Bennett: I consulted website before releasing mums' benefits

By Claire Trevett

Paula Bennett. File photo / Herald on Sunday
Paula Bennett. File photo / Herald on Sunday

Paula Bennett has this afternoon told Parliament that, apart from reading the Privacy Commission's website, she did not seek any advice before releasing personal details about the benefits received by two solo mothers.

Ms Bennett told Parliament that guidelines for ministers on the Privacy Commissioner's website allow people to give "implied consent" for their details to be released.

The two mothers had spoken out to media about allowance cutbacks.

The Green Party has labelled the release as "beneficiary bashing".

Details of the mothers' state benefits were made public by the Government after the pair criticised cutbacks to a training allowance.

Staff from Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's office gave the Herald a tally of each woman's weekly income from the state - including benefits and other allowances - after the women spoke out in the Herald on Sunday and Labour used their stories in Parliament last week.

The details were handed over without the knowledge of the mothers, Jennifer Johnston and Natasha Fuller.

The Green's social development spokeswoman Sue Bradford said she believes the release was a breach of the Privacy Act and encouraged the women to make a formal complaint.

"The National Government is sending out a loud message that if any unemployed person or beneficiary dares to speak in public about issues that affect them personally, the Government will use all its power to discredit and humiliate them," Ms Bradford said, referring also to the case of Bruce Burgess .

She said people should feel free to criticise the Government.

"I fear that from now on no one will speak up.

"This form of silencing opposition is simply not acceptable in a democratic society and I hope the Government will urgently reconsider its intimidating tactics," Ms Bradford said.

The Privacy Commissioner has been contacted by nzherald.co.nz but has so far not returned phone calls.

According to the Cabinet handbook , Members of Parliament are subject to the Privacy Act which allows for only limited situations when an individual's information can be released.

"For example: if the disclosure is directly related to the purposes for which the information was obtained; if disclosure is authorised by the individual concerned; or if disclosure is necessary to prevent a serious threat to public health or the life of another individual," the handbook says.

Labour's social development spokesperson Annette King accused the Government of trying to silence critics by releasing personal information it held on them.

"I can only assume that a new standard is being applied. I have to say it is reminiscent of the days when Muldoon was in power anybody that put their head up, that was to speak out against Government policy was hit over the head with a political sledge hammer," Ms King said.

She challenged Ms Bennett to release how much she received while studying and receiving the DPB.

Ms King believed the women had given all relevant detail concerning the cuts to training allowances they were using to get off benefits, they had not talked about how much they were getting to support their children.

"Every New Zealander has the right to privacy...because you are a beneficiary you are not a second, third or fourth class citizen when it comes to privacy."

Ms Bennett said she had a right to release information on individuals if they left out relevant details when publicising their situations.

"If someone is deciding they're happy to use their case to speak about or against something we are doing, I think it's fair the full story be told."

Ms Fuller said she did not believe she had left out any relevant information and was "astonished" her details could be released without either her knowledge or permission.

Ms Johnston said she was "flabbergasted" but said it would not put her off speaking out about cutting the training incentive allowance.

They had claimed it would affect their hopes of doing nursing and early childhood education degrees next year.

The information provided by Ms Bennett's office shows Ms Fuller receives $715 net a week and Ms Johnston $554. Both are getting the allowance for pre-degree study. Ms Fuller gets $28 a week. She also got the allowance from 2004 to 2006, and in 2006-07 was given $9560 under an Enterprise Allowance to start a cleaning business. She said yesterday this had since closed because she had ongoing illness problems.

Ms Bennett said anyone had "a perfect right" to object to government policy - but releasing the amounts given to the two women showed they already received significant state support and had been given "a fair go".

"We ask all other students to invest in their own future if they're going into tertiary study because it generally means they will make a higher income. Why are those on a benefit any different?

"They're already getting a huge amount of support from the Government. We're asking them to back themselves a little bit and invest a bit of their own money."

The minister said she did not intend a "blanket" practice of releasing private information on all those who spoke out.

However, she would do so again if people misrepresented their situation or "put themselves out there with their 'full story' but put a full stop where it suits them".

Ms Bennett has come under repeated attack for changing the rules for the tertiary allowance. Labour has accused her of double standards because she got it while a solo mother studying at university in the 1990s.

Yesterday, she said allowances for childcare were now far more generous and student loans were interest-free, making them a more viable option for solo parents.

Ms Bennett's decision to release the details on the two women follows the controversy surrounding the case of redundant worker Bruce Burgess. The Labour Party helped him to go public with concerns about losing his lifestyle block because his wife's $21,000 income meant he could not claim an unemployment benefit.

Labour did not reveal he also had investment properties.

* The cutback

From May this year, the Training Incentive Allowance was restricted to study at NCEA Level 3 or under - such as basic foundation courses and training certificates.

The change is expected to affect about 4500 people on the DPB or invalids' benefit.

Those now studying for a degree or diploma will continue to get the allowance through to the end of their study or the end of 2011.

Under it, solo parents and those on invalids' benefits could claim up to $3862 for travel and course costs.

- NZHERALD STAFF

- NZ Herald

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