Govt to scrap benefit cuts for mums who don't name father

5:38 pm on 14 November 2017

Solo mothers who don't name the father of their child will no longer have welfare payments cut, under the Labour-led government's changes to social security.

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Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has confirmed the government will move to repeal part of the Social Security Act which imposes sanctions on sole parents who do not identify the other parent.

Ms Sepuloni said there was no evidence the sanctions had helped achieve their original purpose, which was to make sure the absent parent was meeting their child support obligations.

"But what it has done is had a negative financial impact on the parent who - more often than not - was the woman raising the children, and those children just by denying them the few extra dollars just because the absent parent was not named."

Ms Sepuloni said some parents had good reason for not naming the other parent.

"The most common reason for not naming the parent was often family-violence related and so, keeping that mind, it's almost like you're doubly punishing these women and their children. So, we're not going to allow that to continue."

Women's Refuge chief executive Ang Jury said the sanctions had left solo parents - mostly women - facing further hardship.

"There are very good reasons sometimes why women don't name the father, including threats and coercion from him so having to do that is actually a little bit hazardous.

"But more importantly, I think, is that sanction punished the children in a way. That's not okay."

One mum on a benefit who did not want to be named said she was missing out on about $27 a week because she had not named her child's father. She said that extra money could make a big difference to her family's budget.

"It's the small things, you know, that extra gas to get to the next netball game for the older kids, or just little things for him."

Ms Sepuloni said there was no timeframe yet for changing the law, but she had sought advice from officials about when it could be progressed.

National Party leader Bill English said removing the sanctions came with a risk.

"One of the consequences is likely to be there will now be a lot of pressure on women not to name the father. In the past, they didn't have that choice, but now, if the government takes the rule away, then clearly there's an opportunity for a father of the child to put pressure on the woman to not name him, so he doesn't have to contribute."

Paula Bennett, the architect of some changes to the welfare system, said there were already exemptions in place for women who might be put at risk.

"If they couldn't name the father, they do not get penalised, and there's actually exceptions around domestic violence and rape and things, where there are valid reasons for them not to name the father."

She said those women were in a different position to others who simply opted not to name the father.

"These are women who are choosing not to name the father, that means he doesn't have financial obligations to the state, to actually be paying child support, so it's actually quite a big thing to be dropping that."

But Vanessa Cole from Auckland Action Against Poverty said many women did not even know the sanction has been imposed.

"Even though there are exemptions to the sanctions, often Work and Income case managers do not tell women that they have the potential of being exempt, they impose the sanctions without even asking further questions about it."

Ms Cole said getting an exemption was not always easy.

"Barriers include having to go to a community law centre, get a letter that describes why they are exempt from the sanction, and then return that letter to the Work and Income office, where they have to repeat their story which is often has emotional and psychological consequences."

Ms Cole said having to do that in an open plan office can leave women feeling intimidated and humiliated, especially if telling their story involved reliving a traumatic event.

As part of a major welfare system overhaul agreed with the Greens, the government would remove other excessive sanctions and ensure people could access what they were entitled to.

Ms Sepuloni said it was a big job and warned it would take some time.

"There's a whole lot of changes that need to occur there, so this is not going to be an overnight process.

"There are probably some changes that we can make in the first six months, in the first year, but there's a longer-term process in terms of that welfare safety net."

Green Party social development spokesperson Jan Logie said although her party's policy went further, what they had agreed with Labour was a good start.

"I will be hoping to work closely with the minister and providing a good evidence base for our policies as well as seeing how far we can get with this because we don't have evidence that sanctions work, and we've got a lot of indications at the moment that the systems are causing harm."

Mike O'Brien from the Child Poverty Action Group said the government needed to look at increasing benefits if it wanted to make a difference to vulnerable families.

"If you're really serious about reducing poverty, then improving benefit rates, making some changes to Working for Families so you remove the discrimination against sole parents, a whole raft of those pieces that would make a really important and significant difference."

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