Urgent reform of Work and Income New Zealand needed


For decades it was rumours that the department of Work and Income New Zealand were underpaying clients on a systemic basis. Just rumours to most people. But they were persistent rumours. It was like looking for smoke with no obvious source – a lot of it about and stubbornly refusing to disperse. There had to be something burning somewhere, and there was. But where? And why could no one find it, never mind put it out?

But now, thanks to a leak on Friday, the rumours have become something much more serious.

In my estimate the entire Work and Income senior management need to be sacked. If an organization has lied for the decades it is alleged that Work and Income have done so, then most probably the senior management are not only aware of it, they are also complicit in enabling this.

I also believe that there should be a class action taken against them. I do not know how many clients of theirs were underpaid or not paid at all, who have eligible claims, but it could be in the tens of thousands of potential claimants and some of them might be eligible for thousands of dollars in compensation.

I would not want to be the Chief Executive of W.I.N.Z. right now. This would be a potentially public servant career ending blow to suffer. I would not be waiting for the Minister to ring and tell me my game is up. If this happened under watch, I’d be clearing my desk immediately. This kind of systemic failure is simply not acceptable under any Minister’s watch.

I know little about Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni. For all I know she might be a brilliant Minister whose time has come and she intends to make the most of it. Or she might be spectacularly inept, like fellow Minister, Phil Twyford. Whatever the case, she need to stamp her authority on W.I.N.Z. and any other umbrella agency of the Ministry of Social Destruction, that might be behaving like W.I.N.Z. has behind her back.

A bold Minister would not have waited for something like this to happen. There is no shortage of evidence to indicate that problems have existed at W.I.N.Z. for some time, both from the tempestuous relationship between client and servant that anyone who has been to an appointment with this agency, and from some of the more overt problems that have surfaced in the media from time to time.

A bold Minister would be overhauling the legislative framework that governs the M.S.D., W.I.N.Z. Studylink, Child Youth and Family Services (C.Y.F.S.). They would be looking at why such a toxic and dangerous culture has been allowed to form and the aggravating factors possible; the interactions between the agencies. To enable the necessary changes, they would then be bringing legislation before Parliament that takes on board all of these issues and the numerous other ones lurking just beneath the surface.

And if the Minister refuses to ACT on the feedback, she should consider whether she is fit to hold the Ministerial Warrant for Minister of Social Development. Because at the time of scheduling this to publish, there was a warning of potential legal action hanging over W.I.N.Z.

Watch this space.

Minister of Social Development not enabling social development


I find the Government’s inaction on welfare to be quite baffling. Sure they have only been in office for 2 years and National had 9 years, but by now I would have thought that some substantive policy at least would be starting to make itself known to the voting public. By the same time in the Government of Prime Minister John Key several basic policies existed in outline form, which would be fleshed out over the following year.

In 2011 a person on an unemployment benefit got $204 per week. A student on a study allowance was paid $180. Thus, as I found out when I started studying for a Certificate of Business Applications at Vision College, I took a $24 per week cut in income, which across 20 weeks would have been about $480 less.

In June 2018 there were 277,000 people on the benefit. We will assume it was still $204 per week for the unemployment benefit and make that the median benefit. For 52 weeks, that is about $2.94 billion across those people. If we increased that to $250 per week across them it would come out at about $3.6 billion, which is an increase of $662,584,000.

With a surplus of $7.5 billion I think we can comfortably afford to do that.

Respectfully Minister of Development Carmel Sepuloni might mean well, but she is a Minister with completely the wrong priorities. Yes, I get that mental health is important and that we need to invest more in programmes that address its effects. Yes I get that losing someone because they committed suicide is a horrible thing.

But this is more like ambulance at the bottom of the cliff kind of stuff, when the accident – the mental health emergency – has already happened.

Ms Sepuloni would do much better to increase the benefits for several reasons, not least:

  • National did not top them up during their 9 years in office
  • Rents have significantly increased in that time and benefits have not kept pace
  • The benefit increases will help found mental health assistance for those on low incomes that might not be affordable currently

But not only should the benefits be increased substantially, they should also be indexed so that they adjust with inflation and not get slowly eroded away.

National recycling old ideas, expecting different results


We are less than a year away from either Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern starting second term in office or Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges becoming Prime Minister. As one has a disappointingly average term in the halls of the Beehive, the other is reviving policy in order to look tough for the elections that look decidedly unoriginal, old and boring.

The old ideas thus far include:

  1. A crack down on gangs in New Zealand, including denying members social welfare benefits if they cannot prove they hold no illegal income or assets
  2. A crack down on welfare including a time limit on the dole for under 25’s

And they have added some new ones, which follow the trend set by the old benefit bashing routine National is well known for. They include fines for parents of school drop outs and truants.

Many of the truants and drop outs come from families where schooling was never a high priority in the first place. They might well be students with parents who work all day until dinner time or later, who are not around to help with homework, cook dinner or organize supervision for under 14’s. The punitive fines that National are proposing fail to recognize a simple fact: the parents or caregivers might not have the money, or if they do it might well have already been sucked up by other expenditures.

Unless National recognize this, which I have no reason to believe Mr Bridges will, there will be only quite limited positive impact on truant and drop out numbers.

As indicated in earlier articles, one of the best ways to reduce the gang issue is to first understand the how and why of their existence in the first place – gang’s do not simply exist because someone got out of bed one day and say “I’ll start a gang today”; the disenfranchised people who join them generally do so because there is no love, no guidance in their lives. When this gets tackled we can start to take National seriously on dealing with gangs.

If National continue this trend of old social policies getting recycled in the hope of different outcomes, there are others we can expect to see Mr Bridges and company reconsidering.

  1. The punitive 3 Strikes regime will get tougher to act as a deterrent, whilst running the risk of becoming like Washington State in the United States where a person on third strike went to jail for 25 years for stealing a car. Yes, it was a dumb thing to do and yes one might reasonably expect a person to have learnt from their previous strikes, but it does not change the fact that 25 years for stealing a car is manifestly unjust.
  2. The badly needed and long overdue changes to the Social Welfare Act and other legislation that the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies operate under will remain rigidly archaic, which will increase the risk posed to W.I.N.Z., Housing New Zealand and other social agency staff
  3. Employment contracts legislation will try to reverse gains made under Labour

I hold little hope for National whilst they maintain this archaic outlook on policy making. Are they really so bereft of new ideas as to not be able to come up with anything that has not already recycled three or four times? It is almost like they do not want to be in the 21st Century where ideas that were fine in the 1960s-1990s are now well and truly out of date.

 

Social Workers: Unappreciated workers in an unappreciated discipline


It must be tough being a social worker. Certainly New Zealand First Member of Parliament Darroch Ball certainly thinks so. In the general debate in support of a Bill of Parliament to allow foster parents or kin carers to approach Kiwi Saver to open an account on behalf of a foster child in their carer, Mr Ball alluded to the work done by social workers.

I agree with Mr Ball. Being a social worker is like being on a high rope above a pool infested with sharks. All of them would have you for dinner in a flash if you fell off. Somehow a social worker has to navigate a mine field that has any number and range of devices – distrustful parents/guardians/caregivers, a community quick to judge, terrified and/or stressed out children, among others.

They always have to be right in the eyes of everyone, who quite forgetting – possibly deliberately – that they are as human as we are, will most probably make a mistake they end up regretting at some point in their career. And even when they are right, are making all the right decisions and their clients are making progress, how many have actually heard someone say “hey, look mate, I know your job is a hard one but you are doing your best – keep it up”. It would make their day in ways I don’t think anyone but the worker in question would be able to appreciate.

They are meant to be the eyes, ears and trained practitioners doing work that increasingly teachers and other professionals such as General Practitioners who come into contact with children seem to be doing. And whilst these professionals can certainly be useful – a teacher who is dealing with a child that used to be well behaved and is now disruptive would be right to want to find out what is going on in their background.

Without doubt they have strict responsibilities to uphold. And just as in any employment there are one or two rotten apples who are just there to play the system or cause as much trouble as they can. Each case is going to be different from the preceding one.

The attrition rate must be high. Under paid, under valued, under staffed, under resourced would all be things that are true about the profession of social workers.

Parliament claims to care about social workers. And maybe it does, but how many of the 120 M.P.’s that sit in the chamber have actually sat down with a social worker in a neutral setting over coffee and just talked to them about their daily routine, the rewards and challenges that they face? And how many of them have talked to Child Youth and Family managers and tried to find out from the middle man what challenges their staff are reporting?

So, say what you will about social workers but they are probably in terms of the humanities, the least appreciated, most overworked and under paid people. But they do not need to be like this. We can do better. And if we want to improve the social statistics for New Zealand children, our mokopuna, our whanau, we must help our social workers.

Labour fails to act on welfare report recommendations


In August 2017, hot on the heals of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern becoming Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, co-leader of the Greens Metiria Turei took a gamble. She admitted in a speech where she laid down the case for complete reform of Work and Income New Zealand that she had committed benefit fraud.

The nation was stunned. The Greens were understandably horrified, especially when she mentioned it had not yet been paid back. A political revolt was brewing. One of the brightest rays of hope in the Greens was flushing her career down the toilet and trying to take the party with it. To any Green member that gurgling sound must have sounded like something from a horror movie that had become too real for their liking.

But maybe it was a political master stroke in disguise whereby she would end her career, the Greens would get a new co-leader – though I honestly thought Mrs Turei was alright – and the Greens would use her credibility to get a promise of reform from Labour. Master stroke or not, that is what looked like happening.

Until Friday. On Friday the report that was meant to recommend widespread reform of the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies was finally delivered 20 months after Labour formed a coalition and 21 months after Mrs Turei’s shock announcement. The hard done ever suffering honest folk who deal with Work and Income on a daily basis and the similarly suffering folk who work there must have been quietly thinking that this would be the day when the Government would announce sweeping reforms to enact the changes recommended.

Quelle horreur!!! Jaws dropped to places where hydraulic assistance will be needed to get them back. Hearts sank to the the deepest recesses. The hopes of thousands dashed by a pathetic flimsy announcement that only three of the recommendations in the report would be adopted by the Government.

The temptation to blast the Greens for having gone along with this is there. However in fairness to them they managed to squeeze out in the 2018-19 Budget a significant amount of money. When added to the promises Labour made to its own members and $3 billion to New Zealand First for regional development, the total amount of money that is locked up is substantial and does not leave much spare change behind. The Greens might have to just bite a potentially painful bullet and accept that this is not going to happen rapidly – and as one who has been messed around by Work and Income, I can understand the frustration of those who might have benefited from a bigger effort to implement the recommendations.

Instead it is Carmel Sepuloni who finds herself in the sights of this blog. After a year of relative inactivity in terms of getting policy passed and implemented, to come out and say that just three of the recommendations are going to be implemented, this is really a massively wimpish response. It could be forgiven if there is an election year promise or something more in either this years or next years Fiscal Budget. Otherwise when Ms Ardern reshuffles her cabinet, I don’t fancy Ms Sepuloni keeping hold of the Social Welfare portfolio.