Metiria Turei’s revelations of historic benefit fraud may have forced her to quit as Green Party co-leader and seen her party plummet in the opinion polls, but the rise in support for Labour may yet see her dream of benefit reform realised. Lynn Grieveson reports.

Labour has committed to a restructure of Work and Income with the aim of making the system more flexible and less punitive.

“One of the very important things for us is reviewing and restructuring Work and Income so it doesn’t become a battle every single time you need a little bit of extra money,” Labour’s Grant Robertson told an election forum yesterday.

“My office and I spend so much time just helping people get the entitlements they should have. We need a big cultural change at Work and Income so it is actually there as a service for all of you,” he said to an audience of disability rights advocates.

This puts Labour in stark contrast to National, which today threatened to halve the benefits of those with drug problems who refuse treatment or a job. Along with this “stick”, National is promising guaranteed work experience and budget planning help for long-term unemployed and rehabilitation places for job-seekers struggling with drugs, as part of a package that would cost $72 million over four years.

Calls for culture change, cash and cards

Labour’s Grant Robertson said the party was committed to changing the culture at WINZ. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Robertson was joined on the panel at the Wellington forum (which was organised by IHC in partnership with several other disability sector groups) by Greens disability spokesperson Mojo Mathers, New Zealand First Rimutaka candidate Talani Meikle and National’s Wellington Central candidate Nicola Willis.

They were asked by Ally Moore, from disability advocacy group People First, whether their party would increase the rate of Supported Living Allowance received by disabled people. She said she faced being on the benefit all her life, but found herself having to choose between food and going to the doctor.

Mathers said the Greens also wanted “reform of the culture at Work and Income”, and was able to detail the party’s specific policy on benefit increases.

“We are committed to overhauling the social welfare support system including increasing all core benefits by 20 percent and ensuring people can keep more of what they earn while on a benefit by changing the abatement rates,” Mathers said.

She said that the Green’s policy was that beneficiaries should be able to earn up to $200 a week before the abatement kicked in, and up to $400 before the top abatement rate applied.

The Greens also want solo parent benefits reformed so parents entering relationships are not deemed to be “in the nature of a marriage” and liable to lose benefits until the relationship also meets the requirements of the Property (Relationships) Act – a much stricter test that usually requires them to have been living as a de facto couple for three years.

Robertson was less clear than Mathers in his initial answer on whether Labour would increase the rate of supported living payments, but when pressed for a ‘yes or no’ answer by moderator Susie Ferguson, said: “Yes.”

Meikle, standing in for New Zealand First disability spokesperson Ria Bond who was ill, said she was unable to give a specific answer on raising supported living payments. But she said the party would be pushing to effectively extend the SuperGold Card scheme to people with disabilities so they would be able to access the same or similar transport benefits and other discounts.

A tough assignment

Wellington Central candidate Nicola Willis remained gracious while tackling the tough job of apologising for a party MP and minister. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

With New Zealand First’s representative mostly aligning with the Labour-Green position, and ACT leader David Seymour pulling out of the event, it was a challenging meeting for National’s Nicola Willis.

Willis was able to point to National’s election policy of $18 caps on GP visits for everyone with a Community Services card or receiving the accommodation supplement, as well as the lifting of the Accommodation Allowance and an ongoing commitment to raise the Supported Living Payments each April by CPI (Consumer Price Index). Labour has promised to cap GP visit costs for the same people as National at $8 per visit for adults and $2 for teenagers.

It is always a tougher job to be defending the incumbent Government’s record at such election events, but Willis had the extra challenge of being forced to apologise for recent comments by two National MPs.

National’s Minister for Disability Issues Nicky Wagner was criticised for tweeting from a disability meeting in June that she would “rather be out on the harbour”. To barracking from the audience, Willis said it was “a regrettable tweet interpreted in the worst possible way”, which had “really upset” Wagner.

She said work pressures meant Wagner could not attend yesterday’s event. Wagner was also unable to make a previous panel discussion in July, and on that occasion her stand-in was Wairarapa MP Alastair Scott.

Willis was forced to apologise for him as well, after he responded at that meeting that “love has consequences” when asked about disabled people losing benefits when they move in with partners.

“With all respect to Alastair I think that was a very unfortunate choice of words,” she said.

“I have a lot of sympathy for that situation, which is that it is a big deal to take a relationship to the next level where you move in with someone and I can only imagine that having the complication added to that that your income support is reduced at the same time is a real challenge.”

But she managed to hit her own jarring note and appear out of touch when she added that: “We do, across all benefit support, income test for family circumstances and the reason for that is so that if someone is in a living arrangement with someone that is earning $500,000 a year, we don’t think they are someone that we should be targeting government support at. And then that principle is applied across the system.”

Robertson’s eyebrows shot up at that, and when it came to his turn to speak he raised again the need for more flexibility in the benefit system.

“The problem here is the way in which the benefit system is applied with such rigidity,” he said. “Nicola raised the example where someone moved in with somebody who was earning $500,000 a year, then we would take account of that. The problem is that is not the circumstance of most people and we need the benefit system to be applied practically and well to enable people to live good lives.”

A state apology – and some costly policies

Willis also found herself the odd one out when it came to an emotive issue that audience members were keen to discuss.

On the historic abuse suffered by people in state care, she said National saw no need for further inquiries or a state apology.

The Government had “done a lot of work with individuals and we are satisfied that redress has happened,” Willis said.

Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First all said a state apology was needed, with Labour going further to call for a Royal Commission of Inquiry. The Human Rights Commissioner and the United Nations have also called for an Inquiry.

An apology might not cost much – but Robertson also indicated that Labour would increase the availability of funding for students with special needs and would move on the potentially very expensive issue of pay equity for support staff working with disabled children.

“The Labour party is focusing in this election in particular on [a] truly inclusive education system,” he said.

“Our goal is to uncap the ORS funding and make sure that every child in our schooling system has a right to learning support that they need and that schools are supported properly, and that those who work in our schools as teacher aides are supported and funded properly and actually have pay equity within the system they are working in.”

ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) funding is currently capped at 1 percent of the student population, meaning students are effectively having to compete to prove their needs are greatest, with many having applications refused.

Uncapping the funding would mean more teacher aides – and the issue of pay equity for school support staff, including teacher aides, has been bubbling away since the pay equity agreement for aged care workers. A similar agreement for school support staff would see a big injection of education funding required from the Government.

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