Alice would be right at home in the Wonderland John Key is busy creating. A land where widows will have to queue alongside solo mums with a 1-year-old infant strapped to their backs, to apply for jobs that don't exist. A land where the state provider of housing for the most needy is to close its office doors to tenants up and down the country and tell them to phone an 0800 number instead.
"These changes are about delivering a more consistent level of service, but also allow us to save money, to provide a greater return to the taxpayer," says general manager tenancy services Kay Read.
Cutting out the over-the-counter service will result in 70 staff members losing their jobs.
Critics from the housing charity sector are concerned, for example, about the consequences this will create for tenants who speak English as a second language and facing an urgent crisis. That's if they have access to a telephone. In this age of wi-fi and text messaging, it comes as a surprise to discover that there are areas where many households have no immediate telephone connection - either wired or cellular.
The last household Census in 2006 highlights that the worst affected areas coincide with significant clusters of state housing.
The Pt England Census block topped the poll in Auckland with 105 households having no access to telecommunications systems of any sort. Close behind came Pukekohe North (99), Clendon South (93), Otahuhu West (87), Harania East (87), Papakura East (81), Otara East (78), and on goes the list through the lower socio-economic areas.
Among these people will be Housing New Zealand's 200,000 tenants, now expected to dial 0800 and ask for help in an emergency. Without a phone of their own, where are they supposed to do that? The public phone box is a rare sight these days, and the chances are, if one is working, it will need a money card to work. If you don't have a phone, what are the chances of having a bank card?
Removing the welcome mat for those occupying Housing NZ's 69,000 state houses comes hot on the heels of the agency's decision to abandon any help for the army of low-income people who fail to qualify for a coveted state house. Last week, Herald social issues reporter Simon Collins revealed that Housing NZ was also axing an excellent service in South Auckland, which worked with other agencies to find private rental homes for people who missed out on a state house.
At the launch of the service three years ago, Housing NZ boss Lesley McTurk said the corporation could house only one in every four seeking a state house and said it would provide a one-stop shop service to try to match the unlucky home seekers with a private renter. Housing NZ staff would liaise with Work and Income to co-ordinate issues like bonds, rent and accommodation supplements, then refer the people to private rental agents with all the details needed to pay the bond and rent.
But last week the rug was pulled on this service, Ms Read telling the Herald that it had been available only "in a small number of locations like Manurewa" and the corporation was now reverting to the standard service provided elsewhere.
Linda Loader, one of the private rental agents working with the scheme, said it had helped some of the country's most vulnerable families. "A lot of them don't have a head on their shoulders to be able to deal with a private sector landlord."
Like Monday's sabre-rattling press conference against beneficiary bludgers by Prime Minister Key and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, no one can say they weren't warned.
The Government's Welfare Working Group gave the aura of respectability to this crusade in its August 2010 report. Headed up by former Commerce Commission chairwoman Paula Rebstock with a team that included former Act Party president Catherine Isaac, they concluded that if everyone currently on a benefit stayed on it for the rest of their lives, the cost would be $50 billion and New Zealand would collapse under the strain. The solution was to prod and entice the halt, the lame, the sole parents and the able unemployed back to work.
Even if the scary talk of economic armageddon was right over the top, no one would disagree with the ultimate goal of full employment. But ordering recently bereaved widows and solo mums with a second child aged 1 or more to queue for jobs that don't exist seems more an act of retribution than practical social policy.
The December 2011 Household Labour Force Survey recorded 150,000 people as unemployed. This is defined as people of working age without a paid job, who are available for work and had actively sought a job in the previous four weeks. Among these people will be some on the dole or other benefit. The point is, there are 150,000 people already actively seeking jobs that don't exist. Surely creating those jobs should be the Government's primary focus, rather than forcing beneficiaries into queues that go nowhere.By Brian Rudman Email Brian