Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Hardline minister gets a big job done

Paula Bennett ate her pets - and she's taken a similar hardline stance on her changes to the welfare system under which only the most disadvantaged will be left alone.

Ms Bennett herself is now probably New Zealand's most famous solo mother. Photo / Stephen Parker
Ms Bennett herself is now probably New Zealand's most famous solo mother. Photo / Stephen Parker

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's office wall features a plaque she received in 1978 when her pet lamb Wilma took third prize in the Kinloch Fair Pet Lamb contest.

But any thought that this achievement shows a soft side to Ms Bennett is dispelled when she reveals the fate of Wilma and her predecessors, Bam Bam and Pebbles.

"We ate them."

Her critics believe she has taken an equally hard line on beneficiaries over the past four years, a time in which she has pushed through a full overhaul of the welfare system.

The last portion of those reforms passed into law last night and will put all but the seriously disabled and long-term sick beneficiaries into one category of benefit under which they will be required to look for work as soon as they are able and reapply for the benefit on a regular basis.

They also extend the circumstances in which sanctions - in the form of temporary or permanent benefit payment cuts - will apply to those who do not abide by the rules.

The number of beneficiaries who have had cuts to their benefits has already doubled from between 2000 and 3000 a month under the former Labour Government to 5600 in March this year. The sanctions are made against those who don't turn up for meetings with Work and Income or job interviews.

Yesterday's changes will extend them to those who refuse to apply for a job because of drug testing or fail a drug test as part of a job application, as well as those who are under warrants of arrest who miss court dates.

It will also require parents to get health checks and early childhood education for their children or risk benefit cuts.

The sanctions are graduated - the benefit is cut by 50 per cent at first and finally cut off altogether if the person continues to breach the rules. That has led to concerns about children - of the 3200 beneficiaries under sanctions at the end of March, 369 were single parents.

Last December, 35 beneficiaries with children had been on 50 per cent of their benefit for more than eight weeks.

Even with the decision to limit the sanctions on people with children to no more than a 50 per cent cut in payment, Ms Bennett admits there is a risk that the sanctions could result in hardship.

"I keep a close eye on the length of time people with children might be sanctioned. I don't want them to be living on only 50 per cent of their benefit for weeks and weeks or months. That concerns me."

In most cases, the issues were resolved before sanctions took practical effect.

"But I worry about the exceptional cases where someone might have mental health issues, or be really isolated or in a violent relationship. I keep a close eye on that.

"If someone has been living on 50 per cent of their DPB for two months - well, I think living on the full DPB is hard. I don't know how you can live on 50 per cent."

The earlier reforms largely targeted solo parents. Since October, solo parents have had to look for part-time work when their youngest child turned 5, and fulltime work when the child turned 14. It is the first time a fulltime work requirement has been set for solo parents, who were previously largely left alone until their children were 18.

On top of that a solo parent who has another baby while on a benefit must undergo work testing when the baby turns 1 - a policy which would affect about 4700 people a year.

Since National introduced the work obligation on solo parents in 2010 (requiring those with children aged 6 and older to look for part-time work), numbers who have found jobs have gone up from 9715 in 2009 to 12,772 last year. Ms Bennett attributed that to what she calls "expectations" (the new obligations), a "mindshift" among those parents and more intensive work by Work and Income workers.

Ms Bennett herself is now probably New Zealand's most famous solo mother - her story of going back to work is well chronicled. Her critics have said that her reforms - in particular the requirements for solo parents to return to work earlier - run contrary to her own history and her call in her maiden speech for parents to be able to choose to stay home with their children. She has effectively added a caveat to that: as long as the parent can afford it.

Ms Bennett says she supports parents being able to stay with their children when they are young: "I'm just not totally convinced that once the child gets to a certain age, that the state should be paying for it."

"I support family planning. It is about choices and it is about thinking those through. I think we don't talk about how we plan our families so we are then able to make choices. So what we find too often in this country is that through circumstances people end up on welfare young, with babies. And the opportunities to work, or not work are gone because they are so dependent on the state for an income. So when I talk about wanting more choice for women in whether they work or not, for me it does come down to planning your family so you have those kinds of choices if you can."

The main thrust of her changes is now through and the beneficiaries and the Ministry of Social Development will get a rest from reforms while the latest batch beds in.

Ms Bennett will turn her mind to re-writing and updating the Social Security Act and all the amendments made to it. It is a task she describes as a tidying-up exercise rather than a reform exercise. It had gone on the backburner because of the reforms.

She will also be monitoring the effects of her reforms. Measures of success will include the numbers of long-term beneficiaries going into work and how long younger beneficiaries stay on a benefit, rather than simply on the numbers on the unemployment benefit.

She said people on the unemployment benefit tended to move off it again fairly quickly and the focus was on budging the long-term beneficiaries, such as those on the DPB, invalids and sickness benefits.

"Long-term welfare dependence is expensive."

She and the Work and Income board she established, led by Paula Rebstock, will also apply an economic measure by calculating the lifetime cost of generations of beneficiaries.

She says she is not afraid to change what she has done if it is not working, but she expects that to be "tweaks" rather than wholesale backdowns on her reforms.

Benefit Cut

- NZ Herald

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