Paula Bennett has been accused of serious wrongdoing after releasing details of the benefits received by two solo mothers who had criticised cuts to a training allowance. According to the Green Party, the Social Development Minister is effectively warning beneficiaries that the Government will use all its power to discredit and humiliate them if they dare speak out about issues that affect them personally. "I fear that from now on, no one will speak up," said Green MP Sue Bradford. Unfortunately for her, one of the mothers, Jennifer Johnston, took a more measured approach, saying Ms Bennett's action would not stop her criticising the cutting of the Training Incentive Allowance.

Ms Johnston's complaint, as outlined originally in the Herald on Sunday, is that restriction of the allowance to study at NCEA level 3 or under means she may not now be able to embark on a nursing degree. Another solo mother, Natasha Fuller, echoed her sentiment about domestic purposes beneficiaries being locked out of prospective careers because they no longer had the financial means to enrol at universities or polytechnics. She had planned to become an early childhood teacher. Neither women disclosed how much she was receiving from the state.

The crux of this issue is whether the information now released by Ms Bennett is relevant to their case, or merely an attempt to intimidate, as critics say. The two women claim genuine financial hardship is thwarting their prospects of escaping the benefit and building a career. The total amount they receive from the state must, therefore, be relevant. Data released by the minister show Ms Fuller receives $715 a week and Ms Johnston $554. Both are getting the allowance for pre-degree study. Ms Fuller gets $28 a week, got the same allowance from 2004 to 2006, and in 2006-07 was given $9560 under an Enterprise Allowance to start a now discontinued cleaning business.

People can make a reasonable assessment of the women's position only if such information is in the public domain. They now know enough of their circumstances to draw a conclusion on whether they have, as Ms Bennett suggests, been given a "fair go". And whether, as the minister proposes, they have the sort of financial foundation that makes it possible to invest in their own future. The introduction of interest-free student loans is certainly a major plus for women in their position wishing to undertake tertiary study.

Ms Fuller suggests that she did not believe she had omitted any relevant information when making her criticism. That is disingenuous. Once in the public arena, her complaint was bound to be fully scrutinised. The degree of that examination was ramped up when the Labour Party used the two women's stories in Parliament last week.

There are obvious parallels between this case and an earlier one involving Bruce Burgess, a redundant worker. Labour helped him to go public with concerns about losing his lifestyle block because his wife's $21,000 income meant he could not claim an unemployment benefit. No mention was made of him also owning two rental houses. The Labour leader, Phil Goff, said these were not relevant because they were not returning a profit and asset wealth was not part of the means test for the dole. That may have been arguable in theory, but Mr Goff must also have known the additional information would have a major bearing on the popular response.

The Government was clearly encouraged by the defusing of that issue and the embarrassment to Labour. Upbraided by two solo mothers, Ms Bennett has taken it upon herself to unveil "the full story". The upshot will not be that people stop speaking out or that the Government escapes criticism. It will be that all information relevant to an issue is more likely to be put before the public at the outset.