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Nervous Budget Day Wait For Disability Community

Opinion by Peter Reynolds, CEO New Zealand Disability Support Network: 

Minister of Finance Nicola Willis’s various pre-budget announcements haven’t offered many reasons for optimism for the disability support sector.

In fact, we’ve been warned the ‘cosy complacency’ of government social service delivery is coming to an end – a message that’s hard to marry to the decade of cuts endured by providers.

This comes after ‘the Ministry that used to be called Whaikaha*’s declaration from out of the blue that they were rapidly running out of money. Willis responded to this apparent surprise by reassuring the sector that they could expect significant investment in Budget 2024. The PM responded by sacking previous Minister Simmonds.

And so, the disability support sector waits nervously, but not expectantly for details, knowing full well that politicians can interpret ‘significant’ in a number of ways.

A least we have reviews. There’s one looking at Whaikaha’s funding and payment systems by accountants Ernst and Young. Another is an independent review run by three specially appointed reviewers. Reviews only increase the sector’s nervousness as we await their findings, and brace for any negative impact on the support services disabled people receive and rely upon.

NZDSN’s view is simple: Whaikaha was under-funded from the outset and has struggled under the weight of over-expectation of what they were capable of delivering.

What’s more, the disability sector has undergone more than a decade of under-investment, with funding cuts and inflation hitting support providers and disabled people alike.

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We sincerely hope these reviews will recognise and highlight these issues, then offer realistic remedies. No one expects an immediate injection of cash to offset the years of cuts, but a moderate increase, along with a plan to address this issue in future years would go a long way to restoring confidence.

People fear the opposite. What happens if the argument for ‘efficiency gains’ trumps all else? Can the sector survive more cuts? A recent NZDSN Pay Equity poll showed 94% couldn’t afford a pay rise for their staff without government offsetting the cost, while 56% said that being forced to increase wages without government funding would negatively impact the viability of their service.

It’s not just providers who are nervous. Whaikaha has identified residential support and Individualised Funding arrangements as leading causes of cost overruns – those who rely on these services are now living in fear of cuts.

A budget day announcement from Nicola Willis of truly significant investment in disability support would allay some of these fears and show much-needed support for an otherwise ignored part of our community.

*Whaikaha is now to be called the ‘Ministry of Disabled People - Whaikaha’, as part of the coalition government’s Te Reo rollback delivery.

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