Jacinda Ardern disagrees with Child Poverty Action Group's accusation of 'unjustifiably slow' welfare reform

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she disagrees with Child Poverty Action Group's (CPAG) accusation of "unjustifiably slow" welfare reform, insisting the Government is making progress. 

CPAG has released the findings of its examination of the Government's response so far to the 42 recommendations made by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) in 2019. 

"The Government says it wants welfare reform to enable people to live in dignity with adequate incomes, and it asked WEAG for a plan to achieve this," said stocktake co-author Innes Asher, who served on the WEAG. "But so far the Government has delivered remarkably little of that plan."

Asher said seven of the WEAG's key recommendations have been "partially" implemented and a further 12 "minimally" implemented. But for more than half of the key recommendations, the researchers found no evidence of any implementation at all.

"Given WEAG found that people receiving benefits are living 'desperate lives' on 'seriously inadequate incomes', the progress on implementation appears unjustifiably slow," said co-author Caitlin Neuwelt-Kearns. 

"I have to say, there's some elements of their report that I disagree with," Ardern told Newstalk ZB on Monday. 

"For instance, their view is that we've made no progress on the issue of income when it comes to people on Government support. We've always been very open that that is something that was going to take time and I disagree with no progress."

The Government's first COVID-19 support package in March included a $25 weekly boost to the benefit. But the jobseeker benefit is almost half of what was given out temporarily to those who lost their job as a result of the pandemic under the COVID income relief payment. 

Ardern argues there is evidence the Government has acted on poverty. 

"We've had both the Families Package, we've had the general benefits increase, we've had the winter energy payment, we, for instance, have indexed benefits to wage increases, which was actually one of the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group."

The Government's $5 billion Families Package, which began on July 1, 2018, gave some assistance to low-income families with children. It included the winter energy payment which was doubled this year to $40 per week for singles and $63 for couples and those with dependent children, paid out from May to October. 

Also included in the package were $60 weekly BestStart payments for parents of new-borns until they turn 1-year-old, as well as tax credits for families with dependent children based on income thresholds. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

But CPAG has modelled the Families Package for its impact on the poorest children and found it fell well short of what is required to release children and their families from poverty. 

CPAG's report accuses Ardern of overstating the Government's progress on welfare reform, pointing to comments she made during the TVNZ Leaders Debate in September. 

Ardern said during the debate: "We've implemented 22 of the recommendations so far and we have seen that the changes that we've made have already made a big difference."

But CPAG says there's a big difference between implementing the recommendations and working on implementing them. 

The organisation received a confirmation from Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni saying work is "currently underway" to address around 22 of WAG's recommendations. 

"Hyperbolic claims of progress in implementing the WEAG's recommendations do a disservice to the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who must continue to make ends meet with inadequate support," CPAG's report says. 

Ardern said the Government was never going to do everything WEAG wanted. The Government has already spent more than $13 billion on the wage subsidy scheme in response to COVID-19. 

"They say 'work on sanctions'. We have removed some sanctions - we were never going to remove them all," she told Newstalk ZB. 

The Government has scrapped a disciplinary sanction imposed by the former National-led Government that cut income to women and their children if the name of the child's father is not declared.  

"Obviously not every single element of the report we carte blanche agree with. We don't agree with the idea of removing all benefit sanctions, however, there are some we did agree on."

CPAG's criticism of the Government's response comes after more than 60 charities urged them to increase welfare payments in the lead-up to Christmas, which Ardern ruled out. 

Auckland Action Against Poverty coordinator Brooke Stanley Pao responded by describing Ardern as "disconnected" with the realities of hardship, claiming she was "choosing" to keep families in poverty.

Ardern wrote back to the charities saying she was "proud" of the Government's progress and outlined policies such as free school lunches and scrapping NCEA fees which aim to assist families financially.