Loss of benefit a necessary 'stick' for those who don't meet social obligations: Bennett
“You have to have that stick at the end,” says Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett on her tough new approach to new social obligations for benefits.
Reforms being introduced next week will see people's benefit's cut for not meeting the social obligations, Ms Bennett says. For example, if suitable work is turned down or children are not enrolled with a GP.
However, the minister added on TVNZ's Q+A programme yesterday that "the sanction is very much at the end of what will be quite a long and intense process”.
Only a small number of the most vulnerable people will actually be tested to see if they’re complying.
“We do not test everyone to check that they’re complying.
"We don’t have the resources and, in fact, some of them will comply without us checking on them and we don’t need to, so we take a subset,” Ms Bennett says.
Watch the full interview here.
RAW DATA: TRANSCRIPT
Q + A
SHANE TAURIMA INTERVIEWS PAULA BENNETT
GREG Social welfare is being reformed this week. Paula Bennett introduced legislation reducing the number of benefit categories in making beneficiaries prepare for work. If suitable employment is turned down, the benefit will be cancelled. Beneficiaries also need to enrol their children with a GP and in early-childhood education when they’re just 3 years old. And if they don’t, they stand to lose half their benefit. Shane Taurima spoke to Minister Paula Bennett on Friday afternoon and began by asking her why we need these new social obligations requiring beneficiaries’ children to be in education and enrol with doctors.
PAULA BENNETT – Social Development Minister
Well, we have a lot of vulnerable kids in this country. And depending on your definition of vulnerability, a lot of them are on benefit. And when we look at that, we know that there is a high percentage of Maori and Pacific Island kids that are not enrolled in early-childhood education. Every bit of evidence that I’ve seen says that they would have better outcomes later on if they get that real kick-start in life.
SHANE So how many kids are we talking about? Just so we can see how big a problem we have.
PAULA Right, so overall there is about 220,000 children that are on benefit, if you like. Their parents are on benefit. About 31,500 are aged 3 and 4 years old, and we don’t know the exact percentage of which are not enrolled in early-childhood education or enrolled with a GP.
SHANE So why do you think that those parents aren’t doing these things now?
PAULA I think it’s a combination. I think one is that they aren’t aware of the value of early-childhood education in particular, are unsure how to access the services. I think there are barriers there. And as I say, if they don’t sort of give that level of importance to early-childhood education, then they’re not enrolling their children and getting them to attend.
SHANE They’re going to get a fairly quick lesson, though, now, aren’t they? Because you’re saying if they don’t do these things, you’re going to cut their benefit.
PAULA Well, there will be very clear expectations on them that that is what we want, but we will work with them really intensively, one-on-one case management. We’ll only be dealing with those that we deem to be most vulnerable, and, you know, it’s really about support and encouragement. The sanction is very much at the end of what will be quite a long and intense process.
SHANE But you’ve got fairly clear expectations that if they don’t do this, you’ll cut their benefit.
PAULA Well, we do, but, however, we’re going to work with them to break down some of those barriers. I think sometimes just— I mean, at the end of the day, you kind of have to have that stick at the end so that they will— so that you get behavioural change, really. So without it, you’re not seeing the same sort of levers.
SHANE So you are using a stick?
PAULA There is a stick at the end of it, yeah. Look, I have looked at this upside down, inside out, read all of the evidence, taken the best advice I can. The reality is for a percentage of our population, their children are not achieving and getting the kinds of opportunities that they should have in life. I’ve been in too many classrooms of 5-year-olds and seen the kids that haven’t been in ECE that are really struggling. It does affect those that are at the more vulnerable end. That definition of vulnerability goes to low socio-economic, those that might have been in the attention of Child, Youth and Family previously and those that are just simply disadvantaged. If we can give them an advantage, let’s give it to them.
SHANE So what happens where those services aren’t available?
PAULA Well, they won’t be sanctioned. That’s a reality. So, we know that there are very real barriers. The Minister of Education is working very hard to put more resources in there and get services where they want them. If they can’t attend an early-childhood education, they will not be punished for that.
SHANE So you know from the outset that these obligations may not be achievable because of lack of services, because of a lack of a place at the local kindy or at a GP?
PAULA But I also know that there’s empty places in some centres. And even though they in some cases put on transport, they identify the children, they go out and try and get them there, they’re not attending, so this might be the lever that gives them that kind of opportunity to get them.
SHANE So if solo mum Jan can’t get little Johnny into daycare because there’s no place, you’re not going to cut Jan’s benefit?
PAULA No, we are not.
SHANE How can cutting a benefit be good for the child – the child that we’re saying is paramount in all of it?
PAULA It’s not what we want to do, it’s not the intention of the policy is to be cutting a whole lot of people’s benefits, so we will have worked through a whole lot of processes before that. And to be honest, I would expect them to be well connected to either a community organisation that can help them. Because I think if you get to a point where they’re just point blank refusing to and can’t see the benefits of it, then we’ve possibly got bigger problems than just whether or not their child’s attending early-childhood education. So it is an absolute last resort, and the reality is that without a sanction, you aren’t using that kind of lever to get the kind of behavioural change that we’re looking for for those children.
SHANE Let me quote the Maxim Institute. ‘Families know their children best. They’re the best place to know if their children would thrive in an early-childhood setting or if they would do better at home in the care of an adult that they trust.’ They have a point, don’t they?
PAULA They do, actually, yeah, and I can certainly see the merits of that argument. And believe me, I have tussled with this one quite a lot because there’s a part of me that sort of says, you know, parents should be, absolutely. But I have seen enough evidence of these really vulnerable kids that are not getting access to what is freely available in most cases and which they can access, and they’re the ones that are falling behind. They’re the ones that I’m now dealing with at 16, 17 years old. They’re the ones that I see in my youth justice facilities. They’re the ones that teachers say, ‘I can tell you which children have and haven’t been in early-childhood education. And we’re right on the back foot, and I’m not sure if we’re ever really going to catch them up.’ So if I can give them that chance at the beginning, you know, I’m going to. And I don’t think that every child actually needs to be in early-childhood education, but I do think it benefits those that are most vulnerable so much that that’s why I’m doing this.
SHANE So you don’t believe that all children should be in early-childhood education, but you’re forcing it to happen, though.
PAULA For some of those most vulnerable, I am.
SHANE For all beneficiaries?
PAULA Yeah, it is an expectation for all beneficiaries. However, we will only be dealing with those whom we class as vulnerable. So we’re going to be taking data, we’re going to be collecting information. We know a lot already. We know those that are on benefits—
SHANE Can I just stop you there? Can you explain or break it down what you mean by vulnerable? So are you saying that not all children of beneficiaries will be subjected to these obligations?
PAULA There is an expectation that they will be, but we won’t be testing that many of them, so we will only be looking for compliance for a certain population of that. The Cabinet papers say that we’ll be looking at around 20,000 to 25,000 children in a year, and we’ve got, you know, 220,000 children on benefits, so that’s a very very small subset of that.
SHANE So just so that I’ve got it clear, we’re just talking about a certain section of these kids?
PAULA That will be tested on whether or not they’re complying. The others – we expect them to, but we won’t be checking up to see if they have.
SHANE What’s the point of these obligations if some don’t have to meet them?
PAULA Well, it’s the same with work testing, to be honest. We have a work-test obligation across, you know, most of those that are on benefit. However, we do not test everyone to check that they’re complying. We don’t have the resources, and, in fact, some of them will comply without us checking on them and we don’t need to, so we take a subset. In this case, we’re going to take a subset of who we consider to be most vulnerable.
SHANE So, if we go back to Jan, if Jan wants to keep little Johnny at home, she can?
PAULA Well, it depends whether Jan’s tested or not or whether or not those case managers are actually, sort of, working with her and seeing whether or not she needs to, but it depends on Jan’s own personal circumstances. But there is an expectation that all parents that have children aged 3 and 4 that are on benefit will have their children in early-childhood education, but we won’t be checking all 31,500.
SHANE It sounds like you’re stigmatising those parents. Are they worse parents?
PAULA No, and I hear what you’re saying there, because I struggle with it. And at the end of the day, my focus is really really firmly on those children. And I look at it, and I go, ‘If you know what we know, so we know the benefits of early-childhood education, we know that getting enrolled with a GP, having those well-child checks is hugely beneficial for those children who are struggling most, and I know who they are and I can do, I just can’t in all of honesty sit back and say that how it is now is as good as it gets for those kids.’
SHANE Tell us about another announcement – the beneficiary who turns down a suitable job and has their benefit cancelled. The critics call it harsh.
PAULA Well, in this day and age, it’s kind of hard for a lot of people to get a job, and I really accept that. So surely if there is one that is suitable, you should take it. And we don’t all get to go in our perfect job first off. In fact, we’ve probably all worked in jobs we didn’t want to. I think if there’s a job that you are suitable for, you should take it. And if you don’t, I think you’ve cut out your right to have benefit.
SHANE Let me give you a couple of examples of where benefits were almost cut. A young woman living in Wainuiomata – they wanted her to work at a coffee cart on the Petone waterfront. She had to start work at 6.30am, and because she had no car, she had to catch two buses, travel for an hour and walk there. That doesn’t seem fair.
PAULA No, so was her benefit cut?
SHANE No, it wasn’t.
PAULA No, and it wouldn’t be in this circumstance either, because that doesn’t sound fair and reasonable.
SHANE Let me just clarify that her benefit hasn’t been cut, but she is appealing it now.
PAULA Okay. It doesn’t sound like she can get to the job, so that wouldn’t be fair if she couldn’t get to the job. So, I mean, it’s hard for me to know all of the circumstances around it. So there is a degree of reasonableness around it, but equally I think if you can, then you should be.
SHANE In your maiden speech and let me quote, ‘Good government should stay out of people’s homes,’ these obligations, these expectations, the stick that you spoke about before, that’s not staying out of people’s homes.
PAULA No, no, and I tell you, I grappled with it. It’s not sat as comfortably— you know, I’m not doing this because, you know, I’ve all of a sudden become hugely interventionist or I want to get into everyone’s homes.
SHANE Did you change your mind?
PAULA No, I—
SHANE Do we need to go into these homes? Well, that’s what—
PAULA In some of them we do. I suppose I have because I have seen the evidence. I see too many kids that are struggling and not getting ahead in life, and I see it cyclical. I see this happening generation after generation, and I want to make a difference, and I’ve got an opportunity to do that and I’m taking it. So with all of the knowledge that I have gained in my time as a minister, which is nearly four years, and with all of the advice I’ve got, I am, I suppose, going into some of those homes. But it feels like it’s for the right reasons.
SHANE Great place to leave it. Thank you very much for your time.
PAULA Thank you.