Greens call out Labour over failure to increase benefits

Labour leader and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Green MP Jan Logie.
Labour leader and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Green MP Jan Logie. Photo credit: Newshub / Green Party

The Greens are pressuring the Government to increase benefits, saying a surge in the number of people seeking grants for living costs shows benefits are too low.

Newshub understands the Green Party believe a benefit increase is promised in the party's confidence and supply Agreement with Labour, but the agreement isn't as specific as that - it broadly says the welfare system will be overhauled.

The Greens won't go as far as to say Labour's breached the agreement, but Green Party spokesperson for social development Jan Logie said the overhaul promised "should include a well overdue increase to the benefit."

The increased pressure on Labour comes after a dramatic surge in the number of grants issued to low-income New Zealanders for basic needs like food and accommodation.

The welfare figures for July show hardship grants for basic needs like food and accommodation have increased to nearly half-a-million - from 267,244 in June 2017 to 487,539 in June 2019. 

The majority of grants were for food, which have increased by 100,000 since the coalition Government was elected. Spending on emergency housing grants has doubled to $66m in the same timeframe.

The Greens say the increase in grants is down to benefits that are too low to meet the cost of living.

The Government indexed benefits to the average wage in Budget 2019, meaning they will increase in line with wages. That'll mean benefits increase by an extra $10 to $17 a week by 2023. The Greens say indexing benefits "does not represent an overhaul of the welfare system."

"It will not result in any more money for almost a year which clearly doesn't reflect the urgency of this situation," Logie said.

Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni told Newshub the indexation is "just a part of the overhaul of the system".

"It's a systemic change that is cumulative and enduring and means people on a benefit will be better off.

"We will also be lifting abatement thresholds and parents sanctioned under Section 192 (formerly Section 70A) will receive their full benefit."

The minister will be taking a paper to Cabinet at the end of the year that will lay out next steps in the "overhaul".

The Greens made increasing benefits a key - and ultimately costly - element of their 2017 election campaign.

Then co-leader Metiria Turei launched the party's welfare policy with a speech revealing she'd lied about having flatmates in order to access a higher benefit when she was raising her daughter. After it emerged she'd also registered to vote at a different address, scrutiny became too much and she left the party.

But the Opposition believes the demand's been created by increasing costs, pointing to the price of housing and fuel.

"This Government has imposed a raft of new taxes and costs on New Zealanders, and it's clear to see the most vulnerable are being hit the hardest," National's Finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said.