30 Nov 2020

Work to reform welfare system 'unjustifiably slow' - Child Poverty Action Group

10:43 am on 30 November 2020

The Child Poverty Action Group's stocktake of progress on the Welfare Expert Advisory Group's (WEAG) 42 key recommendations has found none of them have been fully implemented.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Just under half have been either partially or minimally implemented.

Professor Emeritus at the University of Aucklandm Innes Asher, who co-authored the report, said as expected the rates of poverty had gone up this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said the government had not done enough.

"There's been indexing of some income support, but not in Working for Families for example and all the other raft of recommendations haven't been implemented, they're not fully implemented."

In 2018, WEAG was tasked by the government to review the social security system and recommend changes.

Its more than 200-page report was released in May last year.

Among its recommendations, WEAG wanted benefit levels increased by up to 47 percent, the removal of some sanctions and obligations, better resourcing for frontline staff, changes to the relationship rules and greater urgency around boosting public housing.

The government has previously said work was under way to address 22 of WEAG's recommendations.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morning Report that while it was true that not all progress work was done in the area, she disagreed with some of the Child Poverty Action group's claims.

"They've scored it a 'red' on the issue of income adequacy and of course that's in and amongst the choices of having even acknowledged partial progress.

"They say none. I just disagree with that.

"It's fair to say that we've not had the 40 percent increase in some cases in benefits that was recommended by the Welfare Advisory Group.

"We at the time had said that was something we wouldn't be able to do, however, to say that there's been no progress, when we have for instance indexed benefits to wages, which was one of the recommendations, we have had a general benefit increase of $25 a week, we have the winter energy payment which we brought in, the best start payment, family tax credit increases, which means a significant number of sole parents are for instance on average $100 a week better off."

Ardern said the government had already outlined that they would not go as far as all the recommendations.

"I totally accept that they're never going to give it the green light because we disagreed with it in that respect when it was released."

Asher said children cannot wait and their development can be affected by stress and lack of essentials.

"Their minds, emotions, bodies are constantly developing and this development can be permanently harmed by chronic stress and lack of essentials, so there is an urgency because of children's lives, wellbeing and their futures being affected by the lack of progress," she said.

The Child Poverty Action Group has questioned the government's speed in addressing the recommendations.

"Hyperbolic claims of progress in implementing the WEAG's recommendations do a disservice to the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who must continue to make ends meet with inadequate support," the stocktake report said.

"Given the coalition government's child poverty reduction focus, and the fact that WEAG identified that people receiving welfare payments are living 'desperate lives' due to 'seriously inadequate incomes', the progress on implementation of the recommendations appears unjustifiably slow."

Ardern said the government had taken early action, so it did not ask children to wait.

"We in fact for instance didn't even wait 'til our first Budget - in the first 100 days we brought back the first universal child payment since it was disestablished by the National government in 1990s. We did that across the first three years of a child's life, knowing it was the most critical time, it is a per child payment.

"If you have for instance two children under three - an extra $120 goes into that household."

Asher said that is not enough and although the government had made some small changes in the income area, she said they were not the substantive changes required.

Ardern said she never claimed it was everything and they would continue to make progress.

"But to dismiss what has been the most significant changes in a generation to welfare, I think is unfair and so I will stand my ground on that."

Carmel Sepuloni heading into the Labour caucus where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will brief MPs on her ministerial preferences for the new government.

Social Development and Employment Minister Carmel Sepuloni Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The changes that have been made did not go far enough, and were not sufficient to address the severity and urgency of need many New Zealanders were experiencing, the stocktake report said.

"The time has passed for incremental tweaks, and urgent systemic transformation is needed in order to fulfil its promise of welfare overhaul.

"Now that Labour has three more years to govern, it has the time required to implement some of this 'fundamental change', unimpeded by the need to negotiate with coalition partners."

The group said the "inadequate and ineffective" welfare system "continues to entrench poverty for children".

It acknowledged there may be work going on behind closed doors to implement further changes, but it was concerned about the lack of public commitment to progressing specific recommendations.

The group has pinpointed a number of priority areas, including: further increases to benefits, to ensure adequate incomes; adequate disability support, especially for whānau with disabled children; changes to the benefit eligibility rules, so relationship status does not impact someone's entitlements; and further acceleration of public housing development.

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