Teuila Fuatai is a reporter for the NZ Herald

Benefit numbers drop in region

Business confidence is up and the number of Northland residents claiming benefits has declined slightly in the past year, new figures reveal.

Northland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Tony Collins says the drop in beneficiary numbers is encouraging, especially as many local businesses expect economic conditions to improve over the next six months, creating likely job opportunities.

Figures from the Social Development Ministry show about 17,580 Northland residents were claiming benefits in March, down from 18,133 a year earlier.

The number of unemployment benefits dropped from 3647 to 3503 over the 12-month period.

Mr Collins said the tough economic climate had been difficult during the past four years for many businesses in the Northland region, which has been battling stubbornly high unemployment rates.

"They [businesses] are predominantly very small enterprises.

"In the last four years, we have had a decrease in the number of business units in Northland."

This would have contributed to higher unemployment in the region, he said.

However, the chamber's latest business confidence survey, which received responses from about 200 local businesses, found many were expecting to hire new staff over the next six months.

Flow-on effects from the Auckland property market, which has forced some city-dwellers to head north for affordable homes, should also improve job prospects in industries like construction, Mr Collins said.

Nationally, the number of people receiving one of the main benefits fell 4 per cent in the year to March.

Of the 310,000 people on benefits in March, nearly one in three (31 per cent) were aged between 25 and 39 years.

Those aged 40 to 54 years made up a similar proportion of beneficiaries (32 per cent.)

Quarterly figures released by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett last month showed New Zealand benefit numbers were trending downwards.

About 29,000 fewer Kiwis claimed benefits in the three months to March compared to the previous quarter, she said.

The drop signalled the lowest number of beneficiaries for the March quarter since 2009.

A breakdown showed 92,550 sole parents were on the DPB, 58,208 were claiming sickness benefits and 48,756 people were on unemployment benefits.

Ms Bennett's release coincided with moves to crack down on benefit frauds.

More than $5 million in welfare was immediately cut from 525 people found in March to be unfairly claiming the benefit, the Government said.

Associate Development Minister Chester Borrows said ministry staff were in the process of contacting people who had claimed benefits but failed to fully disclose their income level.

The 525 claimants received benefits totalling $5.6 million, he said.

"That's money they were not entitled to and I'm glad we've been able to put a stop to it."

Cases of deliberate fraud would result in prosecution, he said.

"Beneficiaries know that when they start work, they must advise Work and Income of their changed circumstances.

"The expanded information sharing between Inland Revenue and MSD means that those people who are dishonest and don't declare that they are earning income, will be caught," Mr Borrows said. APNZ

- Northern Advocate

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