Bombshell on way for beneficiaries

By Simon Collins

Economist Paula Rebstock. Photo / David White.
Economist Paula Rebstock. Photo / David White.

About 300,000 welfare beneficiaries who are judged to be capable of work will face a day of reckoning tomorrow when the Government receives a report that recommends they be forced to look for jobs.

A welfare working group chaired by economist Paula Rebstock is poised to recommend a package of radical changes which Ms Rebstock says will be "more extensive than what most have ever done in a one-off reform".

Former Green MP Sue Bradford, who now leads a new group called Auckland Action Against Poverty, said the report was shaping up to make the 1991 benefit cuts look like "chicken feed" in terms of their impact on present and future beneficiaries.

Her group plans a protest action at the Henderson Work and Income office at 2pm tomorrow, two hours after the report becomes public.

The report's main thrust is expected to be extending the obligation to look for paid work to the vast majority of beneficiaries between age 18 and 64.

Ms Rebstock said yesterday that only a third of the 352,700 working-aged beneficiaries were currently required to look for work - all 67,000 on unemployment benefits, 43,000 sole parents with no children under age 6 and, from this May, 9000 sickness beneficiaries assessed as being able to work at least 15 hours a week.

"We would see that percentage increasing very significantly," she said.

Her interim report last November said only 20,000 people on invalid benefits had such severe disabilities or illnesses that they could never be expected to work.

It also suggested that sole parents should have to look for part-time work when their youngest children turn either 1, in line with the maximum parental leave, or 3, when "free" early childhood education begins. If it opts in the end for age 2, that would exempt only 22,500 sole-parent beneficiaries with youngest children under 2.

That would increase the proportion of beneficiaries required to look for work from 37 per cent at present to 88 per cent, or about 310,000 people.

It is not known whether the final report will pick up other tough options from the interim report, such as reducing the level of benefits after a year or requiring beneficiaries to work for their money after two years.

But Ms Rebstock said any hardline proposals for beneficiaries would be matched by proposals for families, employers, health services and the Government to give people more help to get off welfare.

"You can't just pick the nice things, and you can't just pick the things that tighten things up," she said. "You have got to pick a combination of the two."

She said a key theme would be improving outcomes for the 222,000 children who are growing up in welfare-dependent homes. That will include expanded programmes for teenage parents and their families - a crucial group because most beneficiaries with children are sole parents and a third of all sole-parent beneficiaries had a first baby before age 20.

The working group's interim report suggested requiring teen parents under 18 to live with their parents or a responsible adult, and requiring the teens to immunise their babies, attend Plunket regularly, attend parenting programmes and take their children to early childhood education.

The working group is also keen to develop services, modelled on the Accident Compensation Corporation's Better@Work scheme, which help health services and employers to plan together for the gradual return to work of people with illnesses or disabilities.

"One of the critical things is to be working with doctors so they can, in a very timely way, be approaching a patient from the understanding that it's really important, if it can be safely done, to keep this person in work or get them back to work as quickly as possible," Ms Rebstock said.

She said the group would recommend taking a long-term view, accepting that there could be increased costs in the short term to make what could be huge savings in the long term.

- NZ Herald

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