30 Sep 2021

Law reversing subsequent child policy passes third reading

1:33 pm on 30 September 2021

Rules around work-tested benefits for sole parents are set to change after a law passed in Parliament this morning reversing Paula Bennett's subsequent child policy.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The contentious bill has raised tensions in the House this morning with National saying it pushes parents into benefit dependence, and Labour arguing it corrects an intergenerational

National's Paula Bennett in 2012 brought in the subsequent child policy, which made changes to address long-term welfare dependency by placing obligations on parents to return to work if they had an additional dependent child while receiving a main benefit, based on the age of their youngest child.

It meant parents or caregivers would be required to seek or begin work once their youngest child turned one year old, or risk losing some of their benefit income.

The Social Security (Subsequent Child Policy Removal) Amendment Bill, which would remove the policy from law, passed its third reading in Parliament this morning with support from Labour, the Greens, and te Pāti Māori, with National and ACT opposed.

It would instead push out work obligations for mothers on sole parent support to when their youngest child is three years old.

In a statement, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni - whose bill it is - said the subsequent child policy was ineffective and removing it would give parents more flexibility to spend time with their children in the first 1000 days of their life.

"This legislation is an important step towards ensuring a fairer and more equitable welfare system for whānau," she said.

Speaking on her behalf in Parliament, Labour's Jan Tinetti said the policy had not achieved its intended purpose.

"The Ministry of Social Development's modelling on the cohort affected by the policy has found no strong evidence to suggest that the policy has been effective in reducing time on benefit or improving financial or social outcomes.

"As at 30 April 2021 approximately 11,400 clients are impacted by the policy. For those people, the subsequent child policy is resulting in inequity between subsequent and non-subsequent children, a lack of flexibility to spend time with children in their early years, and is disproportionately impacting on Māori and women."

National's Social Development spokesperson Louise Upston said the policy was about reducing long-term harm and hardship for children, and the and that Labour did not want to consider that.

"I remember when we were going through these changes, and I remember a constituent coming into my office in Tokoroa, and she sat down in front of me and she said 'I'm a solo mom and I want you to take a message to Paula Bennett ... I want you to say thank you to her, because the part-time job that I now have has made an enormous difference to me and my family."

"Let's be clear, it is bloody hard. I'm not the only person in this Chamber who has been through it. It is incredibly difficult," she said, but she was interrupted by Labour Party members having a conversation, after which the Speaker had to call for order.

Upston suggested it showed the disregard of the governing party, and although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had said reduction of child poverty was her reason for being in politics, the number of children subjected to it had risen by 1500 under Labour.

"They don't care about the fact that real people share real experiences. They very deliberately turn their back and don't want to hear about the real opportunities, because this is what it's about."

Those objections and others like it raised the ire of the bill's supporters.

Labour's Jo Luxton said she had real first-hand lived experience as a sole parent on a benefit who had to rely on food banks, and she found the "rhetoric and reckons" of the opposition "that sole parents are, perhaps, uneducated and unmotivated is, quite frankly, revolting".

"There is no evidence that this piece of legislation will create dependency, there is only evidence that the previous policy has not worked. I commend Minister Sepuloni for overturning what was a punitive, discriminatory, and quite frankly disgraceful piece of legislation brought into this House by that party opposite - the National Party."

Green child poverty reduction spokesperson Jan Logie said the change was supported by the government's expert advisory group,

"To be able to rely on each other we need to have confidence in our systems and each other punitive, paternalistic, I would say violent - in the extent that it does ignore the human-ness of people - policies undermine that collective effort."

She said she found the arguments against the bill a struggle to listen to.

"Some of the comments ... completely refuse to acknowledge that the evidence does not support this policy having any positive benefit whatsoever," she said.

"They spoke about supporting people into work while they actually oversaw the taking away of supports to help people who wanted to get into work, to be able to get into work and good jobs. Those things do not go together and actually show to me the lie of what this was about.

"It's also a complete disconnection from the fact that many people want to work and they will do that themselves when it's the right time for them."

Some 81 percent of submitters to the select committee supported the bill, which would come into force on 11 October, with the policy removed 28 days later on 8 November, and another 28 days to ensure the policy is not applied to people who have an application being processed.