The Government's flagship welfare policy for Maori, Whanau Ora - worth $40 million this year - is designed to lift families out of poverty and dysfunction, but it has been criticised as a waste of money and an opportunity for some to rort the system. In a four-part investigation, reporters Simon Collins and Yvonne Tahana speak to those at Whanau Ora's frontline.

The Maori Party's flagship Whanau Ora programme is being tightened up to make sure it reaches the most needy families and to stop criminal abuse.

The programme, budgeted to get just under $40 million this year, has been under attack since February when New Zealand First leader Winston Peters criticised a reported $6000 grant to an applicant to hold six family reunions "to reconnect his 180-strong family with each other".

In May, four Dunedin men with Mongrel Mob ties were charged over allegedly using $20,000 in Whanau Ora money to buy cannabis for drug deals. It was from a $45,000 grant to the We Against Violence Trust that was supposed to be used to develop nine whanau plans.

Te Puni Kokiri deputy secretary Geoff Short said his agency started an urgent review a month ago of the fund that approved both grants, the Whanau Integration, Innovation and Engagement (WIIE) Fund. It would be completed in the next month to six weeks. "We will go back to the governance group and the ministers to recommend changes to enable the fund to be more effectively focused," he said.


There was always a risk of criminality when the Government contracted with third parties, especially with a fund intended for the neediest families.

"We not only did quite an in-depth review of that particular contract, but we have also been reviewing all our contracts to ensure that the due diligence measures were done upfront and assessing reports on the use of them."

The review will also recommend stricter controls over regional allocation of the money. A Herald analysis of the first 515 WIIE fund grants totalling $12 million found funding ranged from only $8.45 for every Maori person in the Waikato region to $33.60 per person in Te Tairawhiti (East Coast).

Mr Short said 3000 whanau, representing 33,000 individuals, had been funded to develop whanau plans so far.

A four-part Herald investigation of the scheme, which begins today, has found that most are likely to be among the neediest because most are referred into the scheme from Maori health and social providers serving low-income groups, and from the justice system.

But the grants criteria do not include any assessment of need and state that the fund is "accessible to all families".

The fund has also paid for research, such as a $52,000 grant to Black Pearl Ltd, owned by singer Moana Maniapoto, to research "the role that rangatahi [young people] can play within whanau decision-making".

Mr Short said regional leadership groups might be asked to target needy places such as Murupara or Ruatoki in the Bay of Plenty.

"We want you to reach into those places that are not being reached, hold hui and have engagements in those particular areas."

The review will also look at how to make Whanau Ora providers focus on achieving targets the Government has set for the scheme, such as 90 to 100 per cent of "engaged whanau" putting their preschoolers into early childhood education and 75 to 80 per cent having their children immunised and checked for rheumatic fever.

Whanau Ora (Well Families) is a Government welfare policy initiated by the Maori Party. It is open for everyone but its focus is on Maori families.

Social agencies work with whanau to help identify and improve problem issues such as poor housing, health, education and legal problems. They also ask the family to plan a future which moves them from state dependency to become financially independent and healthy participants in their community.

It is funded in two parts:
* $33.2m this year for agencies to form consortiums to work together with whanau to improve all elements of their wellbeing.

* $6.4m this year directly for whanau to form their own plans to improve their wellbeing.

We have travelled to four of the areas where the services are most in demand.
Today: Tai Tokerau (Northland)
* Urgent review follows abuse of scheme
* Disabled uncle has new hope after 14 years on benefit
Doors open to decent housing and a better lifestyle
* More cash the key to better lives, says CEO
Tomorrow: Waikato-Tainui
Wednesday: Te Arawa (Rotorua)
Thursday: Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland)

Email: Whanau Ora
Visit: Te Puni Kokiri