Govt doesn't know how many kids caught up in benefit sanctions

Benedict Collins
Source: 1News

The Government doesn’t know how many children are in the families it is hitting with benefit sanctions or how severely it is punishing those families.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni admits her ministry's inability to gather the data is problematic.

About 5000 parents, disproportionately Māori, have been sanctioned since the start of the pandemic in 2020. 

But, the Ministry for Social Development refused to tell 1News how many children are affected, saying it would have to manually review thousands of files to do so.

Beneficiaries with children can have their income cut by 50 per cent and are most often sanctioned for missing appointments.

The Green Party’s social development spokesperson, Ricardo Menéndez March, said the children have done nothing wrong.

The information he obtained shows hundreds of 18- and 19-year-olds are among the parents being punished. 

“We are leaving young parents and infants without basic essentials through no fault of their own,” March told 1News.

In Christchurch, the Beneficiary Advisory Service’s Tavia Moore said there's no doubt that the children in families being hit by benefit sanctions are being harmed by the Government.  

“Yes definitely, for sure ... we are seeing significant impacts on children,” Moore said.

“There are impacts on what they [their families] were able to afford.

"There was financial hardship, emotional hardship, family hardship it was wide varying in terms of the impacts the sanctions had.”

1News also asked the Ministry of Social Development how long a sanction is kept in place on average when a child, or children, are involved.

"We are not able to provide you with information on the average financial impact on those who are sanctioned, as that information is held on individual client files and not collated centrally," the Ministry said in a statement.

“However, anecdotally, we are informed that the great majority of sanctions are in place for less than two weeks."

Sepuloni pointed out that in 2017, when Labour first came to power, more than 19,000 parents a year were being sanctioned. She said the number has fallen dramatically.

"They aren't applied willy nilly, a manager has to check before a case manager applies a sanction and the massive reduction.

"In fact, I think it's an 85 per cent reduction in sanctions applied since 2017. It is an indication our culture change programme is real," she said.

But, she admits her Ministry's inability to gather data around the children caught up in sanctions isn't ideal. 

"I think with regards to MSD's ability to collect data there are some issues there I've said before the system is slow," she said.

The Greens are also critical of an increase in sanctions in 2021, saying it risks undermining the Government’s vaccination campaign.

Sanctions plummeted last year, after one was removed and a freeze on sanctions was put in place during the 2020 lockdown.

In total, just over 18,408 sanctions were imposed.

In the first nine months of 2021, 18,471 had already been issued.  

“It's cruel and callous to increase sanctions, at a time where we're to build trust with hard-to-reach communities,” March told 1News.

Moore told 1News it’s disappointing the Government is putting extra stress on families with sanctions during a pandemic.

Children's Commissioner Frances Eivers says some of Aotearoa's lowest income homes losing a significant proportion of income was "very concerning, regardless of the reason for the sanctions".

"I will be working with MSD to understand this issue. In the meantime, my office has asked the ministry to clarify how the wellbeing of children is factored into decisions to apply a financial sanction to a beneficiary with the care of children," she said.

"We’ve also asked whether MSD checked on the welfare of children after these sanctions had been applied."

There are fears the sanctions are undermining its own vaccination campaign as the number of beneficiaries being punished starts to rise again.