Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni defends no increase to benefits in 'wellbeing' Budget

There will be no increase in benefits this year, despite the upcoming Budget's promised focus on 'wellbeing'.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni confirmed the bad news for beneficiaries on Newshub Nation on Saturday morning.

"In this Budget... we won't see an increase in benefits," she told host Simon Shepherd. "But I've given some pre-Budget announcements to say what we can do already. The rest, people will have to wait for the Budget...

"I can't promise what might or mightn't be in the Budget, but what I announced was not the entire Budget."

The Government on Friday said it would only be implementing three of the Welfare Working Group's 42 recommendations. Among the changes it's not committing to just yet are:

  • abolishing sanctions for refusing drug tests and breaching arrest warrants

  • further subsidising housing costs and introducing a rent-to-buy scheme

  • changing how beneficiaries who enter relationships are handled

  • increasing the child age at which solo parents are expected to return to work

  • increasing the Family Tax Credit.

The group also said benefits should go up considerably, in some cases up to 47 percent.

All three of the recommendations the Government adopted from the report were already promised before the 2017 election. Sepuloni said the rest may come in "phase two" of the welfare system overhaul sometime in the next three to five years.

"This is what we've been told needs to be done, this is what we can do now," she explained.

"We do need to remember there was that $5.5 billion investment through the families package, there's already been the service delivery and culture change work that's been undertaken since we got into Government - all of that sits within the report as well. So it's not just the three announcements I made yesterday."

Carmel Sepuloni on Newshub Nation.
Carmel Sepuloni on Newshub Nation. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

She said changing some policies might have unintended consequences.

"The advisory group themselves said time constraints meant they didn't necessarily have time to ascertain whether or not any other interactions might result in unintended consequences, so that's our job... If you shift one thing, how does it impact on another? For instance, if you lift benefits, what's the impact on accommodation supplements, what's the impact on temporary assistance support, and do families end up being better off? All of those things have to be taken into consideration."

And the Government wanted to be sure any changes would stick.

"It wouldn't be transformational if we made changes that weren't enduring and could be turned over at any given time, or there were unintended consequences... that meant people weren't any better off."

Sanctions in limbo

Sepuloni defended her decision not to remove sanctions other than the one which punishes solo parents and their children for not naming the other biological parent.

She said Ministry of Social Development staff have been "proactive" in ensuring beneficiaries have been getting what they're entitled to.

"Since the beginning of April they've actually been proactively phoning to check that those women - predominantly women - are getting what they're eligible for... We have been able to find out they haven't always been getting what they're eligible for."

The working group singled out six other sanctions that should go, just like support partner Greens campaigned for. Sepuloni said time was needed to "ascertain which ones are excessive" before any decisions would be made.

Scrapping the naming sanction would benefit 24,000 children, Sepuloni said, increasing many solo parents' incomes by up to $34 a week.

Queues 'not common'

Sepuloni rejected claims that queues outside Work and Income offices were becoming a regular sight in areas like south Auckland.

A report by Newshub Nation's Mike Wesley-Smith aired before Sepuloni's interview showed a line of people waiting outside a Work and Income office.

"Queues like that are actually not a common occurrence," said Sepuloni.

"It happens when you've got a campaign... a call for action telling them to come out at that time. It is very seldom you see people lined up outside an MSD office from 5:30am.

"The demand and the need were there before we got into Government. The difference is now that actually we are actually addressing the needs and giving people what they're eligible for."