OIA Request points to beneficiary beat-up by Minister Chester Borrows

By   /   December 6, 2013  /   7 Comments

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In National’s on-going war against the poor; the unemployed; solo-mums; widows; etc, Associate Social Development Minister, Chester Borrows, recently trumpeted “new” developments in the campaign against “welfare abuse”.

In National’s on-going war against the poor; the unemployed; solo-mums; widows; etc, Associate Social Development Minister, Chester Borrows, recently trumpeted “new” developments in the campaign against “welfare abuse”.

He proclaimed  “new” measures by this government to detect and deal to (alleged) fraudsters,

“The information sharing, which compares MSD records with Inland Revenue data to identify working age beneficiaries who have not accurately reported their income to Work and Income, started in March this year.”

Source: Information sharing continues to stop fraudsters

However, as I pointed out in July of this year, Borrows appears to be somewhat “loose with the truth”. The MSD has had the ability to share information with other government departments going back to 2001 – if not  earlier (see:  Benefit fraud? Is Chester Borrows being totally upfront with us) .

The initial evidence for this fact lay with two letters  from an acquaintance, who luckily keeps every piece of correspondence from government departments.

The other evidence was a startling admission from Borrows – detailed later in this blogpost – in an OIA request lodged with the Minister’s office in July.

The first of two letters was from 2009,

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winz-letter-2009

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[Published with permission.]

The letter clearly states,

We regularly compare our records with other government agencies…”

and,

The Inland Revenue records indicate that you commenced employment: 16 March 2009…”

(Note; the over-lap that so concerned the MSD was a matter of two weeks, and centered more around confusion as to when the WINZ “client” was deemed to start work.)

Obviously, the MSD had data-matching with the IRD going back to at least mid-2009.

The second letter is from 2001,

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WINZ letter 2001

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[Published with permission.]

Even in 2001 – twelve years ago – WINZ and the NZ Customs Service (not Immigration Dept as I mistakenly wrote) were comparing information.

So for Borrows to claim that “information sharing, which compares MSD records with Inland Revenue data to identify working age beneficiaries who have not accurately reported their income to Work and Income, started in March this year ” – shows either that he has poor knowledge of departmental policy, or is wilfully misrepresenting the truth.

If Borrows is lying, it would be part and parcel of National’s disturbing agenda to demonise welfare recipients and make them the scapegoats of this Tory government’s failure to create jobs.

On 19 July, I lodged an OIA request with Borrows’ office.  I asked ten questions from the Minister through the course of two emails. Here are the questions and responses I received on 12 September;

1. Over what period of time were these 3,139 cases detected?

Borrows replied; “From 18 March to 14 July 2013 the information sharing agreement detected 3,139 cases of benefit fraud which resulted in the cancellation of a benefit.”

2. When did IRD and WINZ begin sharing information?

Borrows; “In May 2012 an Order in Council was passed that allows for Inland Revenue to share information with the Ministry of Social Development. To support this a memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development and the Commissioner of Inland Revenue.

This has led to a new programme of work in which Inland Revenue provides the Ministry of Social Development with income and employer information for all working age people in receipt of a benefit. In September 2012 a test of the information sharing agreement was undertaken to ensure data integrity and system compatibility. Full information sharing for the detection of undeclared earnings commenced in March 2013.”

However, further on in Borrow’s letter, he presents this chart of two government departments and the dates they commenced data-sharing with the MSD,

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information sharing with MSD - borrows

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Note the years given for the IRD (1992) and NZ Customs Service (1996). This ties in perfectly with the letters from WINZ and MSD above.

3. Does WINZ and the Dept of Immigration also share information on WINZ beneficiaries who travel overseas whilst in receipt of a benefit?

According to Borrows; Yes. Though with NZ Customs, not the Immigration Service. My bad.

4. When did that WINZ/Immigration Dept arrangement, in respect to Q3,  begin?

According to Borrows; from 1996 onward.

5. What other government ministeries, departments, SOEs, and other bodies does WINZ share information with?   6. When did those arrangements, in respect in Q5, begin?

Borrows listed the following as data sharing with the MSD; ACC (2005), Corrections Dept (1995), Department of Internal Affairs (2004 onward), Housing NZ (2006), Inland Revenue (1992 onward), NZ Customs Service (1996 onward), and Ministry of Justice (2013)

7. Of the 3,139 illegitimate benefits  found, what was the time period involved with people receiving a benefit and earning income from another source?

How many were within the following periods;

– 1 week

– 2 weeks

– 3 weeks

– 4 weeks

– 2 months

– 3 months

– 6 months

– Over 6 months – under one year

– Over one year

This was probably the most pertinent question, and Borrows point blank refused to answer it, stating;

Your request for information about the amount of time a client was in receipt of a benefit whilst earning income from another source is refused under section 18(f)  of the Official Information Act.This would require the Ministry to undertake a manual search of each of the individual  client’s files to collate the information. As such I am refusing this part of your request as responding to it would require substantial collation or research.”

This is an unbelievable response!

For one thing, it indicates that the Minister has no information as to how long a welfare recipient was earning both a benefit and other income.

Was it one week? Or one year? Two weeks?  Or two decades?

There are many cases of a brief overlap, as the 7 July 2009 letter above shows (where the over-lap was a fortnight before the recipient advised WINZ). There was a gap of  just over a week between the job interview and job offer, and the person’s first induction course.

Borrows simply has no knowledge of how long these over-laps were. If the majority were one or two weeks, this can be put down to human error or a mis-understanding of employment start-dates – not planned fraud.

Worse was to come.

8. How many prosecutions have been undertaken of all nine cohorts listed above?

Borrows replied,

Information about the number of prosecutions undertaken is refused under section 9(2)(f)(iv) of the Official Information Act. This part of the Act allows me to refuse your request as the Ministry is still in the process of deciding whether to prosecute these individuals, therefore this matter is still under active consideration. While I understand that there is a significant public interestin the functions of the Ministry, I believe that in this case the public  interest does not outweigh the necessity to protect the Ministry’s investigation and prosecution process.”

I take it from his response that “as the Ministry is still in the process of deciding whether to prosecute these individuals, therefore this matter is still under active consideration” – that no prosecutions have taken place up until the time of the letter being written.

Not one single person out of the  3,139 cases was prosecuted.

Not. A. One.

So the alleged fraud was either of an insignificant nature (one or two weeks) – or the cases were so flimsy and ill-defined that a Court would have thrown out the charges.

Or they weren’t “fraud” at all.

9. How many have been convicted?

Borrows’ response,

Prosecutions stemming from these cases are still in progress, and I am advised that none have yet been resolved. As such there have been no convictions to date.”

No convictions?

So much media hype surrounding 3,139 cases – and not a single prosecution or conviction.

It seems apparent that this was little more than a propaganda exercise and useful only to beef up National’s ‘tough-on-welfare-abuse” image. Any serious fraud is never countenanced by any government and prosecutions are relentlessly pursued,

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Alleged identity theft for pension

Source

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And lastly, I asked,

10. How many were in actual employment whilst receiving a welfare benefit, as opposed to some other source of income?

Borrows replied,

In every instance of the 3,139 alleged benefit frauds, those in receipt of these were also employed.

Note the Minister’s use of  “alleged”. Without a single court case leading to a single conviction, nothing has been proven. There was no fraud, as such, because no one has been convicted of any such offence.

We have only a  politician’s word that this has happened.

And thus far, Mr Borrows seems to be lacking in any credibility whatsoever.

It is also interesting to note that whilst Borrows knew the answer to Q10 – he had no data on Q7.

If the mainstream media had the time or inclination to delve further behind the press releases, they might uncover the same situation I have; that this has been part of a propaganda exercise by government ministers to boost National’s reputation as being “tough on welfare cheats”.

New Zealand has a dark side to it’s much vaunted “fair go”. We can  be quick to judge; easy led to indulge in prejudice; and punitive to a nasty level.

National’s strategists and spin-doctors are well aware of this nasty side to our collective psyche and play it like a maestro.

We may not force jews to wear the yellow star of David and ship them off to death camps – but when a Tory government re-victimises the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, simply to gain a few polling points, and seemingly gets away with it – then you know that this is a country that is willing to be led into darkness.

And all the while with a complicit media, only too eager to be the government’s unquestioning, obedient, mouthpiece,

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Susan's Editorial Benefit fraudsters stealing from you and me

Source

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Whatever happened to journalists looking behind government utterances?

Or is the new policy Don’t Question Authority?

At the very least, journalists like Susan Wood should have expected payment for her blatant  towing of the National Party-line.  She has shown herself to be a Good Citizen. Obedient. Unquestioning. Loyal.

So when do we start shipping welfare beneficiaries off to work camps?

Would that satisfy that subconscious, punitive urge for New Zealanders?

Or would that finally – finally – be a step too far?

And in the meantime, how many more times will gullible New Zealanders fall for National’s get-tough-on-welfare-fraud propagandising?

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References

OIA letter from Chester Borrows

Scoop media: Information sharing continues to stop fraudsters

Radio NZ: Thousands stopped from getting benefits not entitled to

Dominion Post: House call plan to nab benefit fraudsters

NewstalkZB: Susan’s Editorial: Benefit fraudsters stealing from you and me

NZ Herald: Alleged identity theft for pension

Additional

Gordon Campbell: Ten Myths About Welfare – The politics behind the government’s welfare reform process

TV3: Courts tougher on benefit fraud than tax dodging – study

Previous related blogposts

Benefit fraud? Is Chester Borrows being totally upfront with us?!

A letter to the editor

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7 Comments

  1. fambo says:

    Benefit bashing is their way of re-energising the right wing vote and reminding them why they shouldn’t vote for Labour/Greens no matter how much sensible those parties’ policies are

  2. This data matching is what cost me big time in 1997. I had a breakdown and once sufficiently recovered to be able to speak for myself and look for some work approached WINZ. They determined what I was entitled to, I had no idea – even if I could get anything, and they worked out from the dates I gave them (from original letters from my employers), the benefit start date etc.

    At the end of the financial year when I did my tax return IRD came back and told me I owed $2,500 in overpaid benefits and demanded immediate repayment, not in a nice way – informing me interest charges, penalties etc. Even after I got a letter duly signed by WINZ that it was their error – not mine IRD hunted and said I was defrauding the taxpayer….even had the nerve to end the letter with their “It’s our Job to be Fair”…

  3. Draco T Bastard says:

    If the majority were one or two weeks, this can be put down to human error or a mis-understanding of employment start-dates – not planned fraud.

    Actually, if the recipients were going to be paid fortnightly or monthly and they didn’t know their full help available to them (which they probably don’t because WINZ is really bad at telling people) then it’s entirely possible that they let the benefit go on for a week or so so that they could afford to go to work until they got paid from the job. Contrary to what Susan Wood thinks these people would have every intention of paying the excess back.

  4. Grant Buist says:

    Um… yeah, I see that you’re trying to point out where this sort of thing leads, but that ‘bene’ Star of David graphic is actually REALLY offensive.

    There’s a difference between treating a marginalised group as a political football and making their lives difficult in order to win votes – and trying to wipe a marginalised group off the face of the earth using industrialised death camps.

    It’s… a bit of a leap.

  5. Marc says:

    Thank you for this Frank.

    Yes, it has indeed been going on for years, but I think, they have now expanded the information matching or “sharing” by way of expanding the types and ranges of data that can be matched.

    What makes all this stuff about sole parents’ treatment, and beneficiaries in general so much worse, is this plan of “visits” by outsourced WINZ contractors.

    That is new, and we must bear in mind, that WINZ and many other agencies have been added to the police and customs, to now have the authority to search and “surveil” their clients.

    Indeed we have a sneaking “police state” coming in, where not just the police, but many government agencies can do things that they were legally never able to before.

    Sadly the wider public have been so indoctrinated about “beneficiary bludgers”, most will have some “understanding” for all these measures, or even support them.

    More divide and rule, by a nasty NatACT government.

  6. Robin says:

    There have been some prosecutions. My daughter who is a lawyer witnessed one in court, where somebody had just got married and within three weeks was prosecuted by WINZ for not yet informing them; even though the person had paid back the money owed, which was only about $180.00. The judge threw it out, more or less- not entirely, the person was put on good behaviour for a year. I think I read about another prosecution in today’s news…