23 Jul 2015

Fears more benefit paperwork will hurt kids

9:40 am on 23 July 2015

The Government's plan to have sole parents reapply for their benefits after a year has raised fears it may put vulnerable children further at risk.

Job-seeking beneficiaries already have to re-apply after a year, which beneficiary advocates say leads to thousands of people having their payments cut off because of the complicated paper work.

A re-application process for sole parents is part of the Support for Children in Hardship Bill being considered by Parliament.

Susan St John.

Susan St John Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The economics spokeswoman for Child Poverty Action Group, Susan St John, said sole parents' children were more likely to be living in poverty, and introducing a new 52-week re-application process was something those families could do without.

"It's going to create a huge infrastructure of administration, and that can be very daunting for sole parents. Some sole parents are suffering and not managing well at all," she said.

"The worry is that what may happen is that more barriers are put in place to prevent sole parents from getting access to the money that they and their children desperately need."

In the re-application process being considered, four options are available, but the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has recommended that in the first year, half of sole parents be required to attend an interview for renewal, and the other half to re-apply in writing.

Only one quarter of sole parents would then have to attend an interview in following years.

Ms St John said she was concerned that if the policy was implemented, there would be little information available on the implications on children.

Deputy president of the Council of Christian Social Services Pam Waugh said re-applying for the benefit helped people re-set their goals, but any hiccups in the process could create difficulties.

"If they're suddenly forced to re-produce documentation, if the appointment is set at the wrong time when the children are coming home from school and they have to sort that out, that's when the hardship increases and that's where the extra cost of complying come into place," she said.

Anne Tolley

Anne Tolley Photo: RNZ

Minister defends plan

Minister for Social Development Anne Tolley is defending the Government's plan, saying it will help ensure they get their entitlements.

She told Morning Report critics who dismissed it as a cost-cutting exercise that would put vulnerable children at risk are wrong.

Mrs Tolley said about half of the 70,000 people receiving a sole-parent benefit would have a face-to-face meeting with a case worker and the rest would simply fill in a form.

"We have seen from the work that we've done over the past couple of years with job seekers and the re-application that it really is a helpful process for those people who are reliant on a benefit, and we think it's a very good opportunity to continue that work."

Ms Tolley said parents who did not fill in the paperwork could be at risk of having their benefit cut, but she said it would be done in a very careful manner.

Earlier this month, Radio New Zealand reprted that of 11,693 job seeker benefits cancelled in the year to March, 4916 were because people did not complete the annual reapplication process.

Carmel Sepuloni

Carmel Sepuloni Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Labour's social development spokeswoman Carmel Sepuloni said those people had been left without any support, and sole parents could soon face the same.

"What we've seen from the information so far is that there is a large number of people who are having benefits cancelled, but not for the very important reason of having obtained work.

"The concern here is if we see a similar trend happen with sole parent beneficiaries is that the consequences are far greater," she said. "They could be pushed more into cycles of poverty and debt."

But Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said having sole-parents re-apply for the benefit will be an opportunity to look at their circumstances and check they are getting the support they need.

"People will be given notice in advance multiple times before their renewal date and sole parents will continue to receive benefit support for as long as they need it," she said.

"We know that children in benefit dependent homes have poorer outcomes, which is why we've focused on helping sole parents into work."

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