30 Sep 2021

Govt progress on welfare overhaul frustratingly slow - advocates

8:32 pm on 30 September 2021

Another benefit sanction is on the scrap heap, but advocates are questioning how long it's taking for the government to make good on its promise to overhaul the welfare system.

Carmel Sepuloni on Budget Day 2021.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

A law change to remove the subsequent child policy has passed its final hurdle in parliament, so from November, parents who have another child while on the benefit will no longer be forced to return to work when that child turns one.

Introduced in 2012 as part of the National government's welfare reforms, the subsequent child policy was meant to get more people off the benefit and into work.

But Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said that didn't happen.

"The reality is that I got advice from the Ministry of Social Development to say that there is no evidence to support that it did that in any way," she said.

There are more than 11,000 beneficiaries who are affected by the policy.

Ministry of Social Development modelling found no evidence that it reduced parents' time on the benefit or led to better financial or social outcomes.

Instead, it disproportionately impacted Maori and women, increased inequity and complexity in the welfare system and reduced the flexibility for parents to spend time with their tamariki.

Beneficiary Advisory Service advocate Tavia More said it's also caused a lot of stress.

"It's just that impending doom almost that they're unsure of when things will kick in, and when they're not able to fulfil those obligations, they're just in fear of those negative consequences."

More said her organisation's own research shows sanctions don't help to get people into work.

"Clients are focusing far more on the sanction itself, rather than what the sanction is meant to achieve."

The subsequent child policy is the second benefit sanction to be removed by the government so far.

The first was the sanction that docked the payments of parents - mostly women - who didn't name the other parent of their child.

Child Poverty Action Group researcher Caitlin Neuwelt-Kearns said while the changes are welcome, progress has been frustratingly slow.

"The longer that the government waits to implement these things, the more children are kept in chronic stress which affects their long-term health and wellbeing."

In its 2019 report, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommended the government scrap six other benefit sanctions and obligations.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said more work is underway.

"Two down and we're looking at the others and we'll continue that work. I always say there's more to do, but I'm really clear and the fact that it's doing it one bite at a time and making sure that we do it properly."

Sepuloni said some changes had to be progressed carefully, because of the complex nature of the welfare system.

She's also considering advice from officials on the first phase of the review of sanctions and obligations.

That includes looking at social obligations, pre-employment drug testing obligations and the warrant to arrest sanction.

Work obligations will be included in the second phase of the review.

But Sepuloni said further changes are possible this term.

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