A boost in Working for Families payments for those on low incomes and a top-up to the Best Start payment for parents of new babies have been announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern announced the increases during her address to the Labour Party annual conference, saying it will help those on lower incomes wrestling with the higher costs of living because of Covid-19.
Expected to cost $272 million over four years, the changes will kick in from April 2022.
When asked if the Government could have done more, Ardern said her team had targeted the worst-off families.
She said the new supports for families on the lowest incomes came at a time when they needed it most.
Many of these families had been doing it tough in locked-down Auckland, she said.
She said the Working For Families support covered low- and middle-income families across the country.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the announcement today kept payments up with inflation and then added a bit more money on top via tax credits for low- and middle-income families.
When asked whether an extra $5 a week would make a difference to families, Ardern said the boost would equate to an extra $20 a week for many families.
When asked what she would spend an extra $5 a week on each week, Ardern said it is not for the Government to say how families should spend the money.
Ardern said today's new record daily high of 206 cases was not unexpected or a sea change in the growth of case numbers.
She also said she wouldn't describe hospitalisation rates as being up.
The health system absolutely had the capacity to treat patients and the hospitals are coping well.
She said the Government had never introduced level 3 lockdown restrictions simply on the basis of Covid being detected in the wastewater system.
Instead, the Government was so far encouraging anyone with even slight Covid-like symptoms to get tested.
Ardern said the current level of Covid cases is tracking on the middle range of the modelling earlier presented by the Government.
The Government does want people to move for Christmas and New Year out of Auckland. But the challenge is still on how to manage the demand.
"You have a commitment we will not keep Aucklanders isolated to Auckland during that period," she said.
"We simply cannot do that."
Ardern said the process for positive Covid cases self-isolating at home involved Healthline staff reaching out to people to check if they have other health complications and it is safe for them to self-isolate.
Healthline staff should then continue to follow up regularly on those self-isolating at home to check on their health status, she said.
New Zealand has been totally consistent in voicing concerns about Hong Kong and Uhygurs in Xinjiang, Ardern said in response to what she said in a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
She said she wished every success to China in hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics and that Kiwi athletes will be attending.
When asked about calls to boycott the Winter Olympics over human rights abuses in China, Ardern said she has raised concerns about Hong Kong and Xinjiang directly with Jinping.
The payment changes will lift the Family Tax Credit paid to both beneficiary and working families by almost $15 a week for an eldest child, and $13 per week for subsequent children.
The Best Start payment will also lift from $60 a week to $65 a week. That payment goes to all newborn babies for the first year, kicking in after paid parental leave ends, and continues for those on low incomes for a further two years.
The increases are a combination of scheduled inflation increases of 8.75 per cent for the Family Tax Credit with an additional top-up of $5 per week.
Best Start, which goes to about 75,000 families, would get an inflation increase of $5 a week.
Ardern said the changes followed on from the increases in benefit levels earlier this year, which were expected to lift between 19,000 and 33,000 children out of poverty.
The changes were targeted toward the lowest-income families – those on less than $40,000 will benefit the most, getting an average increase of $26 a week.
"But we know all families are doing it tough, so everyone receiving a Family Tax Credit or Best Start payment will be better off compared to what they receive now."
Some of the costs would be offset by an increase in the abatement rate for the Family Tax Credit from 25 per cent to 27 per cent, although the abatement threshold of $42,700 would remain the same.
Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said that would mean those on the lowest incomes got the most, while nobody would be worse off compared to now.
The benefit increases package was the centrepiece of the Budget this year – it increases weekly benefit rates by between $32 and $55, with an extra $15 a week for families with children.
Sepuloni said the changes were a further step to ensuring people could have a decent standard of living. A full review of Working for Families was under way, with details due to be released later this year.
About 346,000 families are eligible for Working for Families, more than half of all families. Of those, 281,000 are eligible for the Family Tax Credit, which goes to both beneficiary and working families.
That currently pays $113 a week for an eldest child and a further $91 a week for younger children.
'No intention of stepping down' - PM
Earlier today, Ardern told Newshub Nation ahead of the speech that she has no intention of stepping down anytime soon and considered her job to be the "greatest privilege of my life."
The conference, being held online, is the party's first since Labour's historic election win last year, and is set to vote on a range of changes to its constitution and rules.
The most significant will be a move to allow Labour's caucus of MPs to elect a leader without going to a vote by the wider party membership. That would happen if one contender secured the support of two-thirds of caucus within one week of the position coming up.
Party president Claire Szabo said the change was predominantly to ensure there could be a swift handover if a leader stepped down while the party was in Government, as happened in the National Party when former party leader John Key stepped down.
When asked about the possibility of that on Newshub Nation this morning, Ardern said she had no intention of stepping aside any time soon. "I'm not stopping. I need to carry us through, it's my job.
"You can't anticipate what you'll come up against in this job, but I still consider this to be the greatest privilege of my life. Yes, we are in the biggest health crisis going back to 1918, and a significant economic crisis as well. Yet to be the person who is able to steward New Zealand through that time, despite the difficulties that it presents I still consider it an honour."
The party conference will wrap up later today – a day shorter than usual.
It comes after a testing week for the Government in its handling of the Covid response and ahead of a busy week of Apec meetings for the Prime Minister, which New Zealand is hosting but is being held virtually.
Ardern said on The Nation this morning that allowing Aucklanders to get out of the city for summer was now "a bottom line" for the Government – and it was trying to find a way to ensure that could be done safely. Options on the table included allowing only the vaccinated to leave the city, but Ardern no decision on that had yet been made and the Government was still getting legal advice on it.
Earlier this week, Ardern was heckled by those protesting against vaccine mandates and opposing lockdowns on visits to Northland and Whanganui.
The two regions are among the least vaccinated – Ardern was trying to boost those rates to ensure all DHB regions hit a 90 per cent double-dosed threshold at which the new traffic lights system can begin – and the boundaries around Auckland eased.