Auckland woman owes Government $188,000 after lying about relationship

An Auckland woman who lied about having a partner to make ends meet says the Government penalties for benefit fraud are far too harsh.

Anti-poverty groups are pleading with the Prime Minister to end what they say are "unjust" rules around relationships in the welfare system.

But for Agnes Magele the campaign comes far too late.

At 19 years-old Magele was out of a job, seven months pregnant with her second child and behind bars for benefit fraud.

"No one should have to be in that situation, to be honest, because I had got myself far deep in it as well, nobody knew," she told Newshub.

She was in a relationship that provided no financial support, so she lied to Work and Income saying she was a solo parent living by herself to access more benefits and make ends meet.

Agnes spent 18 months behind bars - now 18 years later, she still owes the Government $188,000.

"I knew there was gonna be consequences, but I didn't think it was gonna be that harsh," she said.

"It changed me, it changed me massively."

Beneficiaries' weekly payments can be slashed by hundreds of dollars if they're considered to be in a relationship.

Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) and eleven other groups have penned a letter to Jacinda Arden, insisting the rules are harmful.

"Nobody should lose their financial independence because of who they're in a relationship with or who the Ministry considers they're in a relationship with. That just leads to dynamics of financial abuse," said  AAAP coordinator Ricardo Menendez March.

Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni says a review of relationship settings is part of a wider overhaul of the welfare system. 

But it's not in the short term plan of work.

Despite the open letter, the Government is giving no commitment to changing the rules.