Travel crackdown hits beneficiaries

By Cassandra Mason

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Paula Bennett says the welfare changes saved the country millions of dollars. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Paula Bennett says the welfare changes saved the country millions of dollars. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Hundreds of Western Bay beneficiaries are having their benefits cut under welfare changes that stop them travelling overseas.

A range of changes brought in on July 15 last year put more pressure on beneficiaries to put their obligations ahead of overseas travel.

Before the law change, people on a benefit could head overseas for up to 28 days, multiple times, without it affecting their payments. Now most can't leave the country except under special circumstances, like attending a funeral.

All beneficiaries are now also required to let Work and Income (WINZ) know about their travel plans in advance, or their benefit will be stopped on departure.

Figures released by the Ministry of Social Development show that since the changes took hold, 430 Western Bay benefits were suspended for this reason.

Nearly 380 of these were in Tauranga and Mount Maunganui.

Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust social worker Jenna Young said she thought the policy was fair, and Work and Income was flexible depending on the circumstances.

"If you're going away for a family wedding or because your mum's paid the ticket, I'm pretty sure that would be okay. You just contact your case manager and talk about it."

Ms Young had only dealt with one person who had lost their benefit on account of travel, but that's because the recipient wasn't aware of the changes.

"By the time she came back and sorted it out, Work and Income ended up paying her benefit [anyway]." She said the changes had been well publicised.

As of April this year, more than 21,000 Kiwis had their benefits cut for travelling overseas.

The largest group of suspensions were the nearly 11,200 people on job seeker benefits, followed by more than 4800 sole parents, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said at the time.

"Every day we hear stories of how people cannot live on the benefit.

"Today you're hearing that literally thousands cannot only live on it, but can afford to travel overseas as well."

She said the changes have saved the country more than $10.5 million in suspended payments.

Ms Bennett told the Bay of Plenty Times that since the changes came into effect there had been plenty of information.

"I am surprised at the number of people who have still chosen to travel despite knowing the consequences.

"The welfare system is a safety net and was never intended to provide an income for people travelling abroad," she said.

Ministry of Social Development deputy CEO Debbie Power said the rules still allowed for overseas travel on "compassionate grounds".

This included allowing people with no work obligations to travel for up to 28 days out of the 52-week period.

But for everyone else, "the new rules reinforce that people should be ready and available for work, not prioritising travel," Ms Power said.

WINZ region benefits suspended for overseas travel
Tauranga and Mt Maunganui 379
Te Puke 51
National 21,000

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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