Kuha has made point: Minister

By Peter de Graaf

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says hunger striker Sam Kuha has made his point "loud and clear". Now she wants him to start eating so he doesn't become ill. However, she had no plans to change the policy that triggered Mr Kuha's protest, with beneficiaries needing to get budgeting advice after every three hardship grants.

Ms Bennett said 50 per cent of beneficiaries never asked for a hardship grant, and most grants had to be paid back - so people could go into debt unless they had help to manage their finances.

"I respect the right of any New Zealander to protest and I think that Sam Kuha has made his point loud and clear, now I'm more concerned that he eat and not make himself unwell," Ms Bennett said.

Mr Kuha told the Advocate he would lift his hunger strike once the minister recognised his concerns about children going hungry because their parents had been refused food grants. He wanted to meet Ms Bennett in person and had prepared an open letter spelling out his concerns. These include the long-term costs to taxpayers - such as extra medical, court and welfare costs - of children growing up hungry.

Mr Kuha said his weight has dropped from 73kg to his teen weight of less than 60kg. He continued to drink water and was eating honey to keep up his blood sugar.

The 59-year-old said he woke up hungry yesterday, for the first time since day six. He is now on day 28 of his hunger strike.

Mr Kuha may not have achieved his wider aims as yet, but his personal circumstances have improved. He agreed to see a budgeting adviser at his home - he has been trespassed from Work and Income in Kaikohe - and had his benefit and allowances re-assessed. Work and Income had also forgiven a debt he incurred when he had his power reconnected earlier this year.

As a result Mr Kuha had $140 left over this week after paying his mortgage and other bills, compared with the $18 he was left with before his protest began. "It's been a battle, but good things are happening and I'm getting a lot of support," he said. Northland's Commissioner for Social Development, Ski Wisnesky, said Kuha had seen a budget adviser, as required, so his full costs and expenses were now known.

- Northern Advocate

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