Saturday, December 4

Advocates welcome MSD’s ‘less intrusive’ approach, but say more needs to be done

Benefits fraud investigators are asking fewer people questions about the status of their relationship.

Job and income offices

Researchers have toned down their inquiries about relationships.
Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Advocates say the less intrusive approach from the Ministry of Social Development is welcome, but they still want a rule change so that there is no difference between what couples and single people are entitled to.

At the moment, the rate for couples is lower than the rate for single people. That means if someone enters a relationship, their benefit could end up being reduced.

That’s what happened to Hayley *.

She was at the single parent benefit when she met her now partner.

In the early stages of their relationship, Hayley’s partner ended up needing a place to live, and she moved out while looking for a new place.

Hayley said she wanted to do the right thing and let Work and Income know about it.

“We weren’t a couple financially or emotionally at the time, because you’re not there until later,” he said.

But Hayley and her partner had benefits immediately reduced to the partner rate.

“I can understand three years later, like now. I could definitely understand that that would be fair, but not at first. Not when you don’t see yourself as part of a relationship.”

Every year hundreds of people face questions about the status of their relationship when the Ministry of Social Development investigates claims of benefits fraud.

Before Covid-19 hit, the ministry responded to some 4,700 claims of benefits fraud a year.

In 2018 and 2019, about two-thirds of those cases involved questions about someone’s marital status.

In the year to June 2020, it was less than half.

There have been changes in the way the Ministry of Social Development deals with possible cases of fraud.

In 2018, the ministry introduced a three-tier graduated system to respond to claims of benefits fraud.

Investigations and prosecutions now focus on more serious fraud cases, in which the ministry believes a client has misrepresented their circumstances for an extended period.

Lower-level problems are addressed through “early interventions and facilitating responses”, with fraud prevention and early detection as the goal.

Advocate for the Beneficiary Counseling Service, Tavia Moore, said that while those lower-level cases are often dealt with through a phone call or one-time interview, people continue to turn to them for help.

“I suppose they had been a little less intrusive than they had been in the past,” he said.

But people still felt stressed and upset about it.

“If they, I guess, were pretty confident in the process and it was easy to handle, they wouldn’t look to anyone for help. People usually come to us because they don’t know what else to do,” Moore said.

Beneficiaries, advocates and the Advisory Group of Experts on Social Welfare want the government to change the rules, so that a person’s marital status does not affect what they are entitled to.

So does the Green Party social development spokesperson, Ricardo Menéndez March.

“It would reduce the operating costs of Work and Income, have to ask people about their relationship; it would restore dignity to people who currently have their intimate life questioned by Work and Income; and it would help reduce poverty.”

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said changes are being made.

“I have asked for that policy advice, I have not received it yet. I look forward to it in the next two or three months and it is certainly on our policy work program.”

However, Sepuloni cannot set a time frame for when those changes will be implemented.

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