Over the last week or so several very brave people have shared their experiences online of the challenges they are experiencing dealing with Work and Income.
It is important to acknowledge how brave it is to share these experiences when the government has continued to characterise people requiring income support as work shy, drug taking, criminals who don’t care for their children, and have been happy to misrepresent the financial situation of people who have publically challenged their decisions.
As usual I’ve been talking with beneficiary advocacy groups and other community groups who are trying to support people on low incomes and I’ve been hearing stories that are very consistent with the examples shared and here are some examples of the stories I’ve been hearing consistently to share:
- Despite the government rhetoric of providing wrap around services to help people into work, most people are having to deal with a whole range of people, are not being provided support and feel as if staff are not well trained or informed of entitlements or disabilities. More over people are routinely given false information about what they’re entitled to and are not being told what support is available.
- Paper work regularly goes missing, delaying access to payments and requiring applicants to spend an inordinate amount of time, and money they don’t have, gathering papers and receipts. For people with disabilities and mental health problems this creates extra costs and also very real barriers to access. Many people share stories of Work and Income losing their information multiple times before they learn to either take copies of the documents or even record themselves handing over the papers.
- People are sometimes having to wait weeks to be able to get an appointment for urgent assistance. Weeks is too long when it comes to paying rent and feeding yourself or your children.
- An unreasonable intransigence about appointment times including requiring someone to attend an appointment at a time they had organised a job interview. Missing appointments can result in sanctions.
- People who are informing Work and Income that they’ve got jobs aren’t being told they are entitled to transitional assistance until they start work and are not being told they might still be entitled to the accommodation supplement. This means that some people are really struggling and starting their jobs in debt or unable to manage all their costs even with a job. This clearly negates the purpose of social security and the emphasis on getting people into work.
- There is a culture of blame and mistrust in many, though not all, offices that mean most people going into the work and Income offices come out feeling much worse than when they went in and in some offices it seems normal for people to be in tears.
- Clapping/ringing bells when ‘the staff get’ someone off benefit without any consideration of how other people in the open plan office might be feeling or the lack of power of the person being so publically ‘congratulated’.
People report dramatically different service and access to entitlements when they go in with an advocate or complain publically.
- There seems to be a tightening of what is being granted under the disability allowance and decisions of doctors are being overturned by work and income. This has resulted in very real stress and increased anxiety and has made it harder to for people to get the treatment and care they need to live.
- Work and income offices are displaying posters with the statement “it turns out my biggest disability was thinking I couldn’t work.
- Advances and grants are being denied, ignoring the available discretion. This is routinely happening over the 0800 line and at appointments without any written record of the decision. This means we cannot assess if more applications are being declined or not and hold the government to account. I have heard several examples from several areas of the country of people being refused bond and rent in advance in this way, the consequences of this is clearly significant. Some of the decisions have been almost immediately reversed when advocates have intervened.
- While the government tells us x number of people have got off the benefit and into work they are actually misrepresenting the facts. They don’t know what happens to many people who go off benefit. I’ve heard there is a systematic attempt to shift people onto study link without checking if they are entitled to additional support. I was told of a woman with two children who was now only able to access a student loan of $173pw. I am also hearing of people just giving up and deciding to try to survive in the informal economy because they just can’t bear dealing with Work and Income any more. Again this is not providing social security and it is hard not to see a likely increase in crime, poor mental health, hospitalisations or even just a loss of tax.
These experiences add up to barriers in front of people trying to get by and improve their situation. How do you improve your mental health when you are treated with contempt? How do you get a job and properly focus on getting a great job when you’re having to spend so much of your time battling the bureaucracy.
We have a deeply flawed social security which the current culture is making much worse. This is not the fault of the staff. The Minister is fully aware of these problems and we have repeatedly asked her to conduct a comprehensive audit of whether people are accessing their entitlements and she refuses. She is in breach of our social contract. At the heart of our understanding of human rights is a sense of the importance of human dignity. We need a government that promotes dignity.