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If you lose your job, official figures show you're three times more likely to go on the dole in Australia than you are in New Zealand.

The Ministry of Social Development, which provided the figures, says this is because it is much more likely to find you a new job than its Australian counterpart, Centrelink.

But Wellington beneficiary advocate Kay Brereton said the figures suggested the rules for getting benefits were tighter in New Zealand.

"I'm very concerned that we have 5 per cent unemployment and only 1.3 per cent getting benefits," she said. "That's frightening."

The ministry figures show that the numbers on unemployment benefits have fallen further and further behind the official unemployment rate over the past eight years.

In March 2001, official unemployment measured by the household labour force survey was 5.5 per cent, and 5 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 received the dole.

By March this year, after falling to a low point last year, the official jobless rate was back up to 5 per cent. But only 1.3 per cent of the working-aged population received the benefit.

Even at the last available count, at May 28, only 1.6 per cent of 15- to 64-year-olds were on the dole.

In contrast, dole numbers at the end of March represented 4.1 per cent of the working-aged population in Australia, 3.8 per cent in Britain and a massive 12.3 per cent in Ireland.

Even more dramatically, numbers on the dole represented only 32 per cent of the officially unemployed in New Zealand, compared with 99 per cent in Australia, 69 per cent in Britain and 164 per cent in Ireland.

Ministry chief executive Peter Hughes said New Zealand's low numbers reflected the integration of benefits and job search services in one agency, Work and Income.

"It's because we have this very active approach of getting people back to work," he said.

"That's different from Australia. If you turn up at Centrelink they put you on a benefit and refer you to a job search provider."

He said that even in March, 15 months after NZ economic output started dropping, 34 per cent of new jobseekers who attended a "Work for You" seminar did not require a benefit within 28 days of attending it.

Just over half (51 per cent) of those who had gone on the dole in the previous 13 weeks had moved off it by the end of March, mostly because they had found new jobs.

Fully 75 per cent of those who had gone on the dole in the previous 26 weeks had moved off it.

Mr Hughes said the ministry had been planning on the basis of a "worst-case scenario", boosting Work and Income case managers by 104 to 582 to make sure it could cope with predicted increases in unemployment without longer waiting times for appointments.

Australia has had longer waiting times as unemployment has risen.

Mr Hughes said he aimed to add 76 extra case managers for every 10,000 extra jobless beneficiaries, and now had enough staff to cope with a rise to 60,000 from the May 28 tally of 45,624.

"Over the last nine months the worst-case scenario has always become the reality," he said. "We are ... [now] getting some confidence that we are at the bottom."

Unitec economist Keith Rankin said one reason NZ's dole numbers looked lower than overseas might be that more here were on alternatives such as the domestic purposes, sickness and invalid benefits.

New Zealand's tax-funded system is also tighter on partners' incomes than countries with unemployment insurance based on individual contributions.