Over the last few weeks I’ve been wondering how safe our income support system is for people, especially those with cognitive or learning disabilities.
I’ve been trying to support a young man who was severely injured in a workplace accident in Australia that put him into a coma and from which he suffers ongoing head injury symptoms. He has returned home, but is not eligible for ACC and Work and Income has put him on Jobseeker Support.
The consequences of the head injury include memory loss and mood disturbances. He had his benefit cut off for missing an appointment – because he’d got the day wrong and had been admitted to hospital after a suicide attempt on the actual day of his appointment. He has since been told he needs to wait to get another appointment to reapply.
He has now also been trespassed because he asked to be dealt with by the remote unit because his frustrations were getting to a point he was worried he would lash out. Where are the wrap-around services we’ve been hearing so much about?
I have also been contacted by an advocate who often supports people with limited communication skills. She is concerned that these people’s needs are not being met and they are often being identified as low trust or non-compliant when the reality is that they don’t understand what is being asked of them and as a result can’t navigate the system and its obligations.
She has highlighted a man who has been trespassed for not (in her words) “having the correct language skills to voice his frustration at his treatment.” She also reports and instance of a hearing impaired person who has been sanctioned and denied emergency food grants after failing obligations she didn’t fully understand or have the support to meet.
Francis Joychild QC recently wrote a paper on the rule of law/access to justice singling out Work and Income as an area of particular concern. She too has heard of many people having benefits cut off without notice and it taking weeks or even months to get them reinstated. This has happened despite the decision to cut off being either a result of a mistake by Work and Income or from a circumstance beyond the beneficiary’s control.
In Frances Joychild’s words:
Staff have so many discretions over beneficiary entitlements and beneficiaries are so dependent on their benefit to meet their most basic needs that the vast majority are too afraid to rock the boat. For several years now persons have been unceremoniously and unlawfully removed in droves from sickness and invalids benefits and subject to punitive job search conditions for which many are not equipped mentally or physically. I am aware of some who have ended up off benefit entirely. Their only recourse is to a Medical Appeal Board (MAB) panel and then to judicial review. They cannot access the Social Security Appeal Authority.
Clearly beneficiaries have no money to employ a lawyer. Most of the problems they encounter are not covered by legal aid. Some are lucky enough to have access to unpaid beneficiary advocates. I suspect a very large number do not. It is extraordinary that in an area of major legal complexity, wide government discretions and deeply disempowered citizens that the Rule of Law is at its weakest.
So we have increasing anecdotal evidence of what amounts to a systems failure that is deeply compromising people’s mental and physical health.
Last week the Office of the Auditor General presented the report on the Ministry of Social development: How it deals with complaints which found significant room for improvement in the processing and recording of complaints and expressed concern about the lack of Ministry-wide analysis of complaints to identify systemic problems.
Advocates and lawyers have been raising this concern with me for a while now. They’re seeing, for example, a large number of decisions to apply sanctions overturned, but no apparent change in policy or practice to ensure those mistakes are not repeated.
A very telling and problematic example of this was raised in the recent Child Poverty Action Group report The complexities of relationship in the welfare system and the consequences for children which noted that it is “deeply concerning” that the Ministry does not appear to have changed policies following a court ruling that found the Ministry was incorrectly applying the law.
So we have growing anecdotal evidence of some serious problems, little or no access to independent legal advice for the poorest New Zealanders, inadequate monitoring, and no process to identify systemic issues or even ensure legal rulings are applied in practice. This is simply not acceptable.