Poverty in Palmerston North; previous report
Private Bag 11 042
11 August 1999
Ms J White
Palmerston North City Council
Private Bag 11 034
Poverty in Palmerston North
Further to - Problems people are having with WINZ - getting their entitlements and benefits that are not enough to survive on.
Reason for this Report
This report is intended as a basis for the meeting over lunch with you on Thursday 19 August, and members of the Poverty Action Group
The members of the Poverty Action Group are very pleased with the report prepared by Nigel Fitzpatrick and particularly with the way you have supported the Council's role of advocacy on behalf of a large section of the residents of Palmerston North with respect to the issues raised in this report.
It is very encouraging the high profile attention the media has given these issues recently.
Because of the continued publicity, more stories and basic issues continue to surface.
This involves staff who raise concerns expressed in the wider community or personal concerns being told they will be given a written warning as a first step towards dismissal on the grounds of disloyalty and or their name being reported to the Chief Executive for the same reason. These actions, coupled with staff members having a pink slip put on their file for being caught telling clients their entitlements, as reported earlier, indicates a repressive, controlling culture that operates neither in the interests of claimants nor staff.
Other stories talk of the stalling tactics used by WINZ staff to delay the implementation of Appeal Authority and similar decisions which reverse those of Case and Service Managers.
To date, no improvement of the treatment of claimants by WINZ staff in general has been noted. To the contrary, with the greater publicity, the Advocacy Service is receiving more calls than ever.
It is important to note that these problems are not specific to Palmerston North or this region, they are widespread, although this region and city does have a bad reputation nationally as far as the way WINZ deals with its claimants.
It is also significant that a number of our concerns were raised by the Select Committee in its report on the 1999/2000 Estimates for WINZ.
However, as you reported to the last Low Income Sub-committee, there are also good stories. We wish to see these acknowledged, in their own right and so that the behaviours which go with these can be applauded and encouraged.
Another area of concern is the concentration of programmes and financial allocations previously in independent programmes, under the control of WINZ. This has had the effect of reducing the nature and type of programmes which can be funded. There is real concern that if this trend continues much further, the voluntary sector will be in real danger and this narrowing in activity to a very restricted agenda will have serious consequences for the community as a whole. Bishop Coles makes the same and related points in his 7 August speech (attached). Concerns have been previously expressed to the Council by Steve Maharey MP with respect to the Community Employment Group, currently being absorbed into WINZ, and controlled from the local level. Other areas are also of concern.
The Culture of WINZ
It is interesting to note that similar material to what we have been producing has been appearing in other parts of the country: in the Dominion, 27 July, and in the Herald, 23 July (both enclosed). Both raise the same issues that we have raised.
Because of the ingrained nature of many of the concerns we have about the way WINZ staff operate and the fundamental nature of the issues we have raised we propose to take our submissions to the Social Security Select Committee.
We will combining with other groups from around the country in this and in the preparation of the submissions.
The Good work that WINZ does
Every so often an individual or group makes a public statement about the good treatment they have had from WINZ staff. We wish to see that dimension acknowledged and treated seriously.
We ask that a call be made for people to submit their good stories so that the aspects of them may be analysed and considered in a similar way to which the earlier WINZ stories were by Nigel Fitzpatrick.
Funding and contracts by WINZ
There is real concern that as WINZ takes over funding that other organisations used to be responsible for, that the range of activities and the types of programmes that can be funded will be greatly reduced.
One possible indicator of this is the recent call for tenders for work confidence programmes by WINZ.
Concerns are also felt about the underlying philosophy and intent of the rational of the tender. It purports to involve the wider community but in fact very few agencies will be able to participate, as they do not have NZQA registration, unless they offer short courses which are of limited value.
The assumption also appears to be that training gets people jobs. While this is true in some respects, it begs the question of where the jobs are to come from for those in these programmes. It is patently absurd to suggest that limited literacy coaching over a few weeks will guarantee that 1 in 5 will get a job as a result.
There appears to be a lack of appreciation of the reality of long term unemployment and the effects of this on the person. The approach to the 'meeting their needs' is simplistic and superficial and in some respects is more to do with meeting the needs and objectives of WINZ.
While the proposals are targeted to specific groups, probably the most important group because of its size and it growing nature in terms of the long term unemployed, the mature, are not considered.
There is growing resistance and scepticism in the community to the "training treadmill" particularly with respect to WINZ type programmes. This also applies to the costs involved. While WINZ may support the initial steps, the individual must carry the substantial burden of continuing the training to the effective stage, with no guarantee of any increase in the ability to pay back the loans necessary to finance the training. Many people are very fearful of increasing their financial vulnerability to undertake serious training.
A further issue of concern is that WINZ reserves the right to unilaterally change the terms of the contract once signed and to change the rules governing it.
for the Poverty Action Group
Guilty till proven innocent
CATRIONA MACLENNAN reports her experiences as an adviser to people who are having difficulties dealing with Winz
Opinion page, The Dominion, 27 July 1999
A PARLIAMENTARY select committee inquiry is required into the operation of Work and Income New Zealand.
The inquiry should examine the organisation's culture; the operation of benefit review committee hearings and Winz's low emphasis on legal ad vice; and secrecy of informants at the Social Security Appeal Authority.
Winz has huge power over those it deals with, but in my experience it often displays little compassion. Many Winz staff display considerable arrogance in refusing to return phone calls or respond to letters from beneficiaries, advocate groups and lawyers.
This attitude results in considerable inefficiency. In many cases issues could be resolved easily and speedily if staff would speak either to beneficiaries or their representatives.
For example, I act for a client whose file I requested from Winz on December 22, 1998. Winz alleged the client had not been entitled to the domestic purposes benefit and had to repay about $10,000. I could not give the client legal advice till I had seen Winz's evidence supporting its claim.
I wrote four more letters to Winz and had several telephone conversations with two different staff members but could not get the file. I finally received it on March 25, 1999, two days after advising Winz that I had complained to the privacy commissioner and the ombudsman.
The file did not disclose enough evidence to support Winz's contention that my client was not entitled to the dpb. But four months later it is only now being looked at by a Winz lawyer.
Winz has not accepted my repeated offers to sit down and sort out the matter, and my client has had to prepare for a benefit review committee bearing and face the possibility of going to the Social Security Appeal Authority.
Winz staff frequently fail to tell people about all the help they are entitled to. If beneficiaries do not know the exact benefit to ask for, they may not get it. Sometimes I get the impression that Winz staff think the money is coming out of their own pockets.
I believe there needs to be a review of the operation of benefit review committee hearings. These are held if a beneficiary does not accept a decision made by Winz in relation to a benefit. However, the committees are not independent. They comprise one community representative and two Winz representatives.
The committee may have had no legal input and does not give reasons for its decisions. This means that the law may not be applied in the decision process. I believe it should be a requirement for files to be reviewed by a Winz solicitor before the benefit review committee hearing.
But legal advice is not accepted as definitive by Winz. The case officer and manager decide whether a case should proceed. I acted in one case where it was plain on the law that Winz could not support its contention that my client was not entitled to a benefit.
There was no legal input before the benefit review committee bearing, and the committee gave no reasons for its decision. I therefore had no idea on what that decision was based.
I then lodged an appeal at the Social Security Appeal Authority. The Winz solicitor advised Winz not to proceed with the case, but the manager and investigator were determined to. The authority accepted my view that my client had been entitled to the benefit.
This whole process took well over a year and was extremely traumatic and time consuming for my client. She feared she was going to be sent to prison and ended up on medication.
If Winz had taken legal advice at the outset and acted on it, the issue could have been resolved very quickly.
I am also concerned that Winz is allowed to keep secret the names of people who dob in beneficiaries. There appears to be little consideration given to evaluating whether tip-offs might simply be malicious and have no factual foundation. Investigative work is in some cases completely inadequate.
At the Social Security Appeal Authority I am not entitled to find out who the informant is and therefore cannot raise issues relating to motive.
I have had the Kafkaesque situation at the authority of an informant, whose identity I knew, failing to appear to give evidence. I could not cross-examine him, and the whole exercise was like shadow-boxing.
Beneficiaries should not have to prove that they are not guilty of fraud. It should be for Winz to prove its case to the legal standard.
Catriona MacLennan, a former Dominion reporter, is the lawyer for Nga ture kaitiaki ki Waikato community Law centre in Auckland and deals regularly with Winz.
Winz lavishness does not extend to clients
The agency under investigation for its spending on staff travel and training has inherited a miserly and suspicious attitude to beneficiaries, writes SHARON MILNE.
Dialogue, NZ Herald, 23 July 1999
Work and Income New Zealand, like Income Support before it, is a significant control on the lives of beneficiaries. Trends over the past few years indicate the control will intensify.
The agency has the power to query beneficiaries' personal relationships and generally pry into their lives as a means of establishing financial arrangements and eligibility for a benefit. These powers are intrusive on people's privacy and autonomy.
Even the possibility of surveillance can have an unhealthy effect on a person's behaviour, especially when neighbours, ex-partners and others in the community could be involved.
The encouragement to "dob in" beneficiaries produces an unacceptable model of behaviour for society. Suggesting that it is okay to report someone on the basis of whatever information someone thinks is sufficient not only undermines community cohesiveness but encourages people to act without concern for fairness or the family.
Income Support did not volunteer information on benefit eligibility and rights, and indications are that this attitude is unchanged with the amalgamation of Income Support and the Employment Service, as Winz.
Responsibilities are emphasised and anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been an active if informal policy of giving as little information as possible unless it is asked for.
Many beneficiaries find the language in the pamphlets difficult. Information is mostly gleaned instead from neighbours, families and friends, who are much safer sources.
Letters from Social Welfare are regarded with deep suspicion and often not opened for some time, for fear of what they might contain. The language used in these communications is official and legal terminology, which leaves the recipients feeling powerless and often intimidated, con fused and exhausted.
A typical comment from beneficiaries is, "You only get threatening letters basically ... like here is your review and if it doesn't come back in four weeks' time your benefit will be cut."
Rapid policy changes to social security have left most beneficiaries in extreme uncertainty and this also has an impact on Winz employees.
Previous changes in policy have taken place with minimal information and little allowance made for implementation, with the result that local agencies have spent weeks developing an appropriate response.
During that time it is impossible to get coherent and accurate information from support staff and beneficiaries just have to wait to learn of the impact on their lives.
The lack of accountability and erratic policy implementation have continued with Winz. Uncertain rules leave beneficiaries under a great deal of stress. Some exhibit behaviour that otherwise would be regarded with some concern.
One said: "I am so scared I'm going to get caught for something, even though I have done nothing, that they will ask for it back.
"I would never go public on any issue to do with [the agency]. I cultivate the deserving image - I talk like I'm sick very quietly."
The impact on families, especially children, of a parent under this sort of stress is considerable.
There seems to be no consistent manual for staff on the entitlements of beneficiaries, although staff do have training workshops and are regularly updated by e-mail. But interpretation is up to individuals with an internal review system for any dissatisfied "customers." The discretion is of concern.
We hear comments such as, "I had been told that I had to have a meeting with my ... worker for a review of my special benefit. I found this a humiliating experience with a worker who was a young male who had no experience of my circumstances ... he had no idea and just mouthed the rules at me and told me to go to a budget adviser. I'm really struggling."
Beneficiaries report many inconsistencies, and entitlements which are discovered too late. While some staff take a supportive approach to their work, others clearly take a punitive approach and are experienced by beneficiaries as erratic, unprofessional and unsympathetic. Staff are not helped by the complexity of benefit rules and entitlements.
The main source of additional assistance is now refundable benefits. Beneficiaries report that they lose track of what they owe to Winz as repayments are deducted at source and no regularly updated accounts are sent. The instalments for repayment of these loans seem to beneficiaries to be completely arbitrary and are charged out on each item, rather than assessing what might be affordable.
Recoverable loans and eligibility for additional assistance through Whiz come with a subtext of blame. The requirement to report to Winz every three months to justify the extra income and provide evidence of having received budgeting advice is exceptionally difficult, especially as it is often as a result of high housing costs.
Budget-advice counsellors report that only a small percentage of their clients are able to reduce their outgoings and that most have to in crease their income. Information from budgeters and community workers indicates that it is not lack of budgeting skills but an inadequate in- come which is the primary cause of debt for beneficiaries and their families.
More recently the funding of budgeting services has been boosted by $7 million and beneficiaries will be automatically referred for compulsory budget advice when they receive a benefit.
When Winz workers do operate as advocates they are hugely appreciated by their clients. However, the dual role of arbiter of rights and responsibilities as well as of support is at odds with Winz workers' perceptions of themselves as advocates.
There is a fundamental contradiction in their role and that of the organisation. They are expected to tightly control Government spending but also act as advocates in an environment which is hostile to the people they are meant to support.
Dr Sharon Milne is a researcher at the School of Social Policy and Social Work, Massey University, Albany campus.
Investing In Social Capital A Christian Imperative
JUST CONCERNS 1999 ADDRESS
Investing In Social Capital - A Christian Imperative
An address by The Rt Revd Dr David Coles, Bishop of Christchurch at Christchurch Cathedral at 10.00am on Saturday 7 August 1999.
This is election year and it is essential that there be plenty of opportunities to talk about what kind of society we hope for in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the new millennium and to question all those who aspire to political office about their vision for New Zealand society and also to question and clarify how that vision will be fleshed out in political policies, strategies and budgets.
At the start, I want to declare that I am not a member of any political party; and will not be as long as I remain Bishop of Christchurch. I value my independence in being able to address issues in our society regardless of which party or coalition is in power. I value this opportunity to raise the profile of a Christian vision for society at a time when there is, I believe, a growing dissatisfaction with the concept of seeking political answers to all our ills.
It is also election year in the United States next year. American Vice-President Al Gore is running for the Presidency and recently called for a working partnership between government and faith-based institutions. He claimed that his faith "is the centre of my life", and once took a year of full-time theological study to help him explore his relationship to God and his obligations to others. He said "Ordinary Americans have decided to confront the fact that our severest challenges are not just material, but spiritual. Americans know that the fundamental change we need will require not only new policies, but more importantly a change of both our hearts and our minds."
And then he went on with what was clearly election year talk: "If you elect me as President, the voices of faith-based organisations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration."
Well, could those sentiments be applied to this country? Al Gore's use of the phrase "a change of both our hearts and minds" brought back memories of the then Minister of Finance, Ruth Richardson in her 1991 budget when she said the Government was engaged in a battle for the "hearts and minds" of New Zealanders. A year later, in 1992, The Revd Richard Randerson now Assistant Bishop of Canberra, published a book entitled "Hearts and Minds: a place for people in a market economy". In that book, responding to Ruth Richardson's phrase he said:
"Her words were prophetic, for that is precisely the nature of what is going on. There is indeed a battle as to whether New Zealand can retain the reality of community in the face of continuing policies which seek to emphasise the individual. Will there be a warm heart of community, or only the coldness of individuals out to pursue their own interest with diminished regard for the circumstances of those around them?" (page 5)
He wrote that 7 years ago, and I believe Richard's comments remain as valid today as then. If anything there has been a continuing hardening of policies which protect individuals at the expense of community life and development.
The Hikoi of Hope promoted by the Anglican Church in September last year drew together an amazing mixture of Pakeha, Maori and Pacific Islanders from right across the socio-economic spectrum and also bridging rural and urban communities. Some 40,000 people took part in that Hikoi on the walk from Bluff to Cape Reinga to Wellington. While there was a great deal of sidestepping of the issues raised in that Hikoi by some politicians, I believe it struck a chord with middle New Zealand in a way which surprised many.
In this address I want to talk about social capital and the importance of our investment in it if we are to retain the strong community ideals based on Christian values which are central to the fabric of this nation.
"Social capital is a term invented by political theorists to describe the benefit to a community when people associate together for some common purpose" The concept of social capital argues that when the total number of people belonging to community and voluntary organisations declines, social capital also declines. Wherever people group together for mutual benefit and especially for service in the community, that is undoubtedly a valuable asset and worth investing in. I believe there is evidence that community organisations in this country are facing in many instances a crisis of membership and of funding. For several years now, uniformed youth organisations have struggled to find leaders. Community service organisations also struggle to find volunteers, and the churches and their social service organisations are no exception. Even political parties are aware of the difficulties of recruiting members and party workers! While many people applaud the deregulation of retail trading hours and the flexibility brought about by employment contracts in terms of working hours, there has been a huge cost, I believe, for community groups and the recruitment of volunteers who in many cases no longer have regular time available for voluntary groups after work or at weekends.
The argument which has been espoused by National, Labour and coalition governments over the last 10 years that "if we get the economy right, all else will follow", is, I believe, in tatters. It has simply not been the case that economic well being has been followed by successful healthy communities. Social capital cannot be created by any government but it may be encouraged or discouraged by government policy decisions affecting our social fabric. The poverty issues which were highlighted by the Hikoi of Hope - unemployment, inadequate benefits, the increasing costs of education, health and housing, all result in a deconstruction of social capital. As more and more victims of poverty withdraw from society, social capital is diminished. This increase in poverty leads to a form of social and psychological deprivation characterised by feelings of hopelessness, shame, depression, despair and even aggression and violence. As people experience these feelings they pull back from participation in society into isolation and withdrawal. Thus, much of our present poverty becomes unseen, and consequently ignored and denied by society and government. Poverty has been described as like "a new, undiagnosed cancer in our communities. It is both hidden and growing and without investigation and intervention".
I am arguing that whatever you may think about the virtues or shortcomings of a free-market economy, the side effect of this is an increasing individualism and a decline in the recognition of the "common good".
We see this expressed most dramatically perhaps in the recent scandals over the spending sprees of senior officials and executives in agencies which exist for the common good but which are now being modelled on a free-market approach in their management and salary structures. We have the ridiculous scenario that whereas once senior public servants' salaries were set with reference to commercial benchmarks, the reverse seems now to be true!
I accept that economic reforms have been necessary and desirable over recent years in this country. But like all swinging pendulums, there must come a time when there has to be a balancing, a return to those fundamentals which I believe are not just political or ideological matters for debate but are in fact central tenets of Christian faith, inherent in the Gospels.
In an address arranged by Just Concerns on May 16th, Christchurch Mayor, Garry Moore spoke about the criticism of the Christchurch City Council by Central Government over a period of seven years. He said it was about ideology.
"They took off toward their brave new market-driven utopia where nothing is more important than individual rights... we as a city said no thanks and stayed stuck in our community-minded ways. The revulsion against poverty is so ingrained in Christchurch people it is just taken as a fact of life the Council does operate as if it thinks it is it's brother's keeper."
I applaud the Mayor for what I perceive as his essentially Christian view of society where individualism and self-centred policies are rejected in favour of the common good. The concept of loving your neighbour as yourself becomes fundamental in all our thinking, and can and should be translated into social policy.
Next year is the 150th Anniversary of the establishment of Christchurch and Canterbury by the Canterbury Association. Outside in The Square stands a statue of John Robert Godley, the leading figure in the Canterbury Association. That Association, so firmly built on Christian principles and which gave the name of Christ Church to this city, was in its essence a Reform Association moving towards a self-dependent society with self-government in contrast to some of the earlier British colonies in which Whitehall granted self-government in slow stages. That idea of responsible government, with the community taking care of its life and dealing with its social problems and policies has drawn from the experience of the earlier American colonies with their distinctive Christian character. The steady erosion of this Christian character of our society by secular expressions of individualism and free-market ideology even into our health, education and welfare policies has brought us to a point of social collapse and community crisis. A point where the queues for food parcels get steadily longer while the salaries of senior public officials get steadily higher.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume, the much-loved spiritual leader of Britain's Roman-Catholic Church died in June this year. Shortly before his death he wrote about his vision for the new millennium. He referred to the inevitable fireworks displays which will light up the sky in a thousand cities to mark the dawn of the Third Millennium. (I guess this city has planned one too, and I'm not against that!). But Cardinal Hume says, "its brilliance is short-lived. A charred stick falls to the ground." What will be left when all the celebrations are over? What will be left when New Zealand has won or lost the America's Cup and the millennium sunrise has been watched, photographed and televised? Basil Hume says:
"A society without a common understanding of what it is to be human and without a shared morality is in danger of gradual disintegration."
Although he was speaking of the British scene, I believe his words apply here in Aotearoa/NZ as well. "Change is needed," he says. "We each have a role to play to bring about change; not least, of course, politicians, the media and business leaders. Beware of those with vested interests, those who are for no change, and cynics who are sceptical about the possibility."
So what changes are necessary if we are to regain a healthy sense of an interdependent community where everyone's contribution is valued and important?
I was intrigued by a Press report on Wednesday this week under the heading 'NZ lags behind Australia' in which Treasurer, Bill English says "If I'm worried about anything it's about New Zealand losing its belief in its own story." He was responding to commentators' concerns that New Zealand is worse off than Australia despite its purist deregulation of the economy meant to deliver a better living standard.
I believe it is precisely the relentless pursuit of a self-centred ideology of extreme individualism at the expense of healthy communities that has delivered us into our present social disorder. We are losing our belief in our story - our story of a Christian basis for our society. We see the expression of this in the teaching of the American philosopher Ayn Rand who has written that "to risk one's life for a drowning stranger only indicates a lack of self-esteem. Contrari-wise you cannot expect a stranger to save you if your are in difficulty. If the person at risk was someone you loved, then you might make a sacrifice on the self-interested basis that life without that person would be intolerable".
I simply want to contrast with that, the fundamental Christian ethic which is based on the concept of social capital when Jesus said:
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:12-13)
or when, perhaps even more explicitly Jesus challenges his hearers with the parable of the Good Samaritan who rescued the injured man when his fellow citizens had passed him by. "Go and do likewise" said Jesus. If there is any Christian imperative which challenges this year's line-up of political candidates and parties and all of us who vote, it is that expression of caring for others. In my Christian vision for society, the weak, the sick and the most vulnerable stand alongside the strong, the healthy and the powerful and are included as valued members of our society, treated compassionately, generously and without hesitation.
As we meet in this cathedral today, my eyes are drawn to the tukutuku woven panel, a memorial to the 5th Bishop of Christchurch, Allan Pyatt. Beside that tukutuku is the Maori proverb:
"He aha te mea nui, he tangata, he tangata, he tangata What is the most important thing in life?" "It is people, people, people."
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