How WINZ and the Government pretend to help
A culture of denying people their rights has infected management layers at WINZ. Targets have been imposed on management for benefit denial and prosecuting those who have allegedly been overpaid for some reason.
Form-filling and demands for documentation have grown exponentially. Grants have been replaced by loans which need to be repaid. 60% of those receiving a main benefit owe an average of $2500 each. Chasing down these “debts” has become a priority for management.
Stopping people without ID is just the latest twist to the story.
This week a 70-year old woman was told she had to make an appointment and go in to an office because she had changed banks. Putting the information in a letter was not acceptable.
A survey in the Auckland working class suburb of Otara by the Child Poverty Action Group found that 82% of families who have children with disabilities did not know they could be eligible for Work and Income support. Only 7.6% of families with a disabled child actually received any support!
These government-imposed polices have put at risk the health and safety of their own clients and directly employed staff and well as security guards and other contractors.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been denied benefits and other assistance over the last decade. This has resulted in a net loss of at least 100,000 families receiving a benefit. That is equivalent to removing a billion dollars a year from working class communites.
Poverty, homelessness, despair and suicide are the inevitable consequences.
A window into this cruel world was opened during a coronors hearing in late December last year into the death by suicide of a WINZ client after she was threatened with prosecution.
I commented on this case in an earlier blog. It was revealed that WINZ managers had to achieve a certain number of prosecutions and a certain amount of money recovered each month.
I have never heard of WINZ imposing a target for ensuring that everone knows about their entitlements and can access them easily.
A Radio NZ report of the suicide has additional details that need to be made available far and wide. They reported:
A mother believes her daughter would not have died if the Ministry of Social Development hadn’t threatened to prosecute her for welfare fraud.
Wendy Shoebridge was found dead in April 2011, the day after she had received a letter from the ministry telling her she owed them $22,400.
Not long after her death the ministry reduced the debt to about $5550.
Ms Shoebridge’s name was soon cleared and the ministry admitted she never should have been sent the letter in the first place.
The investigator who sent the letter is no longer at the ministry, which has made changes to the way it deals with prosecutions and vulnerable clients.
Ms Shoebridge’s mother, Barbara Cooke, said the family had not been able to move on in the five years since her daughter’s death.
“I haven’t been able to move forward.” Ms Cooke said. “I haven’t been able to progress in all that time. Life has been at a standstill with no progress since the moment of Wendy’s death … because of the fact we’ve had to wait so long for an inquest. We’re still waiting for the findings.”
Ms Cooke said her daughter struggled with depression and anxiety as well as being in a turbulent relationship at the time, something her mother believed was often the root of Wendy’s troubles.
At the end of 2010 her daughter had been working to improve her life and had found work at a service station, Ms Cooke said. She received an MSD letter telling her it would open a fraud investigation into payments she received from the ministry between December 2008 and October 2010.
“She got letters from WINZ saying that she’d been overpaid, she got contacted by MSD to say that there would be an investigator investigating,” Ms Cooke said.
After that, a letter warning of prosecution arrived.
“She came home from work on the second of April … at the end of her work shift and there was a letter waiting for her telling her she was to be referred for prosecution,” Ms Cooke said.
After a phone conversation with her daughter, Ms Cooke became immediately concerned.
“She sounded so dispirited and absolutely worn out, tired and really, really sad.
“I said Wendy I’ll come down, don’t worry, I’ll come down and help you.
“That was later in the day, I was too tired to drive down [to Wellington] at that time of day, she didn’t want me to … I said we’ll talk later then.”
She told her she loved her and wished she was with her. “I’m very grateful to have had the chance to say that.”
It was the last time Ms Cooke spoke with her daughter.
The next day police came to her home, near Palmerston North, and told her her daughter had been found dead.
She said her daughter would still be here today had the prosecution letter not been sent. The letter was frightening and had exacerbated Wendy’s already stressed life, she said.
After Ms Shoebridge’s death the ministry told Ms Cooke her daughter should not have received the prosecution letter, and apologised.
Yesterday a spokesperson for the ministry declined to respond to Ms Cooke’s comments, choosing to wait until the coroner releases her findings.
But the spokesperson said his thoughts were with the family during this time.
The inquest into Wendy Shoebridge’s death ended last week. The findings are reserved until next year.
Coroner Anna Tutton is waiting for lawyers’ submissions to be completed and handed in by 27 January.
We can only hope the coronor’s report finds someone responsible for this unneccessary death. As I argued in my earlier blog, in my view repsonsibility falls on the government, their policies, and in particular the Minister responsible at the time Paula Bennet.
The regime at WINZ has produced the inevitable reults.
In the last five years:
- Verbal abuse or physical assault of Ministry of Social Development staff have doubled
- Police notifications by staff at MSD saites have increased ten times
- Trespass notices against WINZ cvlients have more than doubled
The MSD was found guilty of not adequately protecting its staff after the September 1, 2014, shooting of two MSD staff.
All staff need to be protected. But putting a minimum wage guard with little training outside without proper protective or communication tools is not an answer.
But the best protection is to have WINZ staff doing the job they were employed to do – assist people in obtaining help when times are tough.