David Farrar

The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: Working group poses welfare reforms

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The Welfare Working Group's focus is on what work people are capable of doing, rather than what work they are unable to do. Photo / APN
The Welfare Working Group's focus is on what work people are capable of doing, rather than what work they are unable to do. Photo / APN

On Monday the Government announced that a group of seven Ministers would consider the recommendations of the Welfare Working Group. This is a very strong sign that some or most of the recommendations will be adopted by the Government. You don't set up a Ministerial group to decide to stay with the status quo.

The Welfare Working Group's recommendations are strongly focused on welfare being temporary assistance for all but the most seriously disabled New Zealanders, and shifting the focus to being on what work people are capable of doing, rather than what work they are unable to do.

A perfect example of this comes from yesterday's report on Alipate Liava'a, who is fighting Sonny Bill Williams in a charity boxing match.

It turns out Liava'a is on the sickness benefit for an injured elbow and previously a problem with his voice. He was working on an album of gospel music.

This is a great example of the mindset that the Welfare Working Group wanted to change. If you are a singer, and injure your voice, then you should get some support while you recover. But if this takes more than a few weeks, then you should be looking at other jobs which don't require a singing voice, while your voice recovers, rather than remain on the Sickness Benefit.

And then we have the tennis elbow. Most New Zealanders would conclude that if the tennis elbow is bad enough to prevent you from being able to undertake any form of work, then it is bad enough to prevent you taking part in a boxing match where your elbows form a fairly important part of the match.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Liava'a has fought 11 times since 2008. You have to wonder what proportion of that period did he spend on the sickness benefit?

Business Roundtable Executive Director Roger Kerr blogged on Wednesday that work capability assessments in the United Kingdom found of the 2.6 million Britons claiming the incapacity benefit, 40% were found fit to work, 36% cancelled their application before submitting to medical tests, 16% were found capable of some work if they had help and support and only 6% were judged incapable of any work at all. This gives some idea of what we may find in New Zealand, if we follow the British approach.

The recommendations of the Welfare Working Group are significant. Together they would reflect the biggest change to the welfare state, since Michael Joseph Savage put its foundations in place. Some of the recommendations are:

. 16- and 17-year-olds on welfare be required to be in training, education or work and have their benefits paid to a responsible adult they are required to live with

· Sole parents receiving welfare be required to seek 20+ hours of work once their youngest child is three and 30+ hours of work once their youngest child is six

· Parents receiving welfare be required to ensure their children attend school and early childhood education from age three and complete the 12 Wellchild health checks

· Having a sole "job seeker" benefit, bit with different streams based on ability to work

Some of the proposals from the Welfare Working Group are anathema to the parties of the left. So what has been surprising is how muted the response from Labour has been. Almost the only voice in protest has been former Green MP Sue Bradford.

Labour's response was a press release from Employment Spokesperson Jacinda Ardern who did not even condemn any of the proposals, but merely said the Government should focus on creating jobs rather than punitive measures. Welfare spokesperson and deputy leader Annette King said nothing, and there was no statement from Phil Goff calling on the Government to reject the recommendations.

In fact Labour's official policy is to increase the net value of benefits, and pay people more to be on a benefit as their tax policy is to move benefits being calculated net of tax, to gross of tax, meaning they will get $10 more a week for being on the benefit with Labour's policy to have no tax on the first $5,000 of income.

Why is Labour not fighting the welfare reforms tooth and nail and highlighting that their policy is to give every beneficiary in New Zealand $10 a week more to not be in work?

Could it be that they don't think the public will agree with them? Why else have they been so silent?

* A disclosure statement on David Farrar's political views.

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