Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Reforms to help beneficiaries out of 'trap'

Social development minister Paula Bennett announced the second welfare bill in Parliament yesterday. Photo / NZ Herald
Social development minister Paula Bennett announced the second welfare bill in Parliament yesterday. Photo / NZ Herald

The Government's latest welfare reforms will help get people out of the "trap" of benefit dependency, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says.

The second bill in the Government's two-stage welfare reforms, signed off by Cabinet yesterday, will reduce the number of benefit categories, make benefits more work-focused, introduce expectations for partners of beneficiaries and make beneficiaries prepare for work.

Ms Bennett this morning said the bill was about changing the expectations and support people could get on benefits.

She told Radio New Zealand the safety net had over time "become a bit of a trap for quite a few people".

"Some 161,000 people had been on benefits for at least five of the last 10 years, including 139,000 people who had been on benefits for at least 10 years."

"That sounds to me like it's trapping them there and not giving them the kind of opportunities that they need, so changing those will make a big difference for them."

Ms Bennett acknowledged there were some new requirements - such as enrolling children with a GP and in early childhood education - but only where those were available.

"If there are barriers that we can help them break down, we will do that. But if there's real barriers and they aren't able to, then we certainly acknowledge that as well."

The Government had pumped millions in health and education to make them more accessible.

"It's growing all the time ... so if we can get them in, if we can give them the kind of help that they need, then I think that will make a big difference."

Ms Bennett said case managers had quite clear criteria but there was some discretion when there needed to be.

Most of the bill's changes were previously flagged but an unexpected move is the cancellation of benefits for anyone who turns down an offer of "suitable employment" - with a 13 week stand-down period before they could apply again.

Beneficiary advocate Kay Brereton said the move was "harsh".

"It could be quite huge because I have seen people turning down jobs for really good reasons and having their benefit sanctioned as a result," she said.

The existing penalty is a 50 per cent cut for four weeks, reaching 100 per cent for single people only if they do not accept a job offer within the four weeks. The maximum cut will remain 50 per cent for beneficiaries with children.

Suitable employment is defined as any job that is "suitable for the person to undertake for a number of hours a week that is at least the employment required to satisfy the work test for that person".

That is 20 to 40 hours a week for anyone expected to work fulltime, or 10 to 20 hours for people, such as sole parents with children aged 5 to 13, and those whose work capacity is limited by sickness.

Most other measures in the 143-page bill have already been signalled. Seven existing categories will be changed to three: Jobseeker Support for those expected to seek work, Sole Parent Support for single parents with children under 14, and a Supported Living Payment for those with disabilities that will prevent them from ever working.

Apart from penalties, the only groups that will face an actual benefit cut are widows and women alone with no dependent children. The widows' benefit, now $213.49 a week, will disappear next July and widows without dependent children will go on to Jobseeker Support at $204.96, a cut of $8.53 a week.

Widows and women alone who are already on the benefit on July 15 next year will be "grandparented" on their present terms and conditions.

- NZ Herald

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