I’ve been hearing an increasing number of stories about how hard it has become for people to get the help they need, and are legally entitled to, from Work and Income.
I’ve heard of people who are have become homeless because of Work and Income decisions, people who are homeless who are sent away without help and others who Work and Income will be chasing for thousands of dollars in debt to cover the cost of emergency housing. Add to this the now regular stories of cancer patients not getting the help they need, people having their benefits cut because a tardy bus made them miss an appointment or because they didn’t get the letter that told them they needed to renew their medical certificate. The list goes on.
Then Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) spent three days helping people, at one Work and Income office, access their entitlements. They saw over 700 people in just three days, at just one office. AAAP had to turn people away because there simply wasn’t the ability for everyone who needed help to get it. Social services are seeing more and more people who aren’t coping. The level of desperation is palpable and more and more visible on our streets.
In response to this we have had repeated assurances from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Social Development that everything is okay. They’re doing everything they can. Yet it is increasingly obvious there are some serious problems within the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and the Minister doesn’t know what’s going on.
Last year the Minister told the House that she did not know that MSD had continued underpaying people starting to get income support, despite two court rulings telling them they were effectively breaking the law. She said she didn’t know about this. I asked the CE of MSD about this debacle and how we could have confidence in the Ministry when something of this scale and seriousness could happen, without the Minister being informed. He assured me that MSD had strengthened their processes – he specifically mentioned escalation of issues. Yet while he was giving these assurances, we are now told that he was aware of another case involving the incorrect payment of about 90,000 people that he had not told the Minister about.
The Minister now tells us there are another 6 cases where MSD has systematically got it wrong in terms of people’s payments. The Minister won’t tell us what that involves, despite it being clearly in the public’s interest to know.
The Ministry of Social Development is the largest Ministry in NZ, responsible for many things including the safety of our most vulnerable children, ensuring people can access housing when in need, and have enough money to keep a roof over their head and feed their family. The Government’s focus on reducing financial liability to the Crown rather than ensuring people get the help they need has created a culture that allowed officials to think it was okay to underpay beneficiaries in defiance of court rulings.
We need to know the Minister is committed to ensuring people get the help they need and that she has the ability to deliver through her Ministry. A breakdown of relationship between the Ministry and Ministry is a disaster for public confidence as well as for the National Government.
The Minister needs to conduct an audit of people’s access to entitlements and put a comprehensive plan in place to ensure Work and Income is focused on making sure people get all the help that they are legally entitled to. I have problems with the law as it is written but to reduce people’s support to levels below what is guaranteed in the law is completely unacceptable.