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Gordon Campbell on Paula Bennett’s yawning credibility gap

Gordon Campbell on Paula Bennett’s yawning credibility gap

by Gordon Campbell

By the week, the “welfare reforms” of Social Development Minister Paula Bennett are starting to look more like the Cave Creek viewing platform than a properly designed and well built piece of social engineering. First, the arbitrary nature of the welfare reforms came to light. When asked recently by RNZ’s Todd Niall why people receiving their state support from the benefit system beneficiaries were being singled out for punitive treatment – and not say, the people receiving state support via the Working For Families system, Bennett candidly replied: “Because we can.” Right. Obviously, a few problems here with the principles underpinning the system.

Then the equally arbitrary nature of the warning system before 50% benefit cuts would be imposed came to light. You remember the warning system. It was alleged to be a "graduated sanction process" that will allow for three warnings before beneficiaries face a cut of up to 50 per cent of their benefits from July 1st next year. Many observers, including Kiwiblog’s David Farrar were reassured by this provision. “The three warnings regime,” Farrar said, “means the stick will only be used as a last resort.” But hang on. Parents already face losing 50 per cent of their main benefit if they don't meet 'work obligations' - such as failing to attend a job interview. So how is that warning system working out? Not so well, it would seem.

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In fact, it appears as though WINZ can decide that a “warning” has been issued if it simply makes a call to try and inform the beneficiary – regardless of whether the beneficiary actually gets the message, or not. The onus is on the beneficiary to return the call. Makes the safeguard of that three strikes, “last resort” suddenly look a bit flimsy, doesn’t it? Because on this precedent, if WINZ dials a number three times – even if it’s a wrong or out of date number and leaves a message, then bingo, families with children would subsequently seem at grave risk of suddenly discovering they would have half the income they thought they had, next time they try to pay the rent. For obvious reasons, this aspect of the discretionary powers of front line WINZ staff has to be clarified, before the welfare reforms go any further.

Thirdly, there are those mandatory health and early education measures supposedly due to kick in on July 1st, 2013. You remember them. They were alleged to be a way of ensuring that beneficiaries met their childcare responsibilities while also enabling the government to catch the vulnerable children at risk, who might otherwise miss out.

From July next year all beneficiary parents must ensure their children:

• attend 15 hours a week Early Childhood Education (ECE) from age 3
• attend school from age five or six
• enrol with a General Practitioner
• complete core WellChild/Tamariki Ora checks

…[These]social obligations will ensure dependent children of beneficiaries access and benefit from vital education and health services," Bennett said. "These services are particularly important for vulnerable children as many currently miss out; we have an opportunity to address this through reforms."

But now, less than a fortnight later, Bennett is backing away from this comprehensive approach. As she said on the weekend, the resources needed for such a system simply don’t exist.

Ms Bennett said the Government did not have the means to monitor all those children and the new test would apply only to those the Social Development Ministry classed as "vulnerable". “We don't have the resources; in fact, some of them will comply without us checking them and we don't need to, so we take a subset," she told TVNZ's Q + A programme yesterday.

So much then, for using the reforms as a means to catch the vulnerable children in this country who are at risk. In effect….Bennett’s entire edifice of “welfare reform” turns out to little more than WINZ picking on a few of its most troublesome clients and dealing with them arbitrarily, as and when its already stretched resources will allow. What does the government’s silent partner (aka the Maori Party) have to say about this, given that those targeted by WINZ are disproportionately likely to be from among the tangata whenua?

At the end of the day, cutting benefits to families by 50% among whoever - and for whatever reason – will only put those vulnerable children further at risk and punish them for the sins of their parents. It would also place the government itself at risk of breaching its food and shelter responsibilities under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

On top of all this – and as Russell Brown pointed out recently - the figures Bennett has been spouting of late just don’t seem to add up. Here, from the Todd Niall interview, Brown quoted Bennett to this effect:

I think it [welfare] does become that safety net, and I think over time what it instead has become is a bit of a trap for quite a few people when we’ve seen 161,000 people have been on for at least five of the last 10 years (and) 139,000 for at least 10 years.

Brown was not impressed:

I’m damned if I can make this work. There are currently, as of June, 320,000 people on “main benefits”…So 43% of them have been on continuously for more than a decade? Who are they? Only 10% of the 112,200 DPB recipients – the people the government wants to “help” – had been continuously in receipt for more than 10 years as of June. So more than 60% of all other beneficiaries have been on benefits for more than 10 years continuously? Really? Help me out here.

Still….if you remain willing to believe anything that Bennett has to say on the subject of welfare reform then she has some big, big savings coming your way, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. A whole $1.6 billion, she promised, less than a week ago.

Maybe you could use that money to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.


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