15 Jul 2021

MSD Minister discusses delayed reviews of sanctions cases

From Checkpoint, 5:16 pm on 15 July 2021

The social development minister has apologised for delays of more than two years in repaying women whose benefits were docked because they would not name the father of their children.

Up to $28 a week was cut from some women's benefits, and while the government scrapped the sanction in April last year, thousands are waiting for their cases to be reviewed, to see if they will be reimbursed.

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni told Checkpoint that so far 8595 women have been contacted out of 12,000 the issue may have affected. But she was not able to give details about the value of the repayments.

But the team of 20 case workers who were working on the issue were redeployed because of Covid-19.

"It hasn't been dropped, it had to be paused," Sepuloni said.

"It's not as fast as we would like it to be... I say to these women that we will work as quickly as we can. That I apologise that Covid slowed us down with this work, but we are picking it back up.

"And I am relieved that we have been able to get rid of that horrible sanction, so that no other women... have to be penalised for the same reason."

Sepuloni said the case workers are being reinstated to the work now, and it was important they did a thorough job.

"Because of the vulnerability of these particular clients, because of the fact that they were having a sanction applied and then were potentially in more hardship than you would experience otherwise, I wanted to make sure that those phone calls and reviews were fulsome. So they were traversing all of their entitlements, checking in to see that ... they were getting access to all of their other entitlements as well."

Sepuloni said incorrect use of the sanctions by case managers was not the only reason women were docked, in some cases it was because personal details that would have qualified them for an exemption weren't volunteered.

Exemptions could be made where there had been sexual assault or violence in the women's relationship with the child's father. However, some women were too scared or uncomfortable to disclose that detail.

"For many of these women, having those kinds of conversations on the front lines with case workers is really difficult. Having to disclose sexual violence or physical violence in a relationship, or feeling threatened by a former partner is not something that all women feel comfortable discussing with a case worker.

"And therefore in some cases the sanction was applied incorrectly - in many instances because the woman didn't feel comfortable disclosing that information."

One woman who contacted Checkpoint, said she had her benefit docked for 18 years for not naming her son's father after she was gang raped.  

"I was alone, I was struggling, I wanted to keep my boy and for that I was punished. I felt it was discrimination for all of us who went through that - it's discrimination of the worst form. I couldn't tell them who his dad was."

She said she had not wanted to share that information with case workers, and didn't want to now.

Sepuloni said while she felt empathy for the woman, decision-making about whether sanctions were applied incorrectly still had to be based on what the law had been at the time they applied to.

"[MSD] can't make decisions if they don't have all the information."  

She was not able to clarify whether women would have to offer proof of abuse to be considered for an exemption, but said that in many cases women had been able to provide proof.

Sepuloni said women who are no longer on a benefit, but were previously, and may have had the payments docked can still seek a review of whether they are owed a payout.