27 Sep 2023

Welfare experts group members criticise National's beneficiary policy

11:03 am on 27 September 2023
Christopher Luxon and Louise Upston speak to media from Phil Greig Strawberry Farm in Auckland on 26 September 2023.

National's Social Development spokesperson Louise Upston speaking a Photo: Tim Collins

Members of the 2019 Welfare Expert Advisory Group have rejected National's claim their report backs up the party's harsher sanctions for some jobseekers.

Speaking to Checkpoint on Tuesday, National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston was defending National's proposed policy, saying it would make the system easier to understand.

The policy would put progressively stronger restrictions on beneficiaries who failed to meet jobseeking obligations, give increased support to community providers rather than the ministry, and provide a $1000 bonus to long-term beneficiaries who stay off the benefit for more than a year.

"If there's an issue, for example if they then move into orange, they will get additional support," Upston said.

Asked to provide evidence sanctions could help support beneficiaries into work, she referred to the WEAG's report: "One of their comments in their conclusion says they can be effective in encouraging movement from benefits to work".

The report itself does not appear to say this, however.

Asked later to point to this evidence, Upston referred to a 2018 summary of evidence prepared for the WEAG by the Ministry of Social Development, which said studies of "regimes less severe than New Zealand's show they can be effective".

Upston said the "evidence that sanctions work is that 60,000 fewer people were on a Jobseeker benefit at the end of the past National government's tenure.

"The lax application of sanctions under Labour has entrenched welfare dependency. Even though businesses have been crying out for staff for two years, welfare dependency has skyrocketed under Labour."

Former members of the group, which produced its final report in February 2019, told RNZ National's claims did not match up with the report's findings.

This included social policy researcher Charles Waldegrave, who said what Upston was referring to was a summary of evidence - and the support for sanctions was a small minority.

"What she's referring to was definitely a minority of the views that were put forward. By far the majority of research on sanctions has shown that it's counterproductive when you use it with low-income families."

He said National's policy, which proposed to keep benefit increases in line with CPI inflation - rather than whichever was higher between inflation or wage growth - would be "counterproductive".

"[Inflation] doesn't actually pick up all the costs of housing. And housing is a is a huge item for any New Zealanders at the moment - especially low income people."

Labour did not remove all sanctions, but it did remove some - and reduced the number handed out to beneficiaries.

Waldegrave said sanctions "humiliated" people on benefits, and often meant they could not get work.

"Especially if you have stand-down period, I mean, it basically means people go, and children go without income in that household.

"There's a lot of costs in actually getting a job and people need that opportunity, and most of the families that we see actually, really, really struggle - want to work and really struggle."

Beneficiaries advocate Kaye Brereton, who was on the group, said the best option was to work with people rather than impose sanctions.

"What the sanctions research said was that this intervention by government agencies going 'we know better than you about how you should manage your life' is something thta creates more stress for someone and really moves them further away from being ready and able to work."

Another group member, Child Poverty Action Group's Innes Asher, said National's policy was "an awful thing to be doing, because it'll harm children".

She said Upston had taken a single line out of context, and most of the report disagreed with National's approach.

The WEAG report mentions sanctions dozens of times, saying:

  • That the "empirical literature provides no single, overarching answer to whether obligations and sanctions in welfare systems bring about the desired forms of behavioural change" (page 41)
  • There was "even less evidence that non-work-related obligations and associated sanctions achieve the stated aims of intended behavioural modification" (p41)
  • The "application of obligations and sanctions in New Zealand (and elsewhere) is problematic" (p41)
  • That it did "not support the continued use of a financial sanctioning regime" beyond 10 percent financial loss
  • That there was "little evidence in support of using obligations and sanctions (as in the current system) to change behaviour; rather, there is research indicating that they compound social harm and disconnectedness"
  • Sanctions over time had "contributed to the hardship faced by many in the welfare system".

"A high number of obligation failures are disputed (46 percent) and almost all (98 percent) of these disputes are upheld with the failure being overturned," the report said.

However, another WEAG member - former BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly, argued the group's report never said sanctions should not exist, and those criticising National's policies should also look at Labour's.

"You needed sanctions for the task that was appropriate to what you wanted to do," he said. "If you've got skills ... the longer you stay out of work, the faster those skills decay.

"Sanctions by themselves are unlikely to [move people into work], but it's a package, you need a whole lot more and Labour don't seem to be doing that either."

He said Labour's approach left thousands of people languishing on the dole queue rather than going into work.

"I'll argue that if people aren't prepared to engage in that process, honestly and responsibly, they do need to be sanctioned."

Luxon defends party policy

Christopher Luxon and Louise Upston speak to media from Phil Greig Strawberry Farm in Auckland on 26 September 2023.

National leader Christopher Luxon Photo: Tim Collins

National leader Christopher Luxon was standing by the party's policy on beneficiaries and pointed to evidence of a downward trend for people on the Jobseeker benefit in a previous National government.

"We've seen that in a previous National government, we've seen that in an Australian system that has been similar and operating since 2018 and we've seen it with abysmal results from a Labour government that in a time of ... massive work vacancies they've got 60,000 more people on Jobseeker benefits," he said.

Luxon told Morning Report that it was not fair to say this was a policy that was getting tough on beneficiaries, instead of being based on evidence.

He said the vast majority of people would be in the green zone and the new sanctions would only affect a small number of people.

"[Jobseeker] is a short-term transitory benefit to support you between jobs or to get you ready for a job."

Luxon said the alternative was unacceptable.

"That is not good enough to say to the rest of New Zealanders [who] are [working] hard, paying their taxes, giving it to the government so that they can support a safety net in a welfare system."

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