Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

More than 2400 benefits suspended since 2013

Kaitaia war veteran Selwyn Clarke was forced to beg in the street after his pension was stopped because of a warrant for his arrest last September. Northern Advocate Photograph by Peter Jackson
Kaitaia war veteran Selwyn Clarke was forced to beg in the street after his pension was stopped because of a warrant for his arrest last September. Northern Advocate Photograph by Peter Jackson

A tough new policy that chops off welfare benefits for people with outstanding arrest warrants has netted more than 2400 cases since it came into force in July 2013.

The Ministry of Social Development says it suspended 22 NZ superannuation and veterans' pensions, and 2411 other benefits, in the first two and a half years of the new policy up to the end of last December.

Suspensions have jumped from 75 a month in the first year of the new policy to 95 a month in the latest half-year.

The policy hit the headlines in January when Kaitaia war veteran Selwyn Clarke, 88, was forced to beg in the street after his pension was stopped because of a warrant for his arrest for trespass at Kaitaia Airport in a Ngati Kahu land protest occupation last September.

Mr Clarke's pension was restored in February after the local District Court withdrew the warrant.

Ministry deputy chief executive Ruth Bound told the Herald, in response to an Official Information Act request, that all 22 veterans' pensions and NZ super payments had now been restored.

But she said the ministry could not say how many of the other 2411 benefits that were stopped have been restored.

"In order to obtain this information, ministry staff would have to manually review each of the 2411 individual files," she said.

The policy was part of a broader tightening of beneficiary obligations in July 2013 which also included drug tests for jobseekers and requirements for beneficiaries to enrol their children in preschool from age 3, ensure they attend school from age 5 or 6, enrol them with doctors and keep up with core health checks.

Mr Clarke was caught by it because he refused to recognise the Government's authority to charge him with trespass because the airport was on Ngati Kahu land.

The tribe pledged to support him financially until his pension was restored, and he said today that he had offers to help from as far afield as Australia and Canada.

"I had to stop all that because I found myself bogged down and in trouble," he said. "All I wanted was the base amount that Winz [Work and Income] are supposed to have paid me."

He urged others who had lost their benefits to contact him on 09 409 4648.

"Let's get together and see if we can change this," he said.

In response to another Official Information Act request, District Courts general manager Tony Fisher said outstanding arrest warrants declined from 11,373 at the end of June 2013 to 9600 a year later, 9547 last June and 9445 in December.

The number of arrest warrants issued also declined. But warrants still outstanding fell even faster, from 3.28 times the number of warrants issued in the year to June 2013 to 2.67 times the number issued in the last half of 2015.

Auckland barrister and Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Graeme Minchin said the tough policy seemed to be working.

"I have had people who have gone AWOL and then turned up, and it's been because of their benefits being cut," he said.

But he said the policy gave the state too much power over beneficiaries.

"The suspension of benefits for policing purposes contradicts the purposes of the [Social Security] Act and is a dangerous step in the direction of totalitarianism," he said. "It is an example which shows that beneficiaries are on the road to serfdom."

Benefits and pensions suspended per month due to outstanding arrest warrants

Year to June 2014: 75

Year to June 2015: 80

6 months to Dec 2015: 95

Source: Ministry of Social Development

Outstanding arrest warrants as ratio of warrants issued each month

Year to June 2013: 3.28

Year to June 2014: 2.93

Year to June 2015: 2.88

6 months to Dec 2015: 2.67

Source: Ministry of Justice

- NZ Herald

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