COVID-19: Social Development Minister pours cold water on pleas for more income support amid 'ongoing hardship due to lockdown'

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has poured cold water on poverty groups' pleas for additional income support amid "ongoing hardship due to lockdown". 

Sepuloni made the confirmation during an appearance before the Social Services and Community Committee virtually on Wednesday to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on welfare and employment. 

"At this stage no," she told Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March, who asked if the Government is considering bringing forward the benefit increase happening in April next year or whether there's any consideration to increase financial support for low income people. 

"You're aware of the fact that we did just recently roll out the increase to the benefits and that will happen again on 1 April and that's still the plan," Sepuloni said. 

Beneficiaries got a $3.3 billion bump in this year's Budget, which saw the Government go beyond recommendations made two years ago by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, to increase benefit levels to help reduce poverty. 

The Government already increased the benefit by $25 a week last year. From July 1, it was lifted again by $20 a week, and a second increase will occur again next year. Families and whānau with children will also receive a further $15 per adult per week.

It means weekly benefit rates will increase by between $32 and $55 per adult by April 2022. The Government expects that 109,000 families and whānau with children will be, on average, $175 a week better off as a result of changes to income support, since 2017.

But welfare advocates say low income families should not have to wait until next year to receive more income support, particularly now that lockdown is making it harder to provide. 

"We urge the Government to place children at the heart of its current COVID-19 relief policies and substantially increase income support immediately," says Child Poverty Action Group spokesperson Janet McAllister. 

"It's great the Government has already activated wage subsidies but our most disadvantaged families must not be overlooked; people receiving benefits also need assistance with the high costs of lockdown."

McAllister says this year's benefit increase is cancelled out by the loss of last year's doubled winter energy payment for many.

But Menéndez March, advocating on behalf of Child Poverty Action Group and Auckland Action Against Poverty who are together calling for more income support, was told by Sepuloni that doubling the winter energy payment again is not under consideration. 

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni.
Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni. Photo credit: Getty

"The advantage we had last year with the winter energy payment was that it was March when COVID hit us so we had time before the winter energy payment was about to start, to actually be able to make the changes so that it could be doubled," Sepuloni said. 

"We're five weeks out from the winter energy payment ending and in the midst of alert level four now and so the practicalities of doing that are not the same as what we had last year. 

"So at this stage, no.

"There's lots of things that go through our minds, Ricardo, and we discuss a raft of things. But I'm not going to preempt any changes that could potentially be made, because it's really a 'watch this space' at the moment, and certainly no decisions have been made on either of the things just talked about."

Sepuloni also ruled out extending the emergency benefit for migrants which will expire soon, leaving some migrants who are in between visas and unemployed left in hardship.

"No, we're not considering extending that. You'll be aware of the fact we did extend it already," Sepuloni said. 

"Currently we have something between 60 and 80 people that are accessing the emergency benefit for that purpose because they are foreign stranded nationals and haven't been able to make their way back.

"But what we have put in place is support through the community connectors, also we've been in contact with missions for the relevant countries that those people come from, because we feel that there is a level of responsibility that they have for their people that are stranded here. 

"We will continue to make sure there is support given through the community connectors and with the relevant social services that are able to provide support, and that communication to the missions will continue to happen."

Menéndez March wrote on Twitter: "With our migrant communities facing uncertainty right now is the time to maintain a safety net to bolster our elimination strategy."