Jacinda Ardern fends off attacks on poverty as protestors march on Parliament demanding 'immediate' action

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has fended off attacks on the Government's response to rising house prices and poverty as protesters marched on Parliament demanding more action. 

The protest on Tuesday was organised by local health advocacy organisation United Community Action Network (UCAN), one of the 75 charities that signed an open letter to the Government calling for income support to be increased before Christmas. 

Protest organisers said they were spurred into action by the Prime Minister's refusal to increase income support before Christmas, fearing the Government may not increase benefit levels at all this parliamentary term.

"This year there will be thousands of families who won't be able to afford Christmas. They have no Christmas tree and their children will wake up on Christmas morning in a cold damp house with no presents and no food," UCAN's chairperson Debbie Leyland said at the protest. 

Protest organiser, youth advisor to UCAN and beneficiary Stacey Ryan said it wasn't just parents and children locked in poverty by the inadequate income support rates.

"Disabled and chronically ill people all over Aotearoa need help, and we need it now. This is not just about Christmas, this is about survival."

Green MP Ricardo Menendez March told the marchers the Government is "actively choosing to force people to need food grants just to survive", and insisted it doesn't have to be that way. 

"We can use all of the legislative and ministerial levers to lift benefits immediately."

Green MP Ricardo Menendez March speaking to protesters outside Parliament.
Green MP Ricardo Menendez March speaking to protesters outside Parliament. Photo credit: Supplied

He asked the Social Development Minister in Parliament on Tuesday if the Government has received any advice on increasing benefit levels by 47 percent as recommended by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG). 

Speaking on behalf of Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni, Labour's Priyanca Radhakrishnan said the Government has committed to lifting benefits at April every year by indexing them to wages, which was one of the recommendations of the WEAG. 

"The member will know that specifically lifting core benefits has been already ruled out however the Prime Minister has responded to a letter from NGOs around this issue last month and highlighted the work that has already been done."

Newshub has seen a copy of the letter signed by Ardern. It pointed to the $25 a week boost to the benefit earlier this year and doubling of the winter energy payment, which was part of the Government's $5 billion families package.  

On top of that, the letter points out that doctor visits for under-14s is free, NCEA fees have been scrapped, and low decile schools are encouraged not to request parental donations thanks to financial incentives from the Government.  

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in Parliament.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking in Parliament. Photo credit: Parliament TV

But Radhakrishnan confirmed that the Ministry of Social Development has distributed more than 1.2 million hardship grants since May this year and Menendez March suggested that wouldn't be necessary if the Government just lifted benefit payments. 

Radhakrishnan said there is already work underway on 22 recommendations of the WEAG report and advice is being sought on the remainder. 

The Government's response to rising house prices and rental costs also came under attack in Parliament from National leader Judith Collins. 

"Does she believe an increase in the number of people receiving the hardship assistance emergency housing grant from 9000 in September 2017 to now 44,000 is a sign of a housing emergency under her watch?" Collins asked. 

Ardern shot back by describing it as a "sign of longstanding income inadequacy" and pointing out that the National Party didn't support increasing the benefit by $25 a week. 

National leader Judith Collins in Parliament.
National leader Judith Collins in Parliament. Photo credit: Parliament TV

"Imagine the situation had we not continued to increase Government support? There is need out there, we will likely see that increase over Christmas, we're working with social agencies to make sure we continue that support."

It comes as a new report by Stats NZ found that proportion of people living in their own home is the lowest in almost 70 years, and homeownership is becoming much less common for younger people, as the median house price in New Zealand reaches $700,000. 

The COVID-19 freeze on rent increases came to an end in September and data suggests that rents in many parts of New Zealand are now on the rise. 

"Does she consider the over $4600 increase in the median annual cost of renting a house since she became Prime Minister and the over 21,000 people on the state house waiting list signs of a housing emergency?" Collins asked. 

"Economists and the Reserve Bank have identified rents are primarily driven by supply and demand," Ardern said. "The fact that we inherited a housing market that was shy roughly 70,000 houses that were needed is having a significant impact on the housing market."