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Lisa Owen interviews Paula Bennett

Lisa Owen interviews Social Development Minister Paula Bennett

Headlines:

Paula Bennett says Government won’t raise benefit levels, disagrees with Children’s Commissioner that current levels do not allow children to participate in society.

“If I honestly thought that putting an extra 20-dollars or 50-dollars a week would see these children substantially better off I would be advocating for it.”

Says 50% of those on sole parent benefit don’t go for extra hardship assistance, which is easily obtained.

Defends rejecting official advice to include beneficiaries in Budget package to help families with newborn babies

Denies New Zealand has a rape culture after saying this week New Zealanders need to change the way they respect each other in order to abolish our rape culture

“I wouldn’t say that we’ve got a rape culture or a sexual violence culture in New Zealand. Actually most men and most women do not and would not condone any sort of behaviour like that.”

Says NZ has high incidence of reporting sexual violence, “so actually some of those that are being reported are incidences that haven’t even led to violence.”

Says her male National colleagues were concerned about the woman at the centre of the Malaysian diplomat case and didn’t trivialise her concerns.


Lisa Owen: So the Household Income Report showed that there was a 3-percent decrease in the number of children living in poverty, but that still means that there’s about 230-thousand kids who are living in poverty. Why are there still so many?

Paula Bennett: Well because we’ve come through a global financial crisis we have seen women in particular on benefits moving into work and we have certainly had a focus on sole parents and helping them realise what they can do with children. But there’s no doubt about it, it’s a pretty hard life on benefit, even with all the extras that we put in to help those children. But I think we’re making strides in the right direction.

But that’s a 20 year old figure and people like Jonathan Boston say that eradicating poverty is a political choice. Is it just that you’re not making a big enough political choice? A billion dollars, an extra billion dollars a year he said will make an enormous dent in this.

I don’t think it’s throwing more money at it across the board if you like. We need to target. We need to actually make sure that those children are in school, that they’re learning, that they’ve got the means to do that so that they’re not going to be in poverty when they become adults. I think it’s about helping people into work. We are really tackling that long term welfare dependency and that is where I think we see the greatest gains. So we’re not scared to spend more money.

On that point, a lot of international research suggests that actually more money is the solution, that is has better health outcomes and that it is more education for kids in poverty and that in turn raises their lot in life so money does help.

Yip and I agree. So that’s why we support people into work. We actually spend more now on the supports up front to help people into work than we ever have. So another hundred million just in this budget year alone, we spent another 500-milllion over the last three years and that money all going into getting the right supports and the right time so that we can help people into work which means higher incomes and better every way for them and their children.

But in the meantime are you saying that those kids who by poverty measure don’t have a decent meal every two days, and man that’s not a big ask, they don’t have a waterproof raincoat, they don’t have two pairs of decent shoes, until their parents get a job, is it ok for them to just be left in that situation, having to wait?

Well we on average, a sole parent with one child living in Auckland gets about 560 dollars a week. So that’s the average. A lot get a lot more than that, not many get below that to be quite frank so that’s kind of the minimum that you see happening for a sole parent. So we believe we do provide the base, we also provide for hardship assistance, we spend about 240-million dollars a year on that, we’ve got social workers in all decile 1 to 3 schools, we provide breakfast for every school that wants it. We are doing our bit at the bottom.

But when you talk about those benefit levels, the Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills he says that benefits have not gone up in real terms in a generation since the ‘mother of all budgets’. And he says it’s time for you to raise benefit levels. What’s your response to that?

Well my response is that to make the long term gains that are most important for what is often a very complex set of issues that have led people to be in this situation. It is not going to be throwing more money at those on welfare, it is going to be supporting them into work, while they on benefit giving those base supports that I think we’re very responsible as a country in that we care enough that we do it. But I don’t think more money.

But he doesn’t regard that as throwing more money at the problem. His point is that this is not just about feeding a child, it’s about allowing them to participate in society and benefit levels at the rate they are now does not allow that.

Well I disagree.

So I ask again, is it not time to raise the benefits?

Well 50-percent those on sole parent never go for extra hardship assistance even though it is there for them and it is there for them to easily obtain so they can actually get it via the telephone. So actually a lot are surviving on welfare and doing alright. There are some that are not and as I said it’s usually a set of complex issues that are in the household that we’re prepared to tackle and spend more money on but I don’t, if I honestly thought that putting an extra 20-dollars or 50-dollars a week would see these children substantially better off I would be advocating for it.

What about the kids, the hundred and thirty odd thousand who are in severe poverty, do they need more money?

Well this is the, that’s where you’re getting to the heart of it. So there is not one easy solution for them. It takes targeted support. It takes actually putting the right measures around. It’s the support we give in schools as well as into the home. It’s making sure those parents have dealt with, what often they’ve got it is mental health issues; there’s drug and alcohol issues, often in these households. And unless we’re prepared to tackle the really complex stuff and target our support then we’re just going to see it continuing to be intergenerational. We’re prepared to do that and we’re prepared to spend money there as you can see through children’s teams, as you can see through different health initiatives.

But in saying that, it’s part of the issue, do you feel slightly hamstrung I suppose in that you don’t want to get ahead of voters, that this might be unpopular, to up benefit levels, to spend a billion dollars and really knock this problem on the head?

No I don’t. I think that we have some real concern, particularly for those that are on welfare or are on low incomes with children under the age of five. And as I say we are prepared to actually spend money there but it is targeted and it’s around actually getting in and solving some of those very complex problems that are happening in the household.

So Jonathan Boston, well respected researcher, he’s done a book, a definitive book on child poverty in New Zealand. Is he wrong when he says a billion dollars a year could really solve this problem?

No. And we’ve actually picked up quite a few of his initiatives and those through the expert advisory group that the Children’s Commission put in place. I agree that debt is a real problem for those on low incomes, so we’ve got a micro-finance scheme that we’ve introduced. We sort of heard that kids need to be fed in schools so we put another 9.5-million dollars just into KidsCan which provide raincoats and shoes to help with that lower end.

Ok so you are listening but what about the big ticket items, because you mention Russell Wills there and his advisory group. His statutory role is to keep a check on you and what you are doing and tell you what he thinks is needed. And he says raising benefits is needed, absolutely. He says it’s scandalous.

Well I think that we provide a base support. I think there’s a whole lot of additional income that they can gather via hardship assistance, via the accommodation supplement. We put 1.2-billion into that a year alone, where we provide extra assistance to those that are struggling and that are on lower incomes or on benefit. So we have maintained them and we’re not scared to spend money where we really think it needs to be. But I don’t want to see them long term on welfare.

Ok but wages have gone up about 25-percent in that same time that benefits in real terms have not increased. Nobody is saying that there shouldn’t be a gap as an incentive to get people back into the workplace. But that ain’t a gap, that’s an abyss.

Yeah, look as I say I think that we have a base welfare system that actually provides for all the necessities, we give extra assistance for accommodation and hardship and everything else. And it’s not on our agenda at this stage to increase benefits but we do see the merits…

So you’re ignoring his advice or recommendation

Oh I’m just disagreeing with it. So it’s not ignoring. But we have a choice. You know we listen to people who give us advice and there’s a whole myriad of it so I could probably sit here and give you another report that says it’s a disincentive for people to get into work if we raise benefits too much.

Well you talk about targeted assistance; we know that the government had advice from Treasury that looked at initiatives that would support the children of beneficiaries for this Budget and that Treasury said that those were the most vulnerable children. In the end you excluded the children of the unemployed in your families’ package. Why did you decide to do that?

Because when we looked at weighing up paid parental leave against the sole parent support, actually those on the sole parent support get more weekly than you could get on the maximum paid parental leave. So we thought actually we are covering those that are having babies on benefit by providing them sole parent support which is more than paid parental leave maximum.

But 50-percent of families don’t qualify for paid parental leave.

No and so for those they can get the parental tax credit. Or for those that are sole parents they can actually get assistance through welfare. There are those on lower incomes who also get access to the accommodation supplement.

So do you actually think that was a fair decision for the children of beneficiaries?

Absolutely. Absolutely. No I stand by it. At the end of the day we provide literally million and millions of dollars a week in assistance to those that are on welfare and are unable to work. But I am unashamed that we’ve put a focus on putting more support in earlier, which we are doing. 8,800 sole parents have come off benefit just in the last year. The number of sole parents on welfare hasn’t been this low since 1988. That’s pretty remarkable.

But in saying that you put a lot more, you say you’re putting in resources early on but we have a really good system for looking after older people here. Only 3-percent of our older people are living in poverty whereas about 20-24 percent of children. That’s because you give a universal benefit to older people, it’s called super, and that is tagged to wages so in real terms it increases. Why can’t you do that for kids?

Well it would be billions of dollars more if we were to do that for those on welfare. We think that we have.

A billion. A billion a year would make a dent says Jonathan Boston.

Well that’s a lot of money. You know, that is really a lot of money. And you need to look at those incentives that go for those that we are trying to get into work. So actually we don’t want the welfare system to be a lifestyle choice. And I don’t actually think that people should be having multiple children while on benefit because it’s not good for them and it’s not good for their children. So where we can we will not be putting those incentives in place which can mean more money. What we will do though is spend more on those that are on welfare to support them so that they can get into jobs.

As you would know 1 in 3 Maori and Pasifika children are in poverty, 1 in 6 Pakeha or European kids. Would this problem be closer to being solved if those statistics were reversed?

What do you mean by that sorry?

Well if there more white children living in poverty.

Oh definitely not. Gosh the focus that goes on our Maori and Pacific kids is huge. We’re seeing more in early childhood education. The health initiatives that are going in are going to those very children. We see ourselves needing to focus on them. It’s Whanau Ora that’s getting in earlier. Our children’s teams have a massive focus on Maori and Pacific children. No I don’t think that at all.

Ok, in the time we’ve got left I want to turn to your role as the lead minister for sexual violence services. Do you think that we have a rape and sexual violence culture in New Zealand?

I wouldn’t say that we’ve got a rape culture or a sexual violence culture in New Zealand. Actually most men and most women do not and would not condone any sort of behaviour like that. We have got a few people that have got disgusting and abhorrent behaviours that we need to address and stand up and say that we will take a stand on and hold them to account.

But those statistics that have been talked about this week, 1 in 3 women suffering from intimate partner violence and between 2000 and 2010 the highest levels of intimate partner violence in the OECD in New Zealand. Doesn’t that suggest that there is a degree of apathy towards the problem?

No I don’t think so. I think what we do in New Zealand is we report more than any other country. So actually some of those that are being reported are incidences that haven’t even led to violence.

Yeah but we can only report if it’s happening.

Yeah but some of them are not actually full on violence that I think it makes it sound like. At the moment we can see incidences where there is some.

So really we’re overplaying our hand with this are we?

Well at some level we report a lot. It’s the same with actually child abuse and neglect. We have one of the highest notifications-

So it’s not as bad as people are saying it is?

We have got some of the highest notifications in the world actually in New Zealand. Actually it means we care and we’re standing up and we’re reporting. And I think that’s a good thing. So don’t let me say it’s not a bad thing.

But you suggested it’s not as bad as we might think, some of the incidents aren’t as bad.

I think we report everything.

Isn’t that indicative of trivialising the problem?

Oh not at all. Not at all. I mean we put more than 70-million dollars into services for family violence, we’re increased the money going into Women’s Refuge, we’re got a whole of government approach that we’re taking. We’ve got new justice initiatives. I by no means trivialise some of the undercurrents of violence that are happening in homes in this country. But I also think that we notify and we report. And that is a good thing.

Ok, so how do you think that your male colleagues handled the alleged assault on Tania Billingsley and the departure of the Malaysian diplomat? Did they lose sight of the victim? Did they trivialise that?

Well look I’m not prepared to go into what has happened in that case. But my short answer to that would be no.

Why not? How can you say that under the circumstances with what the victim has…?

Well because I don’t think that. You asked me what I thought. My opinion is no actually.

I’m asking you why.

Well because I think actually everyone was very concerned about the victim.

Ok thank you very much for joining me this morning.

ENDS

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