20 Feb 2013

Govt cracks down on benefit fraudsters' partners

10:22 pm on 20 February 2013

The Government has announced it is cracking down on benefit fraud, including creating a new offence for the partners of beneficiaries convicted of the crime.

It will also remove the obligation for a beneficiary to be informed immediately that they are being investigated for fraud.

Courts Minister Chester Borrows.

Courts Minister Chester Borrows. Photo: RNZ

The new offence carries a $5000 fine or 12 months in jail. It is aimed at partners of beneficiaries convicted of fraud who knew of or benefited from that fraud.

Associate Social Development Minister Chester Borrows made the announcement on Wednesday, saying relationship fraud cost the welfare system $20 million dollars last year - and that of the 61 convictions for benefit fraud worth more than $100,000, 41 were relationship fraud cases.

Mr Borrows said at present, it is difficult to prosecute people who know of or gain from fraud committed by their partners, and the law will be changed to ensure that both parties who benefit from fraud are punished.

"It may be hard to prove, but by creating this offence then you don't have people who are wilfully turning a blind eye."

The Government will also be able to seize assets owned either jointly or by either partner to recover the amount defrauded. It says that means both parties who benefit from the crime are punished.

Under the new welfare changes, the Ministry of Social Development will no longer have to inform someone that they are the subject of a benefit fraud investigation.

Chester Borrows says this brings beneficiaries into line with other members of the public who are being investigated.

At present, beneficiaries have to be informed as soon as the ministry becomes suspicious of their behaviour. Mr Borrows said that obligation creates delays, as investigators then have to wait for information from the person and it gives them the chance to destroy evidence.

The Government will formalise information sharing between ACC, Inland Revenue, Housing New Zealand Corporation, police and the Ministry of Social Development.

Social sector support, says minister

Chester Borrows says the Government's moves to punish the partners of people fraudulently claiming a benefit is supported by the social services sector.

Under the new offence of relationship fraud, people would be liable for the debt incurred by their partners while fraudulently claiming a benefit and could also be fined or imprisoned.

Mr Borrows told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme on Wednesday the move is receiving positive feedback from budget advisers, Women's Refuge and other groups.

"They are seeing it as we are seeing it as totally a fairness issue. And it's unfair for generally a man to be living in a relationship while he's working with a beneficiary, and when she gets caught he walks away scott-free."

The minister says the Government expects there will be about 700 such cases a year.

Govt accused of double standard

Other parties on Wednesday accused the Government of double standards.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei questioned why the new offence is for beneficiaries only.

"It's not fair that it doesn't cover other forms of fraud, other forms of tax evasion, the so-called legitimate tax avoidance that (Revenue Minister) Peter Dunne talks about. This is a crackdown on beneficiaries."

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said her party won't be supporting this legislation, as it doesn't address an underlying problem.

Mrs Turia said while she does not condone benefit fraud, people break the rules when they struggle to live on the amount they receive on a benefit.

However, the Government says there are other laws under which people benefiting from crimes can be pursued.