Two years ago I became aware of the work of two very able barristers who defend low income women accused of relationship fraud.
CPAG then began collecting cases and stories of horrendous misery and victimisation.
Then penny was slow to drop but finally it became clear that the cases that get to court are just the tip of the iceberg. The welfare system as a whole is utterly bereft of any principle on relationships, except that if they can be found to exist, the state can save money. Under the last 6 years of welfare reform the screws have been tightened in unprincipled ways with very little challenge.
Finally this week we published our report The complexities of ‘relationship’ in the welfare system and the consequences for children.
Read it and weep for the direction we are taking. Low income sole parents are increasingly subjected to surveillance and intrusion on a scale, surely unimaginable in good old, tolerant New Zealand?
Worse still, any children involved may suffer greatly especially if their mother is sent to jail. She can emerge still owing the same debt with repayments that burden the mother for the rest of her life. The resulting hardship further penalises the children.
Let’s think about the big picture here. Surely Work and Income should encourage healthy repartnering as good for sole parents and their children, and good for society. But oh no… the strange truth is that policy operates to ferret out and punish fledgling relationships. Unlike the tax system, the welfare system treats two people living in a relationship ‘in the nature of marriage’ much worse than two singles. Unlike New Zealand Superannuation or ACC, ‘married’ people on welfare also face a draconian claw-back of extra income no matter which partner earns it.
Who is Solomon and can judge what qualifies as a relationship and when ‘dependence’ of a mother on a new partner begins in today’s complex world? When does a boarder become a de facto partner? When do two sole parents sharing accommodation become more than flatmates? And why should it mean he ought to be responsible financially for her children? Why, if there is some unsatisfactory man in and of her life, maybe violent and unreliable, should she be branded a ‘fraudster’ and have her life and that of her children ruined?
Recent new legislation makes partners also accountable for so-called ‘relationship fraud’. While it acknowledges that the focus on the sole parent’s so-called ‘offending’ alone can be most unjust this is also just another step further in the wrong direction. We can expect some very iniquitous outcomes from the expected 700-1000 cases a year.
The answer does not lie in searching for the magic formula that defines ‘relationship’ and thus makes ‘relationship fraud’ a black and white issue. The way forward in the 21st century is to progressively remove all married and single distinctions in the welfare system.
Great to see Brian Easton’s wise words: Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. He has been writing about these issues for more than 35 years. We need a groundswell of voices insisting that social policy is adapted to the 21st century. The technological revolution is outstripping our social institutions and leaving us socially retarded and victims of outmoded thinking.
The report outlines numerous recommendations intended to open up dialogue for thinking anew about how we can better support mothers for their own sake and for their children’s well-being and surely for the good of us all.