MUST READ: Dobbing in is a frightful blot on the face of a failed welfare system

By   /   September 29, 2018  /   17 Comments

TDB recommends Voyager - Unlimited internet @home as fast as you can get

The latest statistics on dobbing in highlighted by Radio NZ this week should send a shudder down the spines of every thinking person in New Zealand.

The latest statistics on dobbing in highlighted by Radio NZ this week should send a shudder down the spines of every thinking person in New Zealand.

In the year to March 2017, there were over 11,000 calls made to a dedicated hotline for people to anonymously accuse beneficiaries of benefit fraud. These resulted in nearly 6000 benefit fraud investigations, with over 3000 regarding allegations of the beneficiary being in a “relationship in the nature of marriage”.

MSD spend about $50m a year on its investigations into over-payments and fraud. For 6000 investigations—this is about $8500 each on average.

When a full investigation is mounted as it was in the 3000 cases for so called ‘relationship fraud’ it is not just very costly but also incredibly intrusive for the vulnerable families affected

Menacingly the website says:

What happens if you don’t tell us

It’s against the law to not tell us if your relationship status has changed. This could result in you and your partner getting a fine, having a debt you both have to pay back, being prosecuted or imprisoned.  

Many if not most of these 3000 investigations for so called ‘relationship fraud” come from disgruntled ex-partners.

These angry people, often with molestation or trespass orders, are given instructions on MSD’s website as to how to dob in and they do not have to reveal any connection with the victim.  

WINZ says “You can remain anonymous and we’ll do everything we can to protect your privacy.” But the privacy of the person who is snooped on is of no concern apparently. They are not entitled to know who dobbed them in and the fraud unit can discuss the complaint with other people without their knowing or permission.

The website encourages this appalling practice so it appears those who do the dobbing in are being helpful.  The more information they provide the more they are being helpful.

So what would Work and Income to know? It’s all there:

  • the full name of the person who you think is committing benefit fraud
  • any other names they are known by
  • their address and phone number
  • their age and date of birth
  • what sex they are
  • the type of benefit you think they’re getting
  • the type of benefit fraud you think they’ve committed
  • any other information about them such as their previous address or car registration.
  • the full name of their partner and any other names they’re known by
  • their partner’s age and date of birth
  • their partner’s address
  • whether their partner works and who employs them
  • why you think that they’re a couple
  • how long they’ve been in a relationship
  • whether they have had children together
  • the names and ages of any children they have.

Being in a new relationship for a sole parent is not black and white. The website lists some things to consider if you are trying to work it out such as

  • you live together at the same address most of the time
  • you live separately but stay overnight at each other’s place a few nights a week
  • you share responsibilities, eg bringing up children (if any)
  • you socialise and holiday together
  • you share money, bank accounts or credit cards
  • you share household bills.
  • you have a sexual relationship
  • people think of you as a couple
  • you give each other emotional support and companionship
  • your partner would be willing to support you financially if you couldn’t support yourself.

How many of these must apply? For how long? It is no wonder sole parents are terrified to begin new relationships even when that could be the best thing for their future and for their children.  The threat of loss of income and autonomy is very real. How many are told pay us what you owe or we will prosecute and maybe send you to jail? Where is the fair Appeals process?

There are not enough checks and balances for this policy to continue. Dobbing in does not sit well with the kinder more inclusive society our PM is promoting.  Indeed it has overtones of the kind fascism that our forebears fought against. At very least, anonymity for those who dob in must be removed but preferably the hotline should be closed immediately and the benefit fraud unit scaled down to deal with the handful of real fraud cases only.  

 

***
Want to support this work? Donate today
***
Follow us on Twitter & Facebook
***

About the author

Co-director retirement policy and Research Centre, CPAG management committee

17 Comments

  1. Ada says:

    You either have an adequate system of eligibility checks in the welfare system, or you don’t.

    If you don’t, fraud gets out of hand, and public support for the welfare system drops far enough the right-wingers can make the case that benefit are simply rewarding cheats.

    And how do you know there is only a “handful of real welfare fraud”, unless you have sufficient people looking for fraud?

    • Sam Sam says:

      (Some of these questions seem like end of year essay questions)

      “Loopholes” are typically exemptions that are there to encourage people to do some specific things. If you’re not doing that are “loopholes” don’t really exist with in welfare then you do that thing with your head held high.

    • Susan St John says:

      Ada
      point 1 The truth is we don’t and cant because relationships are not black and white
      2. If you don’t have relationship checks for sole parents, then it is not possible for them to be accused of benefit fraud so it cant get out of hand.

      3. real fraud is when someone uses multiple names or applies for the benefit when working full time. These cases are rare and can and should be uncovered in other ways. Having more people to look for fraud is dangerous- they have to justify their existence.

    • Jess says:

      Ada, you have missed the fundamental point that Susan St John was articulating. You seem to support a system which prosecutes a vulnerable person who is not a fraudster but who becomes the victim of a disgruntled former partner (often the true criminal) and which also supports the disgruntled former partner by encouraging embellishment and lies through anonymity.

      Through a friend of mine I became aware of a case where a young woman who at the time was training to join a profession here in NZ entered into a relationship with a young man she met overseas. He eventually moved to New Zealand to be with her and they resided together. As a result of a great deal of confusion as to his status and the advice she honestly provided to WINZ about her partner and their living arrangements it transpired that her benefit was increased beyond what it should have been.

      A WINZ investigator turned up at her address and brought the matter to the young woman’s attention. She answered all the questions asked and when she realised that she had been overpaid she agreed to refund the money which the WINZ investigator thanked her for and the necessary papers were signed. Here’s the kicker – a week later WINZ charged her with fraud with the result that she received a conviction.

      This case is not in the same category as what Susan St John is talking about because there was no “dobbing in” by a former partner but it illustrates the attitude and culture of WINZ who ruthlessly pursue people who make errors or who are subjected to the whim of a bitter former partner.

      WINZ should look at its own systems including analysing what checks and balances they have (obviously none) to ensure over-payments are not generated in the first place because the result is exactly what Susan St John has highlighted – creating an environment for lies and deceit from “anonymous” bitter former partners and turning good people into convicted dishonest criminals.

  2. Rickoshay says:

    exactly, wasting tax payers money to persecute the poor, a litany of abuse stretching back to the first attacks on the welfare state in the 80s, blame the bennys cause your party is crooked and morally bankrupt, it constantly amuses me just how intellectually handicapped our elected representatives get when they achieve a little power

  3. Z says:

    Its past time that they have a clear definition of a relationship in the nature of marriage (and tell everyone exactly what it is).

    • Susan St John says:

      why not make it when two people declare themselves to be in such a relationship. If they are they are joint owners of marital assets

  4. Black Lemming says:

    Benefit fraud should be restricted to the simultaneous claiming of multiple benefits by one individual or claiming a benefit while in full time work .

    Anything else should be treated as a “disputed over payment” or written out of current policy .

    The entire system is a punitive poverty trap and needs substantial reform to provide fair outcomes.

    Historically people would spend relatively short periods of time unemployed between full time jobs (40 hrs per week) and cope with short periods of debt when unemployed but today the labour market model is entirely different and the WINZ system is out of date and unfair .

    For 3/4 of NZ workers who are now part time, temporary,casual or contract ,(essentially the underemployed) ,they continually cycle on and off the benefit in a precarious week to week existence .They are limited to earning only another $60 a week over the benefit whether they work one day or 3 days or more . If they keep any additional revenue in a grey economy to provide some measure of personal resilience they are dobbed in and deemed criminals.

    Most people in this situation are continually driving into debt to meet the most basic of needs , which in turn contributes to depression and substance abuse .

    Its a real catch 22. Comply with Winz and die a slow death under increased debt or provide minimal extra savings for your family and be deemed a ” criminal .This is not a fair go ,its a poverty trap , its a pool of infinitely flexible low paid workers in an endless and insecure gig economy , which is great for employers and hell for those in it.This needs to change .

    For the vast mass of the “underemployed ” the system needs to evolve to let them keep at least $150 a week to provide a minimum of savings for crisis management . eg: Car WOF, broken washing machine, dental or medical bills .Some minor sense of hope and personal dignity .

    Alot of the underemployed work force will simply never have a full time job again and this will only increase under the continued automation of work .The nature of work has changed , WINZ must change as well and move towards a more equitable welfare policy and eventually a full UBI format. This in turn eliminates the stigma , petty power and persecution of the current system.

    Winz needs serious reform to to provide realistic support for a new age labour markets and needs to stop persecuting and punishing our most vulnerable citizens .

    • Tiger Mountain says:

      vey well put, it is shameful “Stasi” style behaviour from an agency that is meant to provide assistance for people not drive them to the edge of sanity, poverty–and beyond–in some cases

      of course for years now, WINZ/MSD have been a sadistic punishment maze that views its service users as a hostile group, meanwhile PSA members and the neo lib managers rake in good sized salaries for denying people the very assistance they seek

      WINZ should ideally be wound up and “retired”, with the top echelons of managers slapped with a restraint of trade to stop them ever working in the public sector again

    • Sam Sam says:

      I feel blame lies entirely with WINZ themselves over folks using WINZ.

      You want people to stop committing fraud? Then don’t provid the product.

    • Susan St John says:

      spot on

    • Z says:

      Good idea

  5. Jays says:

    Fact is that people will commit fraud if there is little or no risk,of being caught.
    Is the aforementioned process pleasant? No. But it.probably is necessary.
    I would however like to see the right to face your accuser preserved.

  6. WINZ Advocate says:

    In 1997 a full sitting of the Court of Appeal ruled in Ruka v Department of Social Welfare the primary feature of a relationship in the nature of marriage was FINANCIAL INTERDEPENDENCE, or in lay terms, a commitment (actual or willingness) to provide for the other person in the relationship if they could not do so themselves. The emotional commitment is still necessary, but secondary. Ruka completely and fundamentally changed the legal test for a marriage type relationship by primarily looking at financial interdependence which none of the previous judgements of the High Court had.

    The list of things on the Work and Income website under “think about” is what used to be referred to as Fisher’s rules; because they are a list compiled by Justice Fisher in High Court case called Thompson v Department of Social Welfare. He rightly warned they are not to be used as a “checklist” or in “tick the box” style approach.

    I have supported numerous people through relationship investigations with MSD. Their investigators are not well trained and have a poor understanding of the proper legal test for a marriage like relationship. Worse yet, somebody who is prosecuted often gets a legal aid lawyer with no understanding of this area of law and who is just told to plead guilty. I have seen several people who pled guility and they were very likely not. Some of the evidence I have seen MSD rely on is extremely poor and if I had the opportunity to examine the Investigator about I have no doubt it would show they did not know what they were doing, or probably before that, would excluded as inadmissiable.

    The other problem is MSD can charge people under the Crimes Act with dishonestly using a document and the question of whether they were in a relationship in the nature of marriage never comes up in the District Court. The person often by then beleives they were in a relationship because MSD have been on and on at them about it and they just give up and believe it because nobody has properly explained the legal test to them. MSD do not charge people under s 127 of the Social Security Act 1964 which concerns knowningly making a false statement to them because that is much harder to prove.

    This system needs to change desperately; it is so unfair and really almost amounts to misue of judicial process.