26 Sep 2023

National says traffic light policy for beneficiaries driven by 'love'

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 26 September 2023

National says its new benefit sanctions policy would aim to help the kind of person who shows up to a job interview in their pyjamas.

The party, which unveiled the traffic-light system to put restrictions on beneficiaries who failed to meet their obligations, also says it doesn't want to target young families with financial punishments. 

Its social development spokesperson Louise Upston told Checkpoint on Tuesday the sanctions could be "effective in encouraging movement from benefits to work".

She said one employer had told her a person showed up for an interview in their pyjamas. 

"Their view was that person was not actively or seriously seeking a job with their business," she told host Lisa Owen. 

She would not reveal who the employer was, and acknowledged she had not independently verified their story. 

"I took them at their word."

The traffic light system would see beneficiaries moved from green to orange after a first breach, requiring more regular check-ins or job workshops. 

After a third breach, they would go to the "red" level, where a person could face benefit reductions, mandatory community work experience, money management, or suspension.

The policy also promises increased support for community providers to shift some of the administrative burden away from the Ministry of Social Development, with additional funding if the providers keep young people off the benefit for at least a year. 

Beneficiaries aged under 25 would also get a $1000 bonus if they had been on the benefit for at least a year but then also stayed off it for at least a year. 

"We want to make the system much easier for people to understand, so they know what they have to do. And if there's an issue, for example if they then move into orange, they will get additional support," Upston said.

While the Greens called it cruel and Labour questioned its effectiveness, National leader Christopher Luxon said it was "doing the right thing by people" to prevent them getting used to "subsistence and poverty".

"We care about these people. We love these people. We want them to do well, we want them to be able to flourish and we actually need to make sure they're clear about the obligations," he said. 

Upston said she had heard the concerns about financial sanctions when there were children in the household, but the new sanctions were "non-financial". 

"What we want to do - before that more drastic measure is taken - is to provide for non-financial sanctions, and I think that is fair and reasonable. We want to ensure that people play their part to support themselves into work."

Unemployment has been below 4 percent since mid-2011. The last time it was that low was under the Labour-led government in the late 2000s, prior to the global financial crisis. 

"There are jobs available, and under National we want to ensure more people are in work," Upston said. 

About 11.2 percent of the working age population is on a main benefit, up slightly from 10 percent under National six years ago. Around half of those were on jobseeker - 173,000 in June, down from 190,000 in June 2021.