Community Scoop

Sanctions for Christmas

photo of Trevor McGlincheyTrevor McGlinchey
Executive Officer
NZ Council for Christian Social Service

Work and Income – A Caring and Supportive Environment?

Reports from the members of the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Service (NZCCSS) consistently relate to the negative treatment of New Zealand citizens at Work and Income offices.  These citizens were seeking to access their rightful support from the New Zealand Government. NZCCSS acknowledges that fine people are employed at Work and Income and they are committed to ensuring individuals and families do get the income and other supports they need.  Yet, somehow, people exposed to Work and Income feel demeaned and threatened by the way these offices work.

Politicians of many stripes have found it useful to demonise those needing support.  This may have contributed to a wider negative perception of people on benefits.  Successive governments have put in place stringent and punishing approaches to those who need support under New Zealand’s Social Security Act.  The most obvious of these was the unilateral deduction of 20% of all benefit payments by the National Government in its 1991 “Mother of All Budgets” – a payment that has never been restored.

A more recent example is the 2013 Benefit Reforms.  Through these reforms it was decided to ‘incentivise’ compliance with the ‘work-testing obligations’ of those who need and accept government support.  This was achieved by actively ‘sanctioning’ those who do not meet the requirements by decreasing or removing their benefits until compliance was met.  It is interesting to note that while in the last year overall the number of sanctions was reasonably static, there was a big increase from the quarter ending December 2016 to the same quarter in 2017, from 11,355 to 14,778 a 30% increase. This mostly occurred under the authority of our new Government.

These types of approaches have created a culture within Work and Income where their clients feel nervous and to some degree afraid of interreacting with staff.  They know if they do not comply with the requirements of the system they will be sanctioned.  The Work and Income offices, with their multiple security guards, requirements to have appointments to meet with staff along with the potential to be sanctioned, or to have some other reason not to have their needs met, means clients are defensive with staff.  Staff members have little discretion and limited ability to tailor the systems to meet individual needs. They must work through computer based questionnaires and standardised processes which often do not respond to the needs of those with who they are working.  This creates an uncomfortable and unsupportive environment where neither staff nor client feel they are working together for a fair result.

The Labour Party’s election manifesto says they will:

  • Amend the principles of the Social Security Act so they reflect a fair and inclusive welfare system
  • Create a change in culture at Work and Income through more effective policies, regulations, and staff training that align with the amended principles of the Social Security Act
  • Work toward changing Work and Income offices from merely offices for processing payments and filling out forms to proactive spaces where New Zealanders can receive real support. Case managers would offer one-on-one support, and ensure that their client is informed of all support they are eligible for.
  • Work toward smoother benefit transition processes so people shifting in and out of work are not penalised.

Members of the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services look forward to working proactively with the government to support this culture change.  They know the passion and belief of Work and Income staff, properly harnessed and supported through good policies, matched with appropriate levels of benefit payments, and the active support of politicians for a caring and supportive process, can provide great results.  Families will no longer be set back by losing up to half their benefits for missing uncomfortable and unproductive appointments.  They will actively attend meetings at the new style Work and Income offices.  They know staff will work proactively to ensure they receive all their entitlements.  Individualised approaches will be used to encourage positive results for families.  No longer will threats of sanctions be used to enforce compliance, rather positive incentives and strong relationships will create an environment where hope will underpin real progress for families and whanau.

We ask the Government and Work and Income to move quickly please. The 14,778 families and individuals who suffered sanctions in the lead up to, or during, last Christmas know the changes are needed now.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

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