13 Jul 2015

'This is not a lifestyle'

12:19 pm on 13 July 2015

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley is defending sanctioning people on benefits who don't show up to appointments, saying their obligations are clearly set out.

National MP, Anne Tolley.

Anne Tolley said anyone who was wrongly sanctioned was fully reimbursed. (file image) Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Beneficiary advocates are accusing the department of failing to follow its own protocols, in order to slash benefit payments.

The Ministry of Social Development handed out 80,202 sanctions to clients between July 2013 and September 2014, mainly for people not turning up to appointments.

Other reasons for sanctions leading to cuts or cancellation of benefits are failing to attend seminars or not providing proof of a job search.

The founder of the Beneficiaries and Unemployed Workers' Union, Katherine Raue, was one of those who lost payments.

Last year, Work and Income cut her benefit because she had not sent back paperwork in time. But she said she had, and the issue was slow processing on their side.

Ms Raue believes that was happening to many others.

"When you're standing in the queue you hear the other clients and time after time it's the same issue. Clients are saying, 'hang on, I've come in because I've got this letter - but I did return the paperwork'.

"In each case I've stood there and listened while the receptionist has been forced to say, 'yes it seems you did, but the paperwork hasn't been processed'.

"It's not just one or two people - it is affecting a lot."

Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley said people were told what their obligations were when they first signed up for a benefit.

She told Morning Report anyone who was wrongly sanctioned was fully reimbursed.

"There is a process, there are things that they are required to do," said Ms Tolley.

"This is not a lifestyle - there are obligations, and the obligations can be a simple as turning up for an appointment.

"If people do not do that, that is a choice that they are making."

And Ms Tolley said there was help available for people who were struggling to re-apply for their benefit.

"I've watched the case managers working with these people, I've seen them at the counters and where they are having difficulty filling in forms there are people sitting and standing with them helping them to do it."

Work and Income

Photo: Supplied

Paul Blair chairs the Rotorua Peoples' Union which advocates for beneficiaries.

He said when the government increased benefits in its latest budget, it also started firing out sanctions.

Mr Blair said every time he challenged one of the cuts it was thrown out - and he believed that was because they were handed down unlawfully.

"It's a brutal regime, and there are safeguards that Parliament has enacted so that the Ministry has to follow a strict statutory formula before they can impose a sanction.

"What the Ministry of Social Development is doing now is completely ignoring those protocols, and they're just sanctioning people at will."

The Gisborne based Tairawhati Beneficiary Advocacy Trust says Work and Income is too trigger-happy with benefit cuts.

The trust's Shelley Hannah-Kingi said people were being sanctioned for missing appointments, having never received the letter telling them they had to go.

"We're coming across a lot of people that have been sanctioned [and] in the end had their benefit cut.

"Some of them have mental health issues, and they just roam around for months on end until somebody actually brings them back in and tries to put them through the system."

Graham Howell, an advocate for the Benefits Rights Service in Wellington, said cutting the incomes of some of the country's poorest people only drove them into poverty.

He saw hundreds of sanctions a year, and said most were unfairly laid down.

"If there was clear evidence that those 80,000 people found a job within a week of being sanctioned, then you might argue that the sanctions serve a purpose.

"I don't think that there's any proof of that whatsoever."

Monitoring needed - Labour

The Labour Party says the Government has a responsibility to provide more information on how it adminsters sanctions and the impact on the country's most vulnerable.

Social development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni says she's worried about the impact of sanctions on people who are already vulnerable.

"We should be demanding of the Government that they not only provide evidence of why they're implementing these measures but also that they monitor very carefully and provide a report to show us what the impact is post implementation."

A health professional, who did not wish to be named, said she and her family were forced to go onto the benefit due to serious illness in the family.

She described the process of applying for the benefit as stressful and protracted, and believes Work and Income wants to limit the number of beneficiaries by making the process as difficult as possible.

"It required a high level of literacy skills and organisational skills. You needed to have every single document that you've virtually ever had in your life."