Beneficiary advocate criticises WINZ staff targets

Work and Income
Work and Income says no one is financially incentivised to withhold entitlements. Photo credit: File

Work and Income (WINZ) staff are "more than happy" to break the law to get people off benefits so they can reach monthly targets, it has been claimed.

Beneficiary advocate Jeremy Roundill says a WINZ employee in Manurewa told him the target for each case manager was 12 clients off the benefit a month.

The beneficiaries often don't fight back because "when you're a beneficiary and WINZ provides you with your lifeline, you're likely to capitulate to the orders of your case manager, as they're the one who puts food on your table".

WINZ documents released under the Official Information Act require employees to make "an appropriate individual contribution, as agreed with their manager, to the number of clients supported off-benefit and into employment".

WINZ declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a statement while there are targets - which differ by regions - employees have no financial incentives to reach them and are not sanctioned if they don't.

Ministry of Social Development documents
A section from the documents released under the OIA. Photo credit: Ministry of Social Development/supplied

"All Ministry of Social Development staff have performance agreements covering various aspects of their job," said Katie Brosnahan, Ministry of Social Development associate national commissioner.

"Indicators for case managers are wide-ranging and cover areas such as relationship management, timeliness and accuracy as well as client development and outcomes.

"As well as encouraging people to take work where appropriate, we also ensure people are informed about entitlements. In fact, an important key performance indicator is ensuring clients receive all to which they're entitled."

Auckland Action Against Poverty advocacy coordinator Alistair Russell would beg to differ. He told Newshub every time a case manager says 'yes' to any request for assistance, it has to be vetted by someone higher up the food chain.

"Their automatic response is to say no. Throughout the [Social Security Act] legislation there is discretion to approve benefit payments. Work and Income staff actively choose to say no when they have the ability to say yes."

In one case, he says a heavily pregnant woman came to him after a WINZ receptionist told her she didn't qualify for an emergency food grant.

"She came out to me, and we went into another WINZ office where with my help she received a food grant. Even with me there, they were still trying to deny her."

Ms Brosnahan says WINZ staff aren't required to get their manager's approval for "most decisions, but of course sometimes, where decisions are less clear-cut, then it is always good practice to take further advice".

Mr Roundhill says he's never seen the Government agency cut someone's benefit off in a lawful manner, as prescribed by section 113 of the Social Security Act 1964.

"Case managers aren't trained to know when people are or are not entitled to benefits - instead they're trained to follow a certain set of procedures and look out for certain behaviours in their clients," said Mr Roundill.

"Often this results in people being kicked off the benefit without the lawful process being followed."

Ms Brosnahan says when there is feedback a staff member needs "a refresher", they are given "reminders, coaching or training".

'Political capital out of bashing beneficiaries'

Mr Russell says most Ministry of Social Development employees go into the job wanting to help people, but soon realise what's expected of them - even without financial incentives.

"If you're going to have a career path through Work and Income and want to be a manager or a boss, you know what you need to be saying and doing."

Mr Roundill says he's seen service centre managers "fight like a wounded dog" to avoid giving clients what they're entitled to.

This "toxic culture" transcends Governments, says Mr Russell, with both Labour and National having adopted "neoliberal" economic policy since the 1980s.

"Both National and Labour-led Governments make political capital out of bashing beneficiaries," said Mr Russell.

"The prevailing ideology and culture is unemployed people are there because it's their fault - you're unemployed because of something that is wrong with you, rather than economic policies."

WINZ says if clients don't feel they've received the help they need, they should get in touch.

Metiria Turei.
Metiria Turei. Photo credit: Getty

Metiria Turei - a new hope?

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei caused a political storm last weekend when she admitted lying to WINZ in the early 1990s to make ends meet. She was a solo mother at the time, studying towards a law degree.

The Greens have proposed lifting benefits by 20 percent and removing many of the existing requirements and sanctions - which Ms Turei hopes will "end the punitive culture" at WINZ.

Mr Roundill says while she should be "commended for highlighting the plight of beneficiaries", her comments alone won't fix the problem.

"WINZ have known of these stories for years. People don't lie about their current situation to feather their nests or to defraud the system, they lie about their situations because they can't afford to live."