Bennett says she'll look into loan idea

By Claire Trevett

Paula Bennett said she would take Jennifer Johnston up on an offer to join her for coffee. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Paula Bennett said she would take Jennifer Johnston up on an offer to join her for coffee. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has asked her officials to look into setting up a loan to help solo parents cover their extra study costs.

The suggestion came during a phone call yesterday to Jennifer Johnston, one of two solo mothers whose details she released after they spoke out about her decision to cut the Training Incentive Allowance for tertiary level courses. The other mother, Natasha Fuller, rejected an offer to speak to the minister.

Ms Bennett did not apologise for releasing details of their income support, but she said after her phone call she wanted to investigate the loan idea.

The mothers have argued that the $1000 course-costs component of the student loan scheme is not sufficient to cover all their costs compared to the $3800 allowance.

Ms Bennett said Ms Johnston had put forward a "compelling argument" and she had asked her officials to look into it - including the possibility of extending the existing provisions for loans to beneficiaries for that purpose.

She said she explained to Ms Johnston that she could not make any promises - any change either to the student loans scheme or the loans available to beneficiaries was a major policy decision which would require significant work. Issues of cost and fairness also had to be considered if one group was to be given more entitlements than others.

Ms Bennett stopped short of apologising to the Invercargill mother of three for releasing the details, but she did apologise for the public reaction it had prompted. The two mothers have faced concerted and often vitriolic criticism on internet sites and talkback radio over the amounts they received.

"I think it has been an absolutely horrific debate," the minister said.

She said she would take Ms Johnston up on an offer to join her for coffee when she was next in Invercargill.

Ms Johnston said she also apologised to Ms Bennett. "I was pretty angry yesterday. I don't bear her any ill will."

She said Ms Bennett had listened carefully to her case but also made it clear she could not promise anything.

"I run a family, she runs a department, but my family has a budget just like her department and at times I have to make financial decisions that are unpopular. Sometimes the people I'm responsible for, my children, will come to me and say, 'Mum, how about we do it this way?' Sometimes I can compromise and sometimes I can't - that's the reality of having a budget. I don't know what will come out of our conversation but at the very least I know my minister heard my concerns."

She brushed off concerns about privacy, saying it was not hard to find out what level of benefits a woman in her situation would be entitled to.

- NZ Herald

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