Stings in the tail of beneficiaries bill

By Simon Collins

Six years after abolishing the National Government's work-for-the-dole scheme, the Government is being accused of quietly bringing it back.

Beneficiary advocates say a bill introduced on Parliament's last sitting day before Christmas allows officials to cut people's benefits by up to half if they refuse to carry out any part of their "job-seeker agreement", including unpaid community work.

Combined Beneficiaries Union president Helen Capel said the change would effectively allow officials to direct beneficiaries into "work for the dole".

"We know work for the dole doesn't work, mainly because employers tend to use it as a way of getting workers and not having to pay for them. It does not provide paid work, never has," she said.

"Once you have done your three months' work, it's over. It's just a rollercoaster, it doesn't actually achieve anything for that person."

The Social Security Amendment Bill, which makes the change, is also under fire from disability groups for its major change: extending an obligation to at least plan for work to people on sickness and invalid benefits. Submissions on the bill close today. The bill would:

* Require sickness and invalid beneficiaries, as well as domestic purposes beneficiaries, to comply with "personal development and employment plans" aimed at getting them into paid work.

* Cut their benefits by up to 50 per cent if they fail to comply.

* Apply these cuts to all beneficiaries who do not take part in work schemes now called "activity in the community", where the Government contracts with an agency to provide the activity.

* Allow officials to direct applicants for unemployment benefit to attend job interviews or activities such as a Work4U seminar before getting a benefit.

* Insert four "principles" into the Social Security Act stating that "work in paid employment offers the best opportunity for people to achieve social and economic wellbeing", "the priority for people of working age should be to find and retain work", and that if work is not appropriate people should be either "assisted to plan for work in the future" or "supported".

A voluntary trial of the new provisions in 13 Work and Income offices found that 20 per cent of people applying for sickness and invalid benefits, and 18 per cent of those applying for domestic purposes benefit, said they were "able to work now".

More than 90 per cent agreed voluntarily to take part in work-focused planning or activities.

But disability groups said such activities should remain voluntary - not compulsory.

"Disabled people have been telling Social Welfare for years that we want to work, but we want the appropriate kind of work," said Wendi Wicks of DPA (formerly Disabled Persons Assembly).

"It's not the Ministry of Social Development's fault, but they are not disability employment specialists."

Glenfield beneficiary advocate Pam Apera said even the threat of the proposed regime was already making things worse for many clients with mental health problems.

Wellington sole parent Tina McIvor said a breastfeeding mother was rung by her case manager and told to apply for a job in a call centre.

She said the emphasis on paid work in the proposed new "principles" of social security again devalued the unpaid work of parenting.

"Given that over 90 per cent of domestic purposes beneficiaries are women, this issue represents the unfinished business of the feminist movement," she said.

Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope said the Government still had no intention of bringing back work for the dole.

"Evaluation of such schemes shows that people are more likely to move into paid work if they are not trapped on make-work schemes," he said. "Labour is interested in real jobs for real money."

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