An OIA report from The Ministry of Social Development shows that, in the year to March 2017, over 11,000 calls were made to a dedicated hot line enabling people to anonymously accuse beneficiaries of benefit fraud. As a result, almost 6,000 benefit fraud investigations were made during that year, with over 3,000 regarding allegations of the beneficiary being in a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’. Out of the investigations completed, overpayments were established in 1,800 investigations, with only 431 successful prosecutions.
“Auckland Action Against Poverty is calling for an end to these cruel and invasive investigation practices by the Ministry of Social Development”, says Ricardo Menéndez March, Auckland Action Against Poverty Coordinator.
“The investigations carried out by the Ministry of Social Development have the potential to destroy people’s lives, with investigators having the ability to reach out to the beneficiary’s family members, friends and acquaintances to ask incredibly sensitive questions regarding relationships and sex life. The beneficiary is often unaware they are being investigated while the Ministry contacts these people in their life to obtain information.
“Several of these investigations would have started because vindictive ex-partners anonymously call the dedicated tip-off line to accuse the beneficiary of being in a relationship. In April this year, the story of a woman who had her benefit cut for going on two tinder dates was widely circulated, with MSD revealing her benefit was actually cut from allegations she had been living with a partner, shared a mortgage with him, and they both had jobs. None of these allegations were substantiated, yet Work and Income still decided to cut her benefit off.
“These sort of investigations are able to be carried out due to legislation which can consider two people to be in a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ because they may be dating, sharing accommodation, or engaging in sexual activity. This is an overreach by government into the private lives of some of our most vulnerable people. This legislation is draconian and outdated.
“People considered to be in a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ by Work and Income lose their individual benefit entitlements, as their income is calculated jointly. By doing this, Work and Income forces people on the benefit to be fully financially dependent on who they consider to be their partner.
“On top of putting an immediate end to these investigations, the best thing the Government could do is to treat adults in the benefit system as individuals without penalizing them for being in a partnership.
“It is ill-fitting for the Labour-led Government to talk about being a compassionate Government while allowing thousands of people to undergo invasive investigations by the Ministry of Social Development, with many losing their benefit because of anonymous tip-off calls.
“We are calling on the Labour-led Government to put an immediate end to these cruel investigation practices.”