Simon Collins is the Herald’s education reporter.

Benefit payments cut after 29 years

81-year-old granted citizenship at urgent ceremony after red flag at ministry.
Setefano Va'a is almost totally deaf and is cared for by his niece's family.
Setefano Va'a is almost totally deaf and is cared for by his niece's family.

An 81-year-old man who has been on welfare for 29 years has had his benefit stopped because Work and Income has belatedly decided that he didn't meet residency requirements.

Samoan-born Setefano Va'a, who has been in New Zealand since 1975, was granted NZ citizenship yesterday in an urgent private ceremony at the Mangere Community Law Centre.

But he has not yet got back his benefit, which was stopped in November. Ministry of Social Development regional director Lynda Smardon said her staff contacted his advocate yesterday "to encourage Mr Va'a to get back in touch following his receipt of citizenship so we can progress his application for financial assistance".

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His niece Taylor Crichton and her husband Chris Filimone, who care for him at their home in Mt Wellington, said Mr Va'a was granted permanent residence about two years after arriving in New Zealand, but the documents were lost.

Work and Income wrote to Mr Va'a last August stating that he was first granted a sickness benefit in May 1987, and Ms Crichton said he provided the required documents then.

"You can't get a benefit without ID," she said.

"My aunty took his [Samoan] passport and birth certificate to apply for his benefit then, but when we went to ask her for the passport and the birth certificate, she says she lost it."

Mr Va'a, who is almost totally deaf and has lost the ability to speak English, could not explain why he needed a sickness benefit since 1987, but merely said through Ms Crichton that he was "sick".

He had come to New Zealand alone to join his parents and siblings, leaving his wife and seven children behind in Samoa.

He said through Ms Crichton that he worked at first on the railways.

But his health deteriorated, and Mr Filimone said that by the year 2000, when he was living alone in a council flat in Otara, he was in a bad state.

"Every time we saw him he asked for more money," Mr Filimone said. "We heard that one year he stayed without power.

"That's why I took him to his brother's house. Then we moved him to my wife's sister's house until 2009, when they moved to Australia. That's how I got him back home again."

The family helped him to apply for NZ superannuation in 2009 but he was turned down because he didn't have his residency documents. Instead he was granted an emergency benefit.

Mrs Smardon said that when he applied again for NZ super last June "it became clear he did not meet the residency requirements for receiving financial assistance".

"Mr Va'a continued to receive payments between June and November," she said. "During this five-month period Mr Va'a and his advocate were given multiple opportunities to obtain the requested residency information."

The family has supported him since his benefit was finally stopped in November. Mr Filimone, 47, is also on a benefit because he needs regular dialysis for kidney failure, and the family has fallen behind with bills.

"They have warned me that the power is going to be disconnected," he said. "I did ring them yesterday and made an appointment with Winz [Work and Income] to pay for my power on Friday next week." He will have to repay the loan.

Auckland Action Against Poverty advocate Alastair Russell said he now saw people whose benefits had been stopped "on a regular basis".

"There is a clear drive by the Government to decrease the numbers of people on benefits by whatever means necessary."

- NZ Herald

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