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Beneficiaries will Miss Out

Phrasing and Interpretations so that Beneficiaries will Miss Out on their One Day

Hundreds of thousands of people have had their benefits paid a day late because the Ministry of Social Development has administered the law incorrectly since 3 June 1998. This ‘mistake’ was revealed in September and since then thousands have sought a review to be paid their day. People have been being paid with an average payment of $80 each, and it is estimated the total underpayment is in excess of $100 million. The Government is now attempting to urgently pass a bill to remove this entitlement

“This amount is quite significant to those on a benefit. Most workers, if told they had not been paid for a day, would strongly object to this being written off by their employer! It is the same thing here,” says Rebecca Occleston of Beneficiary Advisory Service (BAS in Christchurch). We support Kay Brereton, a Beneficiary Advocate from another region, when she says

“This is money that people were, and still are entitled to under law, this is money that could have gone into local economies before Christmas, but the government is seeking to stop the poor from accessing their entitlement.

“There is a significant equity issue here, if a person on a benefit fails to meet their obligations under law they are sanctioned, overpayments are not forgiven. Yet in this case MSD has failed to meet its obligations under law and has been granting benefits a day later than the law dictates, and this bill is going to forgive the debt owed to beneficiaries, while the Ministry continues to enforce collection of overpayments.”

“So they are neither sanctioned nor paying their Underpayments back to us, as beneficiaries, but changing the law so they don't have to!” Rebecca says.

Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley says that this ‘legislative error which has left thousands of beneficiaries out of pocket’ is "regrettable", and that people would have seven weeks to apply for backpay, ‘if they think they're owed it’! But that the Government is rushing through an amendment under urgency to retrospectively ‘fix it.’

“We see that Anne Tolley is parading the same tired old catchphrases the Ministry used when they tried unsuccessfully to override Ruka (an important case in law that sets out legal requirements of a marriage type relationship). She states that this new bill reflects what has “always been operational practice.” This means they have been using unlawful operational practice all this time! She says it prevents “unintended policy consequences.” (You know, like, obeying the law!)

“Possibly most insulting of all, she states there is a need to recognise the “cost to the taxpayer.” Firstly I would note that beneficiaries are, in fact, taxpayers. And this money is owed to people; you can’t just not pay cos “some of the taxpayers might not like it”! This merely propagates that idea that ‘taxpayers’ should dislike beneficiaries and that keeping prejudice going is more important than obeying the law or doing the Right Thing,” says Rebecca.

As Kay says, “The introduction of retrospective legislation to remove legal entitlement from our poorest citizens is reprehensible, and an unjust exercise of parliamentary power. This is a change that bypasses the democratic process and excludes the citizens’ voices that are expressed through the select committee process.”

Rebecca goes on to say, “This difference between policy (what actually happens) and legislation (the law – what is supposed to happen) was only discovered recently. The moral thing to do would be to grant that extra day’s benefit to all who were eligible. If this was too much of an administrative nightmare for them, then (the next best thing could be) publicising it asking anyone who wanted to claim it the easy ability to do so, with a method that processed these in a timely manner. Instead, they have denied that this Missing One Day is really owed at all, discouraged people from applying for it, threatened to claim it back as an overpayment if people did and finally are changing the law (under urgency) to prevent anyone else from doing so. This was not a good moral decision.”

Rebecca Occleston is the Speaker for Beneficiary Advisory Service (BAS)

Beneficiary Advisory Service is a Christchurch based Community Group who help people on benefits and low incomes with their problems with Work and Income. We are specialists in Welfare Law and provide advice, information, support and advocacy to hundreds of people every year. We can be contacted on 03 379 8787 and bas.cprc@gmail.com or visit our website bas.org.nz

ENDS

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