Welfare overhaul to get underway 'in next three years' - Carmel Sepuloni

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has defended the Government's slowly-but-surely approach to welfare reform, saying it is like to trying to turn a jumbo jet in mid-air.

The Prime Minister this week said big changes to the welfare system were "imminent", but Ms Sepuloni would only confirm an advisory panel was being established, and changes would be made sometime in the next three years.

"[The Ministry of Social Development] is a huge machine. It's like this massive jumbo jet that's been set on a certain direction for the last nine years," she told Newshub Nation.

"To expect me to able to put the brake on mid-air and turn that jumbo jet around immediately is a little bit unreasonable."

Expert panel

Before major changes are made, she's waiting to hear back from an expert advisory panel that's being set up over the next few weeks.

"Work has already started to be commissioned, changes have already started to happen internally, and that's my expectation. This is a big piece of work… We now have to undo some of the damage that was inflicted on us over the last nine years."

Ms Sepuloni wants sanctions against beneficiaries scaled back, saying they're contributing to a toxic culture at Work and Income.

"The culture under National was to make it as difficult as possible for people to be able to access what they were entitled to at Work and Income, and now our job is to turn that around."

"How is it that a case manager that has only been in the job for one week has the power to cancel or suspend a benefit?"

Unclaimed benefits

Ministry of Social Development documents released to Newshub Nation show there is about $592 million in benefits and allowances Kiwis are entitled to that aren't being claimed each year, much of it in childcare subsidies, before and after school programmes and accommodation supplements.

Ms Sepuloni wouldn't say whether or not that potential spending would be accounted for in the Budget, but said the money "has to be there".

"Asking if we can afford for that to happen is null and void when, actually, we are legally compelled to make that happen. In the legislation, we as the state have to give people what they are entitled to."

She said if Labour managed to get that $592 million to those entitled to have it, it would ease the growing pressure on charities like the Salvation Army.

"If they were getting what they were entitled to through MSD, would they need to be going to social services and NGOs to get food parcels and other types of support? Those are the types of questions we need to ask. The cost has been shifted somewhere because they're not getting the support that they should be through MSD."

Ms Sepuloni said that she was "absolutely committed" to getting rid of the requirement for solo parents to name the other parent, but wouldn’t say when that would happen.

"That sanction needs to be dumped… We never said it would be done in the first six months… It's being done in the next three years."

The sanction currently affects around 17,000 children, and Ms Sepuloni told Newshub Nation getting rid of it would cost an estimated $280 million. (She later clarified this was a mistake - the actual figure is $95 million over four years.)

The Children's Commissioner has called for it benefits to be indexed to the median wage, like superannuation. Ms Sepuloni declined to say whether the Government would do that, even if the advisory panel recommended it.

Nor would any of the panel's recommendations be binding.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with."


"I've met really good case managers across the country who are doing a fantastic job. Unfortunately the perception out there is more often than not the experience is negative, and we need to turn that around."

Ms Sepuloni wants to hear more from people who have had bad experiences with Work and Income, saying it can't be fixed if they don't know what's wrong.

"If the person is not getting the response that is appropriate, then the ministry needs to be informed, I need to be informed so that we can react.

"I've told people on a number of occasions when they raise issues like this with me, make a complaint. I have no issue with people making a complaint because we need to know the extent of the damage that we're attempting to fix here."

Newshub Nation.

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