Social Welfare Minister Carmel Sepuloni was far from generous with details, when questioned in Parliament yesterday about her government’s policy intentions regarding solo parents and the burden they heap on taxpayers.
We are not much clearer – as a consequence – about what further changes are likely based on proposals from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. Or how much more taxpayers will be expected to cough up to care for the children of welfare beneficiaries
But the suggestion that the government should do something to discourage solo-parent beneficiaries from bringing more children into the world was treated with disdain.
In response to a report from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, the Government in May announced it will remove the benefit sanction which penalised solo mothers by up to $28 a week if they would not name their child’s father.
The amount that beneficiaries can earn through employment before their benefits were cut was increased at the same time.
The report urged fundamental change to the welfare system to lift public financial support for beneficiaries.
When the changes were announced, Sepuloni said the Government had decided against a recommendation to increase benefit levels by up to 47 per cent immediately so Kiwis could “live in dignity“, but it was “looking at a staged implementation” of change.
In Parliament yesterday, National’s Louise Upston asked Sepuloni what changes she was considering – if any – to sanctions and obligations for sole parents based on the Welfare Expert Advisory Group report.
Sepuloni apparently was in no mood to provide details.
She did say reviewing key sanctions to improve child wellbeing is a priority for this Government.
Yep. We knew that.
Moreover, she explained that this priority is clearly outlined in the Cabinet paper Welfare Overhaul: Advice from the Welfare Expert Advisory Groups and Next Steps, available online.
And – lest nobody had noticed – she said that’s why the government has already passed legislation to repeal the sanction for not naming the other parent, in section 192 of the Social Security Act.
She proceeded to reiterate what she had said back in May.
“We are also reviewing the subsequent child policy and seeking further advice on the other sanctions suggested by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. It is important to note that recent research has highlighted that policies that reduce income—for example, through sanctions—are associated with negative child behavioural and developmental outcomes.”
In other words, taxpayers must pick up the tab because the Government would rather not require a solo mother to make a choice – name the father or have the benefit trimmed.
Upston asked what was the the cost to the Crown – or to taxpayers, strictly speaking – of the removal of the sanction where the liable parent is not named?
The short answer is $113 million over four years,
The ongoing hundreds of millions beyond that obviously have yet to be projected.
Sepuloni could not – or would not – put a figure on the amount of money that no longer will be collected from liable parents.,
Hansard records the Minister’s responses:
Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: Removing section 192, which will mean that women and children are not bearing the cost or thrown further into hardship, is $113 million over four years. There are approximately 24,000 children living in those households. Those households will be better off because of repealing that section 192 by $34 per week, and this Government is proud of the fact that we have made the decision to repeal section 192.
Hon Louise Upston: How much child support won’t now be collected from liable parents as a result of that change?
Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: The advice that I was given by the Ministry of Social Development, and the advice that the previous Government was given in 2016, was that there was no evidence to support that the intention of the policy had been reached. The estimates are out there, as is always the case. It really is a matter of making sure that these families are better off.
Upston’s next question was whether Sepuloni believes sole parents should have obligations to ensure their children are attending school.
We are left to guess.
Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: Under the previous Government, social obligations were implemented through the welfare system. In the Cabinet paper that I spoke about before, that is not something that we are initially looking at; however, I would like to mention that, actually, no sanctions have had to be imposed because of breaches of social obligations. I do think that the other side of the House and the previous Government underestimate the parents who are in the welfare system and the fact that they care for their children as well.
So will Sepuloni be removing the subsequent child rule which means that sole parents have obligations to look for part-time work when a subsequent child is one?
Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: We are reviewing that policy because where children are punished through the welfare system, we have concerns, and our objective here is to make sure that child wellbeing is at the heart of everything that we do. We do want to review that policy to check that that is the case, and we have concerns that the previous Government didn’t have their best intention at heart.
Then came the fascinating question about whether there are limits to the size of the one-parent families whose rearing should be the responsibility of taxpayers.
The short answer – it seems – is no.
Hon Louise Upston: How many more children does she think is acceptable for someone already on sole parent benefit to have; or does she think there should be no limit?
Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: I never fail to be shocked by the judgment and the stigma of women in the welfare system that the previous Government and the National Party continue to purport. We have a much more positive view of women in the welfare system. We’re investing in upskilling and training. We’re investing in opportunities for employment. We’ve put more money into front-line case managers to support work focus in Work and Income offices. We believe in the potential of these women. We want to support them into employment where they are able to work. We also want to be able to support them to care for their children.
Hon Louise Upston: How many more children living in benefit-dependent homes and therefore hardship is she projecting based on the changes she’s considering?
Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: Under this Government—and it’s not just through the welfare system; it’s across all of Government—we have an absolute focus on child wellbeing and child poverty reduction. Our absolute aspiration is that these children are able to reach their potential and that they’re supported to do so. That’s what we are focused on. We’re not going to be taken down the negative track that that side of the House would like us to go down.
Upston has issued no press statements based on the information – or dearth of it – she gleaned from the Minister.
But earlier this week she issued a statement to note that the number of children living in benefit-dependent households has increased by 8,000 in just over a year.
“The Prime Minister pledged in March 2018 – when the number of children in benefit dependent households was 168,000 – that she would reduce the number of children in poverty by 70,000 over three years.
“Instead, the number of children in benefit-dependent households has gone up, reaching 176,000 in the June quarter of this year.
“That’s the result of almost 15,500 more New Zealanders on a jobseeker benefit since the Labour-led Government came into office.
Upston also noted that rising rents and fuel prices are among the increases in day-to-day costs that are directly attributable to the policies of this Government.