Māori fashion designer victim of 'double standard' - welfare advocate

Welfare advocates are speaking out in support of a local fashion designer recently convicted of fraud.

Kharl WiRepa claimed extra student allowances he wasn't entitled to while he was studying and got found out, and his conviction could now leave his burgeoning clothing career in tatters.

"One thing I must say: it's been lots of highs and lots of lows, but none of it's been boring," he told The Hui.

There's nothing drab about WiRepa's life - or clothes. His sparkling creations have caught the eye of British Vogue. It picked him as an up-and-coming fashion designer.

"For me I never expected it so early on in my career," he said.

"But it's something that I'm more honoured to be in rather than excited. For me it's not just about me being in Vogue, but it's about me being the first Māori to be in Vogue."

But in the same month he was celebrating his success, 25-year-old WiRepa was being sentenced in Rotorua District Court.

The young fashion designer was found guilty of 14 counts of fraud. WiRepa was claiming an extra $80 a week by saying he was flatting, when in fact he lived with his parents.

It amounted to almost $12,000 over a two-year period.

"I did lie in my application; I'm not going to deny that. That's all I really was doing - doing anything I could to survive."

Welfare advocate Alastair Russell says he sees beneficiaries in the same situation with Work and Income because benefits aren't enough to live on.

"That's absolutely believable; that's absolutely common. The student allowance, just like every other benefit, is inadequate to live on.

"There is an ongoing incentive for people to not be completely honest with Work and Income to survive."

He says beneficiaries are more harshly penalised compared to those who get out of paying their share of tax.

Welfare fraud costs the public purse around $30 million a year, in contrast to tax evasion, which accounts for more than $1 billion annually.

"The Government's system, for example, around tax evasion is a clear double standard with what they do with people on benefits," Mr Russell says.

"White people get away with crimes, brown people do time."

In August, former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei resigned after she revealed she committed benefit fraud as a young mother 20 years ago.

"To be slandered and only remembered for the mistakes that she made when she has contributed so much to the country since then is appalling," he said.

WiRepa is hoping his conviction won't stop him from accepting an invitation to show at Paris Fashion Week next year.


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