by Metiria Turei
In 2005, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) was granted access to the Human Rights Review Tribunal for a case in which they claimed the In Work Tax Credit (IWTC) component of Working for Families (WFF) family assistance package unjustifiably discriminated on the grounds of employment status in providing significantly less assistance to families on benefits than to those in work.
In late 2008, the Tribunal found that the package did, indeed, amount to prima facie discrimination on the ground of employment status, but that such discrimination did not impair the right to freedom from discrimination more than is reasonably necessary for sufficient achievement of its legislative purposes (being to incentivise beneficiaries into work and to minimise complex assessments of need).
In making that finding, the Tribunal commented:
We accept that issues of child poverty are real and pressing in New Zealand; no other conclusion is possible on the evidence that we heard.
The reality, however, is that any scheme that includes financial incentives to encourage those who are on benefit incomes to move into work necessarily involves conferring financial advantage on those who can make the move. To the extent that people in that class have families, it follows that their children have the chance to access the advantages as well. At the same time the children of those who cannot or will not make the move will miss out. That is so whether or not there is a formal connection between the incentives and children (as there is in the case of the IWTC). Unless one takes the extreme view that the Government cannot create financial incentives to work at all – because they infringe the right to freedom from discrimination on grounds of employment status, and are inherently unjustifiable – then a level of harm to that right (here, experienced in the sense that those who do not qualify will be ‘left behind’) is inevitable.
The current proceedings are an appeal against the Tribunal’s finding that the infringement against the right to freedom from discrimination is justified.
I agree with CPAG’s argument. I fail to see how providing lesser assistance to someone who cannot work because of their own disability or because they care for a disabled or young child can be justified. It is ridiculous to argue it provides an incentive to work to someone who simply cannot work, and it denies additional assistance to those who have the least capacity to improve their financial circumstances.
Working for Families can be made to work for all families, without the discrimination against those who need it most, while still retaining incentives for those who can work to do so.
Last month, I announced how the Green Party would do this, and bring 100,000 children out of poverty in the process through extending the IWTC part of WFF to beneficiary families, while increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That would put an end to the discrimination in WFF, while maintaining, or in some cases increasing, the financial incentive for those beneficiaries who can work to do so.