Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Submission to the Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill


Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill Submission

               By Janet Robin, President, Waitemata Unite Union

             (Thanks to  Auckland Action Against Poverty for

            much of the  material used in this submission)  

Summary of the Bill

The Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill changes the current benefit categories, introduces new work ability assessments and so called “social obligations”, and extends work preparation requirements and pre-benefit activities.  In addition, it increases the use of sanctions via benefit cuts and cancellations.  This Bill also allows for the contracting out of services and the provision of goods and services by Work and Income “preferred suppliers”.

Summary of Reasons for Submission:
What this Bill does not do is focus on job creation, adequate benefit levels, affirm the importance of care work, or realise that not all work is good work.  Instead, it individualises the problem, stigmatises beneficiaries, increases the stress and pressure of receiving a benefit, removes beneficiaries rights to make a number of decisions about their own lives, and implements a number of sanctions for failing to jump when the Chief Executive (Work and Income) tells you to.

Summary of submissions  (and  some  additional material to main submissions )  

Single Parents
I wish to emphasise the importance of recognising mothering and caring as work, which should be fully valued and supported by society. Single parents caring for children should not be required to seek paid work unless they determine that this is in the interests of their family.   The Domestic Purposes Benefit should be retained in the form it was originally intended for when it was introduced: as a support for the single parent to nurture and raise her children. 
The interests and welfare of the children should come first, not the interests of employers to have a large number of people on the labour market to choose from.  Numerous studies have shown that the best form of care for young children is from their own parents at home, particularly the under threes, where the one to one relationship is vitally important for the bonding and attachment needs of the child to be met. This cannot be met in impersonal day-care with unqualified staff and low staff to child ratios. Many single parents are dedicated parents who must have the right to decide what is in the best interests of their own children.  Compulsory day care and compulsory schooling is contrary to the rights of the child and o  the  parent to determine the  best education for their children, which may include home schooling. 
Punishing parents and their children for not complying with arbitrary rules by 6 month stand-downs and halving benefits is contrary to the United Nations Rights of the Child including the right to food , shelter, and to relationship with their family.  The provisions regarding compulsory day care and schooling, compulsory schooling, and  compulsory medical checks  are discriminatory on the grounds of employment status and contrary to the NZ Bill of Rights,  as parents who are not on benefits are not subjected to the same compulsion.
Compulsory Medical Checks contravene the parent’s right to choose the most appropriate health care for their own children, including following the advice of complementary health practitioners.  
Compulsory day care, and medical visits does not take into account that the costs of these may be unaffordable, as subsidies only cover part of the cost of day care, and do not cover transport costs to doctors.

Contracted Providers 
 Provisions in the Bill which require people to use contracted providers, whether this is the payment card issued to youth, or the disability allowance, or any other, limits the choices of these people to choose the cheapest and healthiest and most effective options for themselves, in consultation with their own health professionals.  Overseas these sorts of provisions have often meant, for example that fresh fruit and vegetables have not been available, and instead people are forced to purchase unhealthy processed foods from limited suppliers. Another problem has been the difficulty and expense to get transport to particular suppliers. These provisions are not in the interests of the health and well being of clients and their children, but rather in the interests of the suppliers’ profits.

 Forcing parents, the sick and disabled, and the elderly onto the Job Market 
I oppose the forcing of people such as parents, the sick and disabled, and the elderly (but not yet pensioners) onto the labour market (such as widows and women alone)  and being required to engage in full time search for work. This is degrading and stressful for these people especially when in the current climate they face major discrimination and are unlikely to be given work. 
This is especially the case if youth can be employed instead at a fraction of the cost with the new youth rates legislation. 
Instead the government should be creating jobs, and assisting these people to find work that is suitable for their own health, family, and age related needs and skills. 
It is also ridiculous to force highly qualified people to compete against unskilled people for unskilled jobs. This again, only benefits employers who can force wages and conditions down. 

Rather, people should be helped to find work that suits their skills and abilities, and the government needs to recognise its responsibilities to create employment which utilises these skills and which can provide flexibility which suits the employee’s health and family needs. Requiring older  women- alone to available full time on the labour market is discriminatory when at the same time they do not have the same rights as other people to study, as  they have restricted access to student loans on account of their age. 

 Main Submission

Unemployment Benefit replaced with Job Seeker Support
The repealing of Sections 89 to 99AB abolish the Unemployment Benefit and repeal all relevant sections (all that remains is one section covering a change that occurred in 2001).  The replacement benefit is Jobseeker Support which is covered by 12 new sections which, it is claimed, are very similar to the repealed unemployment benefit sections but with sickness benefit section (repealed by clause 20) merged into them.

Submission : Retain the name for this benefit as "unemployment benefit". People can be "job seekers" when there are jobs to seek for everyone who needs one.  This renaming removes a focus on the absence of paid work in New Zealand and adds the potential to blame the seekers of jobs if they fail to find one.

Retain the sickness benefit category.  People with chronic illnesses require additional support not increased surveillance, work testing and work ability assessments.

Invalids Benefit replaced with Supported Living Payment
New sections 40C-40H replace the current Invalid's Benefit with the Supported Living Payment.  There is more restrictive access to this benefit with everyone who applies for the Supported Living Payment or who is currently receiving the Invalid's Benefit required to re-see their doctor, or one decided upon by Work and Income and to undergo a 'Work Ability Assessment' (under new sections 100B and 100C).  Those receiving the Support Living Payment can also be asked to see their doctor, or one specified by Work and Income, again – or multiple times – at Work and Income's discretion.  Those who fail to meet the stringent requirements of the Supported Living Payment will instead receive the Job Seeker Support Payment (at a lower rate), which loses the specific needs that people living with impairments, mental illness, or other chronic conditions may have, such as MS.

There are also "social obligations" for those receiving the Supported Living Payment, their partners, and/or their full time carers.

Submission: I disagree with the addition of Section 40c- 40H.  This does not recognise the work already present in being a carer or the difficulties associated with living with a disability, nor is it likely to enhance peoples lives in any substantial way.  There are many issues with requiring people to repeatedly see a Doctor for Work Ability Assessments.  This applies additional stress and hardship to what already might be a difficult situation and could lead to on-going harassment and doctors’ visits.  Further, the use of Work and Income recommended doctor's (already allowed for under the current Act) may lead to people being moved off the Supported Living Payment through lack of judgement or understanding of the individuals health conditions by Work and Income doctors.  People have already raised issues with ACC specified “hatchet” doctors – the same ones that may likely be used by Work and Income.

Sickness Beneficiaries Moved onto Job Seeker Support
Current sections 54, 54A, 54B, 54D, 54DA, 54E, 54F are to be repealed and in doing so abolish the Sickness Benefit.  Those currently receiving the Sickness Benefit will then be moved on to the Job Seeker payment (with possible work-test exemptions).

Submission : I disagree with the repealing of current sections 54, 54A, 54B, 54D, 54DA, 54E, 54F and argue that we need to retain the Sickness Benefit category.

Pre-benefit Activities
New sections 11E-11H extends existing pre-benefit activities to Emergency Benefit applicants and Sole Parent Support applicants, in addition to the partners/spouses of those applying for Job Seeker Support, Supported Living Payment and the Emergency Benefit.  It also extends this requirement to those applying for Job Seeker Support on the grounds of sickness, injury or disability (who previously would not have had pre-benefit activities under the Sickness Benefit).  If applicants or their partners/spouses do not fulfil these pre-benefit activities within 20 working days of first contact, they can be denied the ability to apply for a benefit until they comply.  There is no limit to the number of activities required.

Submission :  I disagree with the additions of 11E-11H in their entirety.  While I/we consider pre-benefit requirements an unnecessary burden for any person whose situation has compelled them to seek state assistance (as it adds to the stress they and their families are already facing), I particularly disagree with this Bill’s extension of already existing pre-benefit requirements to   Emergency Benefit applicants, Sole Parent Support applicants and those applying for Job Seeker support on the grounds of sickness, injury or disability, and to the partners/spouses of those applying for Job Seeker Support, Supported Living Payment and the Emergency Benefit.

It is unconscionable for someone requiring an Emergency Benefit or their partner to have "pre-benefit" activities. If they fit the criteria for an Emergency Benefit, that should be granted straight away.

Benefit applicants who are sick, injured or disabled: These applicants are applying for a benefit not because they need a job but because they have become unable to work for a period of time. Therefore compelling them to perform activities to help them become “job ready” prior to receiving the benefit is cruel and unnecessary.

Partners of benefit applicants: The inclusion of obligations on partners/spouses is worrying due to its privacy and coercion implications. It could put stress on important relationships; it involves the compelled divulging of information about one person (the applicant) to another (their partner); and means that the benefit applicant cannot rely simply on themselves to do all that Work and Income requires, but is reliant and dependent on their partner. In many partnerships, this is not merely the matter of a simple request. 11H(3) does not adequately protect the benefit applicant in any case of partner non-compliance. The possibility that a partner or spouse could be a superannuate or already in low-paid work is not acknowledged by the bill – these people can also be asked to perform tasks to improve their “job readiness”.

Work Preparation
The amendment of 60Q extends work preparation requirements to those who have “an additional child” who is under one year of age and those receiving the Supported Living Payment who are caring for a “patient”.  It also allows for work preparation to be under the guidance of a contracted service provider, including for the purposes of testing the persons compliance.

Submission: I disagree with the amendment of 60Q. Without government investment in employment creation, this is largely an exercise in creating a profitable enterprise for private contractors to Work and Income, which will result in no measurable benefit for the vast majority of beneficiaries.  In addition it adds extra stress and pressure on those already work exempt for care or familial reasons.  I/we can not imagine how a single parent with more than one child, one of whom is under one year old, will be able to manage the time and stress of work preparation. Further, this amendment does nothing to re-instate the type of work preparation many single parents would like – such as the Training Incentive Allowance.

Work Ability Assessment
New sections 100B and 100C introduce a Work Ability Assessment. Any person receiving Sole Parent Support, Supported Living Payment, Emergency Benefit or Jobseeker Support may be required to participate in a work ability assessment. (People who are terminally ill are excused. People who have little or no capacity for work and whose condition is deteriorating are also excused.)

The work ability assessment procedure is not specifically defined – it is left to be “determined by the chief executive”.  It may cover, what kind of benefit the person should be on, what sort of employment is “suitable” for them, what work preparation they should do and what assistance they may need to get employment.  They can be reassessed from time to time as the Chief Executive (Work and Income) sees fit.

Submission: I disagree with the addition of 100B and 100C.  There is already a process for Doctors to inform Work and Income of the work capacity of beneficiaries.  Similar UK policies have proven disastrous with horror stories of people being told by private contractors that they are capable for work when it was just not physically possible.  There are fears also around the “hatchet” doctors that may be used in these assessments along with private contractors and that their focus may be to claim people are work ready, no matter the cost. There is also the possibility of unnecessary harassment through numerous assessments. People move in to work when their health and familial circumstances allow.  People do not need to be told when they should take work, or what kind of work that should be.

Social Obligations
New sections 60RA, 60RB and 60RC introduce social obligations to all parents who receive a benefit, and sanctions for non compliance.

New section 60RA covers the obligations of those receiving a benefit who have a dependant child (and their partner even if not legal guardian of the child).  These obligations include that children: must be in Early Childhood Education or school from 3 years onwards; up to date with wellchecks; and enrolled with a registered GP.

60RB notes that the Chief Executive (Work and Income) must take reasonable steps to ensure beneficiaries (to whom social obligations apply) are aware of their social obligations and consequences for failure to comply.

And new section 60RC outlines the sanctions for failure to comply with social obligations, including that the person must be notified three times to allow them to comply.  It also allows for “intensified case management” of the person if they fail to comply – including Work and Income management of beneficiaries benefit.  Partners or legal guardians can also be sanctioned for non compliance. 

Submission: I disagree with the additions of 60RA, 60RB and 60RC.  Social obligation requirements take away the rights of parents to choose what is best for themselves and their families.  Families that struggle to care for their children well should be supported by social workers, not made to suffer more with cuts to their benefits.  If MSD were really interested in increasing participation in things like ECE they should increase the accessibility of such services and cover additional costs of children's attendance.

Contracted Service Providers
The new section 60GAG obliges anybody receiving one of the three main benefits (and their spouse or partner—if they have one), to go to whatever contracted services the Chief Executive (Work and Income) thinks is necessary E.g. To see a Work and Income doctor, attend work preparation courses or attend Work Ability assessments held by outside businesses or institutions.  There are sanctions for non compliance.

Submission: I disagree with the addition of 60GAG.  This is very broad and gives sweeping powers to Work and Income to direct the lives of beneficiaries and may largely be for the benefit of private contractors.  Similar policy applies in the UK where private contractors are employed to find “suitable” work for beneficiaries – the outcome of which has been many people moving off benefit and into work when they either were not ready, for health or familial reasons, or into work that was unsuitable – with the private contractor being paid great profits for doing so.  I/we also have concerns over the sharing of private information with these service providers, these concerns were heightened after the recent availability of private beneficiary information at public Work and Income kiosks.

Preferred Suppliers
The amendment of Section 69C allows for the requirement of any goods and services, purchased with a Disability Allowance, to be purchased from a “preferred supplier” that has been contracted by the Chief Executive (Work and Income).  It also allows for this money to be paid directly to the supplier.  There is no right to appeal these decisions.

Submission: I disagree with the amendment of 69C.  This amendment does not add anything positive to the lives of people living with disabilities.  This amendment may have major issues for people who require specific items that are not available from a preferred supplier. Also, there are issues in terms of flexibility of choice – it is common for the disability allowance allocated to not be enough to cover all disability related expenses, currently people are able to manage the money they are allocated and can redirect it to the items or services they know to be of greatest importance.  This amendment will remove the ability to do so.

This provision does not allow the client to purchase the remedies of their choice and those prescribed by their own health professionals, which may not be available from the contracted providers.  Also the “preferred supplier” may not be available locally and involve expensive travel to reach.

Preferred Suppliers Paid Directly
The amendment of Section 124 outlines that the applicant of any special assistance goods or services for them or their family must be purchased from a preferred Work and Income supplier nominated in writing by the Chief Executive (Work and Income) at the price determined by the contract under section 125AA with that supplier.  It allows for this money to be paid directly to the supplier rather than to the beneficiary.  It also says that this cannot be appealed. 

Submission: I disagree with the amendment of Section 124.  There are many problems with this amendment.  Ultimately this amendment will give people less control over their money, and thus their lives, which will not improve their well being but will in fact reduce their ability to make their own decisions.  For example, if someone is receiving the maximum disability allowance (but not enough to cover their disability costs) that person may currently choose which items they feel are more necessary than the others and pay for these items or costs, in this new case, they would have less flexibility over which goods and services were purchased.  Further, the goods and services provided by suppliers may not fit the exact needs of those requiring them and may possibly be provided at a higher cost.  This can currently be seen with the use of payment cards for youth parents who have found that the nappies they need are more expensive from approved supermarkets than the ones they can find elsewhere.

In addition certain suppliers will benefit from these policies, with possible monopoly provision, potentially limiting quality and choice.
New section 116B adds a number of different reasons that a person can be sanctioned under Section 117.  These include if the person fails to meet an obligation of a contracted service provider, (eg for work preparation, social obligations, work testing, etc).  If the person fails to meet their “social obligations” under new Section 25.  If they fail to meet their work preparation, work ability assessment, or interview obligations obligations.  And if they fail to meet their work test obligations, including drug test obligations.  According to s 117, for most situations the first failure means benefit is cut by 50%.  If the person has not complied with the obligation within 4 weeks, the benefit is reduced to zero. The second failure means the benefit is suspended until the obligation is met. The third failure means the benefit is cancelled and the person cannot reapply for 13 weeks.

Submission: I disagree with the addition of 116B. It does not demonstrably enhance or improve the lives of beneficiaries or their children and in fact will have dire consequences for people and their families.  I/We do not believe that sanctions should be used in any case.  People do the best they can with what they can, and they may sometimes require support – not the suspension of their livelihood.

Sanctions for Warrant to Arrest
New section 75B allows for somebody's benefit to be stopped if they have a warrant for arrest that has been out for 28 days and if they have not followed up with the police within ten days after being notified by Work and Income.  Sole parents will have their benefits halved.

Submission: I disagree with the addition of 75B.  The courts and police have already issued an arrest warrant and this can be followed up by those agencies. Making a person and their children deliberately penniless, and consequently homeless, will not increase safety in New Zealand.

Drug Testing
The amendment of 102A inserts drug testing obligations into the work test obligations.  102B outlines that beneficiaries are required to take a drug test if the job they are applying for (or have been told to apply for) so requires.  This section outlines that the person is taken to have failed the evidential test if they fail a screening test or waive the test “in any manner”. This phrase “in any manner” seems wide open to interpretation and abuse by prospective employers.  102C states that a failed drug test will be  reimbursed by the Chief Executive (Work and Income) and the cost recovered from the beneficiary.  A failed drug test can be sanctioned under Section 117 unless the person re-complies under clause 47.

Submission:  I disagree with the amendment of 102A which makes drug testing a work test obligation.  I disagree with the addition of 102B and 102C.  The reasons for any heavy beneficiary recreational drug use—escape from despair, for example—should be considered and their situation ameliorated by training, appropriate health services and job creation.  These additions will just work to cut benefit payments and beneficiary numbers but will not do anything to alter the fact that there are not enough jobs.  Further, this amendment and these additions work to stigmatise beneficiaries as drug takers.  We need increased drug and alcohol rehabilitation and treatment facilities for those who have real issues with addiction and job creation for those who do not.

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