Last week I spoke to the second reading of the Social Security Amendment Bill. This bill imposes serious sanctions for failing to comply with what the bill terms ‘social obligations.’
The Green Party is strongly opposing these changes, which it believes will have a negative impact on vulnerable people, cause children harm — and undermine the core principles that social security is based on.
These principles say the State will provide an economic safety net to people who are not able to access economic independence, either permanently or temporarily.
As a mother of three children who was closely involved in their education from an early age, I am very concerned by the assumption in the bill that all children are better off in early childhood education centres for at least 15 hours a week from the age of three. While it is true that many children do well in early childhood education, it is not necessarily a viable option for all children.
Some children not ready for early education
A parent may have a child who, for whatever reason, is simply not ready to attend early childhood education for 15 hours a week. It may be that their child has a disability. It may be that their child has poor health, or because they cannot find a centre that will meet the social and cultural needs of their child.
The bill means parents and caregivers on benefits will be coerced into adopting specific parenting practices, such as putting their children into early childhood education , even when it is not in their child’s best interests.
Although some changes have been made at select committee to allow approved home-based early education programmes, this is still a huge hoop parents should not have to jump through just because they are receiving a benefit.
Mother cannot get help for high-needs children
Recently a parent on a benefit with two pre-school children with very high needs contacted me because she cannot find a centre willing to take both on together for more than 9 hours a week and is very stressed.
It is also clearly counter-productive to enforce such “social obligations” by imposing financial sanctions on families already struggling to make ends meet, by cutting their benefits by up to 50%.
As Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei highlighted in the House last week , the Ministry of Health strongly urged Paula Bennett (Minister for Social Development) to remove these provisions from the bill because they will cause children harm. It is unbelievable that Paula Bennett has chosen to ignore this advice.
UK experience highlights dangers
Overseas in the UK there are many stories coming out of the huge suffering caused by the punitive sanctions approach, resulting in people plunging into a downwards spiral and being forced to steal food just to survive. It has failed there and it will fail here.
The other major area of concern I have with this bill is how it will impact on disabled people and those with chronic illnesses and mental health illnesses.
The reality is that in New Zealand there are many people with disabilities who want to work and who have tried for years and years to get suitable employment yet cannot get a foot in the door due to a combination of systematic barriers, negative attitudes around disability, and assumptions about what disabled people can or cannot do.
While the Government is busy working on punitive sanctions for those on a benefit the Government’s flagship programme supporting people with disabilities into work has been suspended due to a funding shortfall.
Placing yet more obligations on vulnerable people to look for work and be work-ready without first addressing these systematic barriers is cruel and ignores the reality of the barriers to employment that disabled people face, no matter how hard they try or how work-ready they are.
The fact programs that actually help people with disabilities into employment have not received increased funding while at the same time placing more pressures on people on benefits is a sad indictment on the current Government’s thinking on welfare.