30 Sep 2021

Advocates welcome 'less intrusive' approach from MSD but say more needs to be done

11:50 am on 30 September 2021

Benefit fraud investigators are asking fewer people questions about their relationship status.

Work and Income offices

Investigators have toned down their queries into relationships. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Advocates say the less intrusive approach from the Ministry of Social Development is welcome - but they still want a rule change so there's no difference between what couples and single people are entitled to.

At the moment, the rate for couples is lower than the rate for single people. That means if someone enters a relationship, their benefit could end up being reduced.

That's what happened to Hayley*.

She was on the sole parent benefit when she met her now-partner.

In the early stages of their relationship, Hayley's partner ended up needing somewhere to live - and she moved in while she looked for a new place.

Hayley said she wanted to do the right thing, and let Work and Income know.

"We weren't a couple at all financially or even emotionally at that point, because you're not until further down the track," she said.

But Hayley and her partner immediately had their benefits cut back to the couple rate.

"I can understand three years down the track, like now. I could definitely understand that that would be fair, but not at the beginning. Not when you yourself don't see yourself as being in a relationship."

Each year, hundreds of people face questions about their relationship status when the Ministry of Social Development is looking into allegations of benefit fraud.

Before Covid-19 hit, the ministry was responding to about 4700 benefit fraud allegations a year.

In 2018 and 2019, about two-thirds of those cases involved questions about someone's relationship status.

In the year to June 2020, it was under half.

There have been changes to the way the Ministry of Social Development deals with possible cases of fraud.

In 2018, the ministry introduced a three-tier, graduated system to respond to benefit fraud allegations.

Investigations and prosecutions are now focused on more serious fraud cases, where the ministry believes a client has misrepresented their circumstances over an extended period.

Lower-level issues are dealt with through "early intervention and facilitation responses", with fraud prevention and early detection the aim.

Beneficiary Advisory Service advocate Tavia Moore said even though those lower-level cases are often dealt with through a phone call or one-off interview, people are still coming to them needing help.

"They had been, I suppose, a little bit less intrusive than they had been in the past," she said.

But people were still feeling stressed and upset about it.

"If they, I suppose, felt pretty confident in the process and that it was easy to deal with, they wouldn't reach out to somebody for assistance. People are generally coming to us because they don't know what else to do," Moore said.

Beneficiaries, advocates and the Welfare Expert Advisory Group want the government to change the rules, so someone's relationship status doesn't affect what they're entitled to.

So too does Green Party social development spokesperson Ricardo Menendez March.

"It would reduce operational costs for Work and Income, having to ask people about their relationship; restore dignity to people who are currently having their intimate life questioned by Work and Income; and help reduce poverty."

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said changes are in the works.

"I've requested that policy advice, I haven't received it yet. I'm expecting to in the next two to three months and it's certainly on our policy work programme."

However, Sepuloni can't put a timeframe on when those changes might be implemented.

*Not her real name

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs