Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni hits back at National, Greens over welfare attacks

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has hit back at National for accusing her of misrepresenting data, and the Greens for saying Labour is "tinkering" with welfare reform.

Sepuloni celebrated a record 32,880 beneficiaries moving into work in the latest welfare statistics, the biggest jump since electronic records began in 1996.

Her National Party opponent, social development spokesperson Louise Upston, accused Sepuloni of misrepresenting the data by not pointing out that 46,437 benefits were granted during the same period

"To celebrate when the reality is that we have record numbers of New Zealanders reliant on benefits is manipulative and a blatant attempt to deceive," Upston said.

The 46,437 figure referred to by Upston includes all benefits, including Sole Parent Support and Supported Living Payments for those with disabilities, not just Jobseeker - those seeking work. 

Overall, benefit numbers dropped in the March 2021 quarter - 3972 fewer benefits were claimed as compared with March last year - a decrease of 7.9 percent. 

Sepuloni says it is Upston who is misrepresenting, because moving into work isn't the only reason benefits are cancelled. Overall, 60,573 benefits ended, and people moving into work were highlighted by the Government because of its significance.

"Louise Upston should know that work is not the only reason people exit a main benefit and therefore it is wrong to compare work exits with the overall grants," Sepuloni told Newshub.

National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston.
National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Sepuloni also responded to her Green Party opponent, Ricardo Menéndez March, who said the Government was "tinkering around the edges" of welfare rather than delivering "fundamental change that is needed".

His comments came after an Auckland University study conducted with Child Poverty Action Group, Auckland Action Against Poverty and FIRST Union, found most beneficiaries were struggling to survive financially, before the national lockdown.

"People are struggling right now and we cannot wait any longer to get the help they need to live with dignity," said Menéndez March.

Sepuloni says the Government's actions have made a difference for beneficiaries.

"The Government is not tinkering around the edges, we have made progress in our commitment to address income adequacy," she told Newshub.

Sepuloni pointed to the $5.5 billion Families Package which introduced the winter energy payment and BestStart payments to help parents with newborn babies. Main benefits were lifted by $25 per week, and the minimum wage is now $20 per hour.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni.
Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

In 2019, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommended increasing the abatement thresholds for main benefits - that's how much a beneficiary can earn before their benefit is reduced - to make it easier for people working part-time or on low wages.

The Government responded by making the largest change to abatement levels in two decades at a cost of $393.98 million over five years. It means people can earn up to $160 a week before their benefit starts to be affected.

The Government also indexed benefits in line with the rise in the average wage, meaning benefits will consistently increase over time to match wage growth.

Some financial sanctions on beneficiaries have also been axed.

Green Party social development spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March.
Green Party social development spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March. Photo credit: Newshub

The changes overall will make a difference. For example, a single jobseeker without children will get $46 more today than they would have in 2017 - a 21.68 percent increase.

But it falls well-short short of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group's recommendation to increase jobseeker support for singles by $100. 

"The changes we have made are affordable and sustainable," said Sepuloni. "While we have made significant progress we acknowledge there is still more to do."

Menéndez March wants another WEAG recommendation adopted - he's introduced a members bill to amend the Social Security Act so that it aims to "eliminate hardship" rather than its current aim to "help alleviate hardship".