Denis O'Reilly: Winz is reverting to Dickensian welfare treatment

It was the coroner's view that open plan offices did not give staff adequate protection. Photo / Mark Mitchell
It was the coroner's view that open plan offices did not give staff adequate protection. Photo / Mark Mitchell

• Denis O' Reilly runs Mokai Whanau Ora a national programme that aims to enrol gang leaders in a movement to self-prohibit the manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine.

I recently read of the coroner's findings on the tragic events at the Winz offices in Ashburton. It was the coroner's view that open plan offices did not give staff adequate protection. One of the troubles with the constant restructuring of the public service is that we lose institutional memory.

Work and Income's open plan office layout arises from an earlier and kinder age. Then under the leadership of George Hickton and the management of Christine Rankin, the Winz service promise was to help beneficiaries get everything to which they were entitled.

Beneficiaries were seen to be people of potential. It was believed that if beneficiaries were fairly provided with support to access the necessities of life they would be provided with a platform to stabilise themselves.

The opportunities were then increased by support to move into training and employment. This is an approach consistent with the ethos of the current Government's flagship Maori development policy, Whanau Ora. However, against the espoused policy the prevailing Winz philosophy seems to be that beneficiaries have to be punished for their situation and then corrected.

It is Dickensian. The beneficiary has to be deemed to be worthy of assistance. The intent appears to be to make beneficiaries feel as worthless as possible and access to support as difficult as can be.

I'm a former director of the NZ Employment Service, the predecessor to Winz, and I hold a master's degree in social practice. When I try to help beneficiaries navigate Winz' labyrinthine processes to access their entitlements even I get perplexed and frustrated. It's enough to make one scream.

Some do. Consequently we now have offices staffed by security guards rather than people on hand to assist beneficiaries navigate the system. It's a counter-productive approach. It seeds hopelessness and consequently reaps nothing but poverty of spirit. That's the poverty that leads to addictions and consequent social dysfunctions.

Our skilled and semi-skilled labour shortage, particularly in the building industry, is a major opportunity for a fresh approach. The housing crisis and particularly the need for social housing present opportunities to train beneficiaries for the construction industry.

Former beneficiaries who have acquired building skills could be enabled to contribute to the build of their own future dwellings through sweat equity.

Putting people into new homes doesn't on its own resolve intergenerational dysfunctions. This requires intentional community-building. There is a highly successful Ministry of Social Development programme called E Tu Whanau which can encourage whanau to develop a holistic lifestyle change, enabling not just a change of address but a change of behaviour. We need to play the long game.

For instance, New Zealand is demonstrably confronted by a serious methamphetamine problem. Suicides are apparently up by 12 per cent, domestic violence has increased and burglaries are on the rise. Join the dots. Regardless of wealth or social status we are all affected by meth one way or another.

Our borders are porous. Demand reduction needs to be our key strategy to combat meth. Think of it like a civil defence emergency. Get together at a community level, and support each other to get through the storm. Set up support networks and make sure that local addiction recovery services are available. If not, agitate for them.

- NZ Herald

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