21 Nov 2019

Social Development Minister 'working quickly as I can' on welfare reforms

From Checkpoint, 5:47 pm on 21 November 2019

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni says she and her ministry are working as quickly as they can on welfare reform and it's easier to make recommendations than to implement them. 

The government is pointing to new figures on its $5.5 billion Families Package as proof it is on track to lift up to 74,000 children out of poverty by 2021.

But the government is facing criticism that it is not doing enough, fast enough to raise people out of poverty.

"It really is just people struggling to make ends meet," Christchurch City Missioner Matthew Mark said.

"So we are literally just seeing people having to make the choice between paying the power, paying the rent, putting the food on the table, all manner of different things that would be normal day-to-day expenses."

Professor Innes Asher, who was on the government's own Welfare Expert Advisory group, said not nearly enough was being done.

"I think that a lot of help has reached a lot of people, but in a small way, and we're just talking about people needing a much larger lift up to stop the struggling, and the sickness, and the distress, and the hunger and so on. So I think there just needs to be a much bigger lift."

But Ms Sepuloni told Checkpoint's Lisa Owen that the government's stock-take of the Families Package showed it had achieved its goal of putting money into the pockets of low and middle-income New Zealanders.

"I don't have responsibility for building the houses," Ms Sepuloni said, but, "the government stopped the sell-off of state homes when it came to power in 2017, and is on target to build the 6400 state houses it promised."

However the Welfare Advisory Group has said the government was not fast enough or brave enough in its welfare reforms.

Ms Sepuloni said the group have not had access to the modelling she had seen.

"I'm the minister in charge of actually working out the detail behind the scenes, and I think lots of people do understand that it's a lot harder to do that, then it is to actually make the recommendations, all due respect to the people that were on that advisory group though.

"I fully expected them and other groups to continue to push us along as a government and to hold us accountable, and I'm working as quickly as I can, I've got my ministry working as quickly as they can.

"It just doesn't necessarily meet the expectations of some and that's okay."

But Ms Sepuloni would not say if or when benefits will be raised.

"I'm not announcing anything today. There is work going on to address income adequacy and we will continue to do that."

From September 2018 to September 2019, hardship grants in New Zealand rose 66 percent.

"We will make sure that people get access to what they are entitled to," Ms Sepuloni said.

"And I think that [the Ministry of Social Development has] been successful in doing that.

"We know that special needs grants are up in places where there is housing demand, issues with affordability."

In regard to recommendations in the Welfare Advisory Group's report, she said the government did not even have the technology to implement them.

"I know people on the outside say, 'just do something', but the reality is that it doesn't happen that quickly and sometimes it comes down to technology and a range of other things."

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is calling for a pre-Christmas package of welfare changes.

"I respect the role that they have in advocating for children," Ms Sepuloni said.

"[But] you can't just implement immediate changes in the way that CPAG would like us to. And you can't implement changes that haven't been taken into consideration with respect to the Budget.

"Unfortunately, what CPAG is asking for is something that is not possible."