Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Meet social needs, not employers' needs. No to the oppressive Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill.

The Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill  attempts to re-codify the pernicious welfare changes it has passed since it took office; and  sneaks in some even worse changes in the guise of  making the Act read more smoothly.

The 2012 welfare changes included requiring mothers with  children as young as three, (or even babies, for  a second child), to be looking for work. The law forces mothers to put their children into  early childhood  institutions, which are sometimes very poor quality and can be traumatic for the child.  If they refuse, or miss an appointment, single parent families face fifty per cent sanctions, which could go on for weeks, months or even indefinitely.

People without children face 100% sanctions for the most trivial of  offences, such as being five minutes late for an appointment.

In addition to this, shockingly, the government abolished the sickness benefit, instead making nearly all sick people "job seekers" unless they went through enormous hoops to prove long term sickness or disability.  This has led to cancer patients being forced to constantly look for work or to prove that they are too sick to work.

Nowhere does National recognise the importance and value of parenting and caring, which is evident in Bill English's use of an archaic veto to prevent the  Paid Parental Leave Bill from being passed; even though it has the support of the majority in parliament.  This Bill would have extended paid parental leave to 6 months, which is tiny compared to what is available in some countries.

National's relentless work focus (which was also pursued by Labour) puts placing people on the labour market, to compete with each other and  increase employers' profits;  before  the human and social needs it should be addressing.

The same approach has seen National sell off our state housing at a time  of  crisis levels of housing shortages!

National places corporate profits, and punishing the poor;  above meeting any social obligations whatsoever.

The Social Security Rewrite Bill reinforces section 70A of the Social Security Act which punishes single  mothers who do not name the father of the child.  Mothers may not either want or be able to name the father for very good reasons, such as fear of violence, or the  pregnancies being a product of rape or sexual abuse.  In the Rewrite Bill section 70A is replaced by three sections, Sections 176, 177, and 178 which drum the same message, that mothers and their children must pay, with huge financial  sanctions, for the fathers who don't meet their financial obligations.

With these  punitive clauses almost universally affecting women,  including many Māori,  who are the poorest in society; the Bill is sexist, classist and racist.

Unite Waitemata believes that the Social Security Act 1964 needs to be re-written to include the principles of society's responsibility towards  people in need , that were present in our original excellent Social Security Act  1938. This needs to be   updated to include rights for women and Māori, and to recognise the importance and value of parenting  and caring work;  and society's obligation to support this.  All references to job seeking and  sanctions should be deleted from the Act.

Additionally,  the government needs to  create  real jobs, in other legislation; but job uptake should not  be attempted by punishing people who cannot do paid work because of health  needs or caring obligations; or because no jobs are available.

 In these times of precarious work, all workers and beneficiaries need to Unite against welfare cuts, which put the entire working class in danger!  Save the welfare state!

Below  is our submission, with  many thanks to Auckland Action Against Poverty, and  to Catriona MacLennan,  for nearly all of the material in our submission. 
The material in Part A comes from Catriona MacLennan's article in the NZ Herald,  entitled 10  Ways to Fix NZ's Welfare State, on 16 June 2016 . 

Submission to the Social Services Select Committee
on the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill,
regarding overall principles,  and certain sections, especially
Sections 176, 177 and 178

Unite Waitemata Branch
Unite Waitemata is a branch of the Unite Union.  Unite is a union for low paid,  marginalised and unemployed workers  and beneficiaries.

Our submission has two parts, Part A and Part B
Part A includes overall submissions about the Bill.
Part B includes specific submissions about sections 176, 177 and 178 of the Bill.

 Overall recommendations for  improvements to welfare law, in the Social Security  Legislation Rewrite Bill.
 ( We support the views and  recommendations of lawyer Catriona MacLennan in this part of our submission.)
The Social Security Act 1938 was ground-breaking law - both in New Zealand and internationally. It was based on the simple view that every New Zealand citizen had the right to a reasonable standard of living, and that the community, collectively, was responsible for helping those who could not support themselves.
Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage said that a new principle was introduced by the act -
"[C]itizens of the Dominion are insuring themselves against the economic hardships that would otherwise follow those natural misfortunes from which no one is immune."
Our current legislation, the Social Security Act 1964, is being rewritten by the Government. It has produced a 446-page bill, which is described as a technical rewrite. In fact, the bill makes policy changes, and also continues the recent philosophy of emphasising sanctions and obligations rather than primarily ensuring that everyone in need receives help.
But the combination of the law rewrite and deep community concern about the plight of needy Aucklanders presents the perfect opportunity to rethink both the spirit and the operation of our welfare law.
Let's return to the simple philosophy of 1938: it is the role and responsibility of the community to help those in need.
We can afford it. Collecting the $1 to $6 billion lost every year in tax evasion and cancelling the proposed $3 billion tax cuts would easily provide enough money to ensure that no Auckland child grows up living in a car.
1. Delete the purposes and principles sections from the bill and replace them with the statement: "The purpose of this act is to ensure that  all New Zealanders in hardship receive the help they need; and it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Development to do this."

2. Make the reduction of poverty the aim of social welfare, rather than the current focus on reducing the number of beneficiaries.

3. Write into the bill a recognition of the value of parenting. At present, our welfare system is preoccupied with ensuring as many people as possible enter the paid workforce. This is a short-term approach and fails to take account of the long-term value to the community of parents spending time with their children. In addition, casual, very badly-paid work means that paid work is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty.

4. Delete section 70A  of the Social Security Act 1964 from the Social Security Legislation Rewrite  Bill and delete the corresponding sections 176, 177 and 178 from the Bill. These  sanction women who cannot name the fathers of their children by docking their benefits - initially by $22 a week and later by $28. The main people this punishes are actually the women's children. They are already growing up in a financially-deprived household and further reducing the family's meagre income exacerbates that hardship.
Please refer to our comments in more detail about these sections in Part B of our Submission.

5. Require the Ministry of Social Development to provide all beneficiaries with all the assistance to which they are entitled. Currently, people seeking help face major difficulties in obtaining their legal entitlements. Research demonstrates that those accompanied by an advocate have a better chance of receiving assistance. Hundreds of people have queued in recent years to receive help from Auckland Action Against Poverty at "Impacts" in Mangere and elsewhere. Voluntary groups should not have to do the job a government agency is funded to carry out.

6. Delete the phrase "long-term welfare dependency" from the bill. This makes welfare a burden, rather than the responsibility of the community and an investment in the future wellbeing of New Zealanders.

7. Write into law a provision that grants, advances on benefits and other additional assistance are not recoverable by MSD from beneficiaries. If people were not in desperate need, they would not be receiving such help. Requiring them to repay these amounts - as in the case of people staying in Auckland motels at the moment - merely pushes them further into hardship.

8. Stop sending mothers convicted of benefit fraud on the basis of a confusing and inconsistently-applied legal test to jail. As these women are already single parents, sending them to jail has disastrous consequences for their children, who end up deprived of both parents. In addition, if the debt established against them cannot be repaid within two years, it should be written off. That is what happens in other parts of our legal system. Pursuing them for the rest of their lives for debts they cannot repay means they can never improve their families' financial position.

9. Abolish Benefits Review Committees and establish an independent process for reviewing the ministry's decisions.

10. Make benefit rates liveable, rather than keeping them very low to punish those who cannot - for many reasons - either find or perform paid work.

Submissions regarding sections 176, 177 and 178.

(we support the  views and recommendations of Auckland Action Against Poverty about these sections, in this part of our submission).

Problems with Sections 176, 177 and 178
Unite Waitemata calls for the removal of Sections 176, 177 and 178 from the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill (previously Section 70A). We strongly oppose the sanctions imposed on women who fail to identify who is in law the father of their child. This sanction is penalising and putting into further hardship families already struggling to survive.
Currently there are 17,000 children in Aotearoa New Zealand for which a Section 70A deduction is imposed. Of the 13,616 parents, 13,298 are women, and only 318 are men. 52.8% are Māori. Given these numbers, this policy clearly has severe disproportionate effects on women and Māori, exposing this as an issue of sexism, gender and racial inequality.
Section 176 refers to the instance of a sole parent (mother) failing or refusing to identify who is in law the other parent (father) of the child, or failing or refusing to apply for child support. Although it is intended to ensure non-custodial parents pay child support, the reality is that it punishes women and children who are already in financial hardship.

Section 178 states that the $22 sanction will increase to $28 if the mother fails or refuses to identify the father after 13 weeks of being given notice to do so. There is no evidence that this has led to an increase in paid child support. It has the effect of exacerbating the financial hardship of the families who are among the most vulnerable in our country. Increasing poverty as punishment for non-adherence to this policy is unjustifiable.
It is the 17,000 children who are the primary victims of this punitive policy. Beneficiaries and low wage workers already struggle to meet their weekly financial commitments, often with nothing left over for additional or unexpected costs. For sole parents trying to survive on one income, a deduction of $22-$28+ puts these families at further risk of being unable to meet the welfare needs of their children, such as food, clothing, education and adequate housing.  We urge you to consider the welfare of children as paramount, and argue that such children should not be victimised for the circumstances in which they were conceived.
As the sanction is cumulative, there are a considerable number of women who are sanctioned for more than one child – 2,768 nationwide, accounting to $56 or more per week. This adds to their financial stress and increases the risk of children going without basic essential needs.
The Section 70A deduction is often imposed incorrectly. Women are oftentimes not advised by Work and Income of the required steps to identify the father, or did not receive a formal notification of the decision to impose the sanction. Some women have provided Work and Income with the required identifying information within the six week deadline, and the father is in fact paying child support, but they have still been sanctioned due to Work and Income error. Additionally, many women are unaware that they have this sanction imposed on them, and were at no time informed that there would be a financial penalty for not naming the father.
In order to get the sanction lifted, the Ministry of Social Development requires women to present a letter from a lawyer establishing the nature of their accordance with this criteria. However, many women are not able to access a lawyer, and are not informed by the Ministry about the free legal services of Community Law Centres. Given most of these women are living in “survival mode” and cannot afford non-essential costs, such as extra petrol or transport money to and from a lawyer, accessing a lawyer becomes yet another barrier for them.
There are many reasons why a woman is unable to identify the father of her child, and fear of violence is a frequent one. However, under the current policy, it is up to the discretion of Work and Income Case Managers to assess the risk of domestic violence, and this is not something they are trained in, or have the competence to do. All women should be given the benefit of the doubt regarding their fear of violence. If they feel they cannot name the father, this should be respected. Having to relive these experiences and justify their very real fear of violence in front of a Case Manager, who often contests the lawyer’s letter, further disempowers and victimises these women.
There are many other reasons that a woman may be unable to identify the father of her child/ren, for example, cultural stigma, shame, the fear of social exclusion, or non-reported rape. Requiring women to explain, justify and validate the circumstance around the conception of her child and the reasons for her non-adherence to this policy, impinges on her privacy and autonomy, and is insensitive to the complexities surrounding such situations.

Unite Waitemata calls for the removal of Sections 176, 177 and 178 from the new Social Security Act under the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill. The sanction is moralistic, value-based and inherently sexist, and puts into further hardship some of our most vulnerable families.


algalverge said...

Good on you. Everything you've succinlty stated is blindingly obvious to any person with an ounce of compassion or humanity.

President said...

Thank you algalverge. I wish to acknowledge Catriona MacLennan and Auckland Action Against Poverty as the main sources of material for this submission. We are really just spreading their words in the submission, as we were too short of time to write our own submission.