This week the second big piece of legislation advancing Paula Bennett’s welfare reforms passes its final stages in Parliament.
While on the surface of it the Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill sounds mind numbingly boring, its content is neither boring nor innocuous.
Some will remember the Welfare Working Group set up in 2010 under the leadership of National’s hatchet-woman-in-chief, Paula Rebstock.
When Rebstock reported back on 22 February 2011 – a date which will go down in New Zealand history for entirely different reasons – the Working Group’s 180 pages of recommendations laid out a blueprint for the destruction of welfare as we know it, a blueprint which is now being enacted step by careful step.
The first major bill reflecting these recommendations – the Social Security (Youth Support and Work Focus) Amendment Act – passed last year. Among other things, it:
• introduced compulsory income management for young people on benefits, stripping them of autonomy and self respect at a highly vulnerable time in their lives;
• subjected any woman on a benefit who goes on to have another child to work testing from the time her baby turns one year old;
• allowed Work & Income a role in encouraging women beneficiaries and their daughters to undergo long lasting contraception;
• set the stage for contracting yet more core parts of Work and Income’s activities to private and NGO providers.
The second bill going through this week adds to this by (among other things):
• Replacing a number of current benefits, including the Sickness Benefit, with one ‘Job Seeker Support’ category, subject to a wide range of compulsory work tests and sanctions if tests aren’t fulfilled to Work & Income’s satisfaction.
• Introducing a Work Ability Assessment which will mean most, except the terminally ill, will be subject to a medical assessment which determines what kind of benefit they should be on, what sort of work is suitable for them and so forth. This puts huge power into the hands of designated health professionals, with very limited ability to challenge decisions.
• Adding even further sanctions to those who don’t meet Work & Income requirements, including drug testing. The first sanction means your benefit is cut by 50% for 4 weeks, the second that it’s cut until you ‘meet your obligation’, the third, that your benefit is cancelled for 13 weeks.
While Paula Bennett defends these reforms as part of the Government’s focus on getting people into work, how much sense does this truly make at a time when more jobs are being cut every day – the 140 jobs going at DOC being just the latest in a long string of such announcements – and at a time when there are over 284,000 people officially jobless in this country?
To add insult to injury, there is zero Government commitment to job creation either – decent jobs at decent wages being the best solution to unemployment and poverty.
What sense is there in forcing the sick, injured and disabled – and the mothers of babies as young as one year old – out to work when we have this level of unemployment?
This is not about helping people into better, more fulfilling lives.
Instead, it is all about helping keep the wages and conditions of employed workers as low as possible by enforcing a race to the bottom for insecure, low paid work.
It’s also about meeting the target originally set by Paula Bennett and Paula Rebstock in the WWG report –
to get 100,000 working age beneficiaries off income support in the next ten years.
National and its supporters don’t give a damn about the collateral damage.
I feel sick every time I hear a National Party MP lamenting child poverty. Their welfare policies condemn ever increasing numbers of adults and children to stressful, demeaning penury, with consequences that can last a lifetime.
This week the Guardian put out a short video interview which demonstrates the human side of what the UK Government is inflicting via its own set of welfare reforms – it’s well worth a look. Our Government is doing much the same things here, with increasing ferocity.
The decision last week to cut the annual CPI adjusted benefit increase to a measly 0.61% from the minimum 0.9% increase it should have been – to just an extra $2.08 a week for a couple – shows how insidiously inhumane this Government is becoming in its war on beneficiaries.
For anyone out there reading this who thinks none of this will ever be relevant to you – just remember, unemployment, sickness and injury can happen to anyone, and not all relationships last.
If we’re working age adults, we’re all one step away from facing the effects of this onslaught unless we’re so well cushioned by wealth and property that it’s an irrelevance.
And of course, that’s who the Nats represent – the comfortable rich and those who are fooled into thinking that the interests of the rich match their own.
These changes to our welfare system are all about making extra profits for big business while shoring up National’s vote at the next election from people who just need to have a section of society to hate and despise. I hope you will join me and groups like Auckland Action Against Poverty in exposing and opposing this for the vicious game it is.