or face his benefit being stopped. When he appeared WINZ staff refused to tell him the reason for the meeting, an argument broke out and he was arrested, charged with trespass and subsequently convicted. Also his benefit was stopped although no reason was ever given.

After serving his sentence, Mr Coker then shifted to another district to start anew.

When WINZ staff member, Lois Walton, of this district’s office heard of the incident she also demanded he discuss it with her or face suspension. Ms Walton continued to make similar phone calls until Mr Coker said he would lay a complaint with Telecom over her "nuisance" calls.

After that another staff member, Des McGrath, began writing letters threatening to stop Mr Coker’s benefit if he did not come into the office and meet with him.

In letters Mr Coker explained he lived 25 kilometres away and having no other available transport was faced with taxi fares of around $80 to attend and requested assistance. He even suggested Mr McGrath come out to his place instead. On several occasions he also requested under the Official Information Act the specific reason for the meetings. All these requests were ignored apart from Mr McGrath pointing out that he had the right to call in clients under a ‘Work Test Agreement’. Earlier Mr Coker had been coerced to sign this so-called "agreement" under duress or be denied State assistance.

Mr Coker’s benefit was eventually stopped in late February although he has not received any official reason why from WINZ.

Mr Coker is currently living mainly on flour and rice. He doesn’t know how he is going to survive when his food runs out in a couple of weeks.

All this has left him stressful, unable to sleep properly at night, and he now finds it very difficult to do even everyday tasks. Although not wishing to die Mr Coker seems to have lost the will to live as he sees no end to this abuse.

Over the years the Poor Peoples Embassy has heard of similar cases of WINZ staff abusing their power over clients. It appears rampant, especially since the previous Government’s public attacks against welfare beneficiaries.

A few years ago community groups in Christchurch met with local WINZ bosses over this abuse. WINZ banned the media from attending, instead a departmental media officer released a statement she had written.

The Embassy calls on the current Minister of Social Development, Steve Maharey, to end this culture of abuse including the use of "spin doctors" to hoodwink the public on what is really happening.

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