Benefit-cutting Bill criticised as breaching Human Rights Act

For parents who are the sole carers of children, their benefit would be cut in half (file)
For parents who are the sole carers of children, their benefit would be cut in half (file)

A move to allow probation officers to impose cuts to a person's benefit if they fail to comply with community work has been labelled by some justice advocates as a breach of the Human Rights Act.

The changes are being proposed under a member's Bill by National MP Mark Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell says during his time as a former police officer he had seen many people breach their community sentences, and imposing sanctions to benefits provided another tool to enforce compliance.

"This Bill is just very specific and it's saying that anyone that's convicted of a crime, anyone that's actually meant to be in the community doing their sentence and they're not carrying it out, let's give Corrections another tool to be able to get them compliant," Mr Mitchell said.

"Corrections will be able to advise or request [the Ministry of Social Development] to start to either withdraw part or the whole benefit payment for that person until they comply with their community sentence."

Prison reform advocate Kim Workman is highly critical of the move.

"I've consulted with a group of ex-offenders and they were very angry with the provision in that it removes, in their words, food from their children's mouths," he said.

Under the Bill a person would receive two warnings before their benefit would be sanctioned, either entirely or in part.

For parents who are the sole carers of children, their benefit would be cut in half.

JustSpeak director Katie Bruce said children will fall victim through no fault of their own.

"We have real concerns that this Bill would have catastrophic consequences on really vulnerable families," she said.

"We don't think that benefit sanctions are an appropriate tool when the courts have already decided how these people should be sanctioned."

Mr Mitchell has defended the consequences, saying the responsibility lies with the parent.

"I just will never accept the argument we should remove people's responsibility and the social contract that they have because there's a fear that it will impact on the children. They need to be responsible.

"They have to take ownership of that. That's their decision. No one wants to see children put in a position where all of a sudden the income is cut but the parent's got to be responsible enough to make the right decisions."

Many of those under community sentences suffer mental and physical health issues that made it impossible for their circumstances to be seen as clear cut, Ms Bruce said.

"These are people who have fetal alcohol syndrome, who have mental health issues, who have drug and alcohol dependency and often have very chaotic lives and often they're not thinking rationally," she said.

"Wouldn't it be nice if everyone was a rational thinker and would say 'okay, well I know that if I don't complete my community sentence then I'll get my benefit reduced'. But in reality that's not what happens, that's not what people are like."

Mr Workman believes the move would breach the Human Rights Act and says it targets those who are most vulnerable.

"It's likely to increase the number of people reoffending rather than the opposite.

"It's a combination of stick and carrot, to put it simply. What's happened is they've removed all the carrots and replaced them with sticks."

Mr Workman says other avenues should be explored to encourage compliance that would see a closer relationship between probation officers and offenders.

He says imposing the potential of sanctioning benefits will create a perception in offenders that a probation officer is "the enemy".

"We need to turn that around and somehow develop a system of management where the offender and the probation officer are working more closely and along the same path," he said.

"When probation officers are equipped to help them find work, to address their drug and alcohol issues, to deal with dysfunctional families, then what happens to the offender is they see the probation officer as a beacon of hope."

Mr Mitchell says he doesn't believe a double standard is at play when a financial sanction is imposed on a beneficiary who fails to comply with probation orders, while a non-beneficiary who also fails the same compliance does not receive such a penalty.

"I don't believe that it's a double standard in the sense that on the one hand you've got the taxpayer that's paying someone that's actually providing that income. That person has the opportunity to do something positive in the community and actually they're required by our laws to comply with that sentence and they chose not to do that."

Under the current bill those receiving superannuation are also exempt from financial sanctions.

Mr Mitchell admits there isn't much database information to support the sanctions as evidence based.


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