Yesterday I wrote about the CCL report into systemic breakdowns at Work and Income. Now I want to know – what’s going to be done about it?
I’m in the Nelson Mail today talking about the report.
You might remember that, for me, this began over a year ago – well, that’s when I went public about it, it actually began when I was in hospital and a social worker brought me the stack of forms I would have to fill out to even start applying for a benefit, and I broke down.
Last year in March, I met with Labour MPs to find out what plans they had to address the massive systemic issues in WINZ. A reminder, some of these are (as stated in the Canterbury Community Law Report):
1. Poverty and inadequacy of income is the main problem for people on benefits.
2. Beneficiaries experience an inherent imbalance of power when dealing with the government department that makes decisions about their entitlements at both the institutional and individual case manager levels.
3. Beneficiaries felt they were disadvantaged by a case management system that required them to see a different case manager on each visit (although Work and Income do provide dedicated case managers for some groups of beneficiaries).
4. While participants reported a variety of positive and negative experiences, beneficiaries’ negative experiences as clients of Work and Income and stigma attached to being on a benefit overwhelmingly permeated their interaction with the benefit system at all levels.
5. Complaints about the lack of privacy featured strongly in beneficiaries’ interviews.
6. Work and Income’s service charter provides clients should be treated with respect. The interviews, however, suggested that this did not always occur.
7. There is a complex web of welfare law and internal policy that is the basis for Work and Income decision-making. Work and Income case managers make entitlement decisions based on internal policy guidelines rather than on the provisions of the legislation.
So what happens now?
Labour: As a result of meeting with me last year, Labour attempted to collect additional stories of WINZ mistreatment. I had already collated more than a hundred for them. Unfortunately they were not able to really pursue this project. What did result was a new Social Development Policy from them (which was never announced so I missed it) which I am quite impressed with. I’d now like them to challenge the Goverment to do some of the key thing they outline in that Policy, including:
- Implementing a Code of Client’s Rights at Work and Income offices
- Lifting the abatement-free thresholds for all main benefits to $150 per week
- Ensuring people with chronic illness and congenital conditions are not relentlessly required to prove their incapacity.
Green Party: Jan Logie, Social Development spokesperson for the Green Party, is meeting with in June and I will be very keen to hear if the Greens have any plans in this area.
I am well aware that Goverment policy cannot change without the say so of the Minister for Social Development, and that these are community groups and opposition parties, but I think they have power. We can all put pressure on the Ministry and Work and Income to do better.
Canterbury Community Law: CCL make a number of recommendations in the report, many of which are specifically for community law organisations. I spoke with Kim Morton, lawyer and head researcher on this project. She says:
“The research has helped us understand how difficult [it] can be for beneficiaries and how hard it can be to get legal help. Community law centres are therefore prioritising these kinds of cases by helping people prepare for hearings, and where necessary, representing them at a hearing. We are preparing guidelines with practical information about taking a review or appeal.
We discovered through the research that many beneficiaries do not think of problems with their benefit as legal issues. This is something we’ll work to change, by increasing community education we do about benefits and how community law centres can help.
Within the network of 24 community law centres around New Zealand, we are putting more effort into working together on welfare issues, with a new specialist welfare network formed. Our goal is to use our legal knowledge and resources to support beneficiaries who need legal help and to help address systemic problems with the benefit system.
The Ministry of Social Development: Kim Morton says that Community Law envisages that both MSD and the Ministry of Justice will consider the issues that the report raises in their areas of responsibility, and that CCL is looking forward to working with them to more effectively address specific issues affecting beneficiaries.
However, MSD has given the following response:
“A Ministry of Social Development spokesperson said the findings of the report were not representative of the work it did, nor the views of all beneficiaries. The spokesperson refused to answer specific questions on the report stating the report related to a “very small and distinct group of people… it specifically sought out beneficiaries who’d had conflict with Work and Income. It is not representative of Work and Income as a whole and the work we do.”
So, basically, what I hear here is: we intend to do nothing.
What can we do?
As anyone who has dealt with WINZ knows, there are massive barriers to change. The current government is solely focused on getting people off benefits, not on addressing the ongoing issues. It is hard to push for change from outside that. However, we are not powerless.
I will be meeting with Jan Logie in June and hopefully also a Labour representative at some point. They have platforms as opposition parties – raising questions in the House, getting word out into the media, etcetera. They can apply pressure to the government.
We can, too. It’s important that we continue to share our stories of mistreatment and mishandling, as often and as loudly as possible.
I am also wondering whether the report is enough evidence to use to call for a Commission of Enquiry into Work and Income.
“An inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1908 should be considered when the situation is so unusual that no other approach will do, such as:
- there is considerable public anxiety about the matter
- a major lapse in Government performance appears to be involved
- circumstances giving rise to the inquiry are unique with few or no precedents
- the issue cannot be dealt with through the normal machinery of Government or through the criminal or civil courts
- the issue is in an area too new, complex or controversial for mature policy decisions to be taken.”
I feel like the first two points may be relevant here, but someone with more knowledge (and health) than I would have to step in.
Meanwhile, I encourage you to contact your local MP if you can – share your story, keep telling everyone what really happens. It’s important and it’s powerful.