Work and Income has developed a culture of punishing beneficiaries, in most cases unlawfully.
Recently, a story emerged of Work and Income issuing a sanction on a woman after she went on a couple of Tinder dates in which her date paid for dinner and a movie. After the allegations were raised with Work and Income, they stated the reasoning had been miscommunicated by the case manager, and her benefit had actually been stopped due to allegations she had been living with a partner and had failed to attend two meetings which they had arranged. The beneficiary states she never received any communications from Work and Income regarding either meeting, an investigation, or the upcoming sanction. She also affirmed that she keeps on top of her communications with MSD, and makes sure to keep track of any mail, email and phone calls which come in.
There are standards Work and Income need to meet if they wish to institute a sanction against somebody. The Social Security Act lays out the requirements for notices which must be given prior to the commencement of a sanction. A notice must be given:
(a) stating that the beneficiary has failed to comply with a specified obligation under this Act; and
(b) specifying the nature of that non-compliance; and
(c) stating that, on the basis of that non-compliance, the chief executive is reducing, suspending, or cancelling the benefit payable to the beneficiary; and
(d) specifying a date on which the reduction, suspension, or cancellation is to take effect, and, in the case of a reduction or suspension, the nature and duration of the reduction or suspension; and
(e) stating that the beneficiary has 5 working days from the giving of the notice to dispute the reduction, suspension, or cancellation; and
(f) advising the beneficiary to contact the department if the beneficiary wants to dispute or discuss the decision to reduce or suspend or cancel the benefit; and
(g) containing a clear statement of the beneficiary’s right, under section 10A, to apply for a review of the decision, and of the procedure for applying for a review.
Despite how clear this section of the Act is, I’ve never seen a sanction notice which complies with it. Primarily, sanction notices fail to meet the requirement of subsection (a), which requires the failure to meet an obligation under the Act to be specified. This means a reference to the Act, not a vague description of what the case manager believes to have happened. This is particularly relevant to the Radio NZ article, as Work and Income do not, in the article, specify the sections of the Act which the beneficiary is alleged to have contravened. If they had identified these sections in a notice to her, they would have them easily to hand and would be able to justify the sanction.
However unlawful, this is normal behaviour from Work and Income. I have spent weeks arguing this exact point with Service Managers right across the North Island. Despite their clear contravention of the law, these managers inevitably refuse to lift their unlawful sanctions until the very last minute where the review process requires further investigation by another section of MSD. This refusal results in weeks and weeks of limited or no income for beneficiaries reliant on Work and Income to survive.
When these sanctions are imposed unlawfully, and the decision is overturned, the people responsible for their imposition face no penalty. All that happens is the sanction is reversed, and the beneficiary backpaid. However, in this period typically the person suffering the sanction has had to run up debt, and has incurred further costs as a result of their loss of income.
In order for our social security to be fair, either service centres need to suffer penalties when they break the law, or they need to have the power to issue sanctions removed. While the unchecked ability to issue unfair and unlawful sanctions remains, we will continue to hurt beneficiaries and make life even more difficult for those struggling on already insufficient benefits.