Relationship fraud law will share responsibility

By Chester Borrows


This week I have had an email from a woman who had been a very young solo mum living on a benefit. She had a boyfriend who lost his accommodation and she offered him a place to stay. He contributed nothing to the finances, did nothing around the house and seldom ate at the house. She said the only thing they shared was the bed.

Work and Income found out about it, he left, and she admitted the relationship as far as it went. Then the woman found she was pregnant. Her son is now ten-and-a-half years of age. The man pays her $30 per week and she is still paying $40 per week back to Work and Income.

Last week, I announced legislation that would target what we refer to in shorthand as "relationship fraud". This is when a beneficiary takes more money than they are entitled to by not telling Work and Income they have a spouse or partner - for example, a woman in a de facto relationship while on the DPB.

The changes I announced would mean that the partner of a beneficiary caught committing relationship fraud will be responsible for the debt and criminal liability for ripping the taxpayer off. It is time people learned that stealing from the taxpayer is not a victimless crime. It is not clever, and they will get caught.

Some people suggest that we should be prosecuting the wives of white collar criminals for living on the profits of their crimes. Of course, if someone else - partner, spouse, friend or associate - has actively been a part of the crime, they can be prosecuted as such.

However, these arguments ignore an important difference between the partner of someone committing relationship fraud and the partner of someone committing some other crime. While most spouses of offenders have nothing to do with their partner's offending, relationship fraud only becomes a crime when there is an undeclared relationship. It takes two to tango - it is the very presence of that partner which makes the beneficiary ineligible for that money, creating the fraud, so you cannot separate the partner from the crime.

Having put an extra $200 million into tax evasion detection over the past three years, I reckon we are not turning a blind eye to those ripping us off through the tax system, and it is important to remember that just because we have a problem in one area, it shouldn't mean we neglect concerns in another.

That is like suggesting we do nothing about poverty in New Zealand because people are starving in Africa.

Opponents also blame government policy for "forcing beneficiaries to rip off the taxpayer" because times are tight.

With about 340,000 people receiving some kind of welfare at the moment, the claim that people need to steal slanders the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries who get by without breaking the law. People move on and off the benefit all the time and don't have to commit crime to stay afloat financially. Women and men form relationships and move from the DPB into marriage-type relationships and do so within the law.

The final charge some were quick to level at us was that this might be a problem for women in violent relationships. That concern is easy to answer - Work and Income investigators are well trained to pick up if there might be violence in a relationship and the law is clear that if there is abuse in that home, the woman's eligibility for the DPB is not affected, so there is no fraud.

To do otherwise would make it harder for her to leave that violent situation, which is the last thing we want to stand in the way of. If people commit fraud, they can expect to be caught. We are getting better at catching fraud offenders and we have just widened the net.

The public deserve to have confidence their money is being used properly.

Beneficiaries deserve to know that we will be there to support them and will not tolerate a few criminals among them giving them all a bad name. These reforms will help deliver on that.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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