Welfare overhaul: Jacinda Ardern indicates big changes are coming

Big changes are coming to New Zealand's welfare system.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says an overhaul of the system is "imminent".

Labour's confidence and supply agreement with the Greens promises to "overhaul the welfare system, ensure access to entitlements, remove excessive sanctions and review Working for Families".

"I have seen too many stories as an MP in my local area which demonstrate that decisions have been made that haven't taken into account the human side of some of the cases at play," Ms Ardern said at her post-Cabinet news conference on Monday.

"By and large many case managers do an exceptional job but there are situations where you're just left wondering why there just wasn't the respect shown that should have been."

Scrapping sanctions is "one of the things that has been raised". 

"We're coming in after nine years of there being an expectation that there'll be a singular focus on reducing benefit numbers, and of course we want people in work, we want people who are seeking work to be able to find work, but I think it's tipped over into a space where it's actually denying people who need help the help they need," Ms Ardern said. 

The overhaul could be one of the announcements to come out of the Budget in three weeks' time.

Increasing welfare and scrapping most sanctions was a major policy platform for the Greens. It was at the launch of the policy that former co-leader Metiria Turei revealed she had misled Work and Income (WINZ) as a solo mother, a revelation that eventually led to her resignation.

Former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei.
Former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei. Photo credit: Getty

Yesterday, Newshub reported hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are relying on Ministry of Social Development (MSD) food grants to help meet the cost of living.

Numbers have increased steadily, up 50 percent on two years ago. In the three months to March, 143,900 people got help buying food.

The number of food grants issued in the March quarter of 2016, 2017 and 2018.
The number of food grants issued in the March quarter of 2016, 2017 and 2018. Photo credit: Newshub.

When she was questioned about it earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said we should "do better."

She said she believes WINZ have been expected to make it difficult for people to access benefits, and there needs to be culture change so people on benefits are given what they are entitled to.

"The last time we were in Government we tried to flip the starting point of the conversation to one of what you're entitled to rather than avoiding entitlement," Ms Ardern said on The AM Show.

"There's good reason for that - good reason for turning it back.

"When people walk through that door, they are often in their most desperate of situations. We save ourselves money in the long run if we make sure we get good support in behind them rather than having them go through a  range of social services to top up with food bank needs and so on."

National Party social services spokesperson Paula Bennett said the Government should be careful about looking at overhauling the welfare system and she'd be "very concerned" if it was considering scrapping sanctions.

"If it's to loosen it up and get people stuck on welfare for multi generations then that's the wrong reason. If it's because you want to modernise it and make it easier in different ways and use technology better then I suppose there's some value in that."

She said she's happy with the state of the welfare system as it is, and wanted the Ardern-Peters to remember that "as part of any contract the state has with an individual there is a mutual obligation".

"The reality is we have a fantastic welfare system that supports those that can't support themselves but we also gave an expectation that those that can work and support themselves will, and that is part of what sanctions do."

Ms Bennett said people are only sanctioned if they don't turn up to appointments, aren't actively looking for work or aren't meeting their obligations to taxpayers who fund the welfare system.