Stop sending beneficiary mums to jail - our double standard on debt



Speech on 12 December 2014 at launch of Child Poverty Action Group’s report - The complexities of “relationship” in the welfare system and the consequences for children.

Tena koutou. Talofa lava. Malo e lelei. Welcome.

For me, today and this report are about the mothers on benefits I’ve acted for over the years. These women are doing their best to bring up their children on their own. The women and children have incredibly tough lives. There is never enough money and there is no security about money. Work and Income is extremely powerful and can cut off benefits really quickly if an allegation is made that a woman is not entitled to the benefit. Many of these women are subjected to domestic violence for years and years.  So this report is for  -

  • My client who was beaten and abused by her partner for years. He kicked her in the head several times and as a result she had brain damage. Work and Income decided she’d been in a relationship in the nature of marriage and was not entitled to a benefit. She was assessed as owing a debt of $65,000.  After the Joychild report, which found that Work and Income had not been applying the law properly, she came to meet with me to help her get the debt cancelled. Because, even though the Joychild report said Work and Income had not been following the law, Work and Income didn’t put this right itself. Instead, women had to apply to the department to have their debts cancelled. So, many never, ever had the debts cancelled because they didn’t know about the Joychild report or didn’t know what to do.


  • And this report is for my client who was convinced for two years that she was going to jail for benefit fraud, even though she’d been entitled to a benefit all along. When she ended her relationship, her ex-partner dobbed her in to Work and Income. They said she wasn’t entitled to her benefit and owed $46,000. In some cases, it might be unclear whether a person is entitled to a benefit or not. But this was a really clear case. It was obvious all along that there was no doubt she was entitled to the benefit. But Work and Income wouldn’t listen. They refused to refer the case to their lawyers. The woman had English as a second language. When Work and Income investigators turned up at her house, they asked her whether she lived with the father of her child. She replied “yes” because she didn’t understand a distinction between “lived” and “stayed”. They stayed odd nights at each other’s homes and she thought “stayed” and “lived” meant the same. I explained all this to the investigators and said that there was no relationship in the nature of marriage. But they wouldn’t listen. We had a Benefits Review Committee hearing and the decision that she was not entitled to a benefit was upheld. Then we went to the Social Security Appeal Authority. At that point, Work and Income finally referred the case to their lawyer. He told them that there was no relationship in the nature of marriage and my client was entitled to the benefit. But the case worker and her manager disregarded the lawyer’s advice and insisted on having a hearing at the Social Security Appeal Authority. The Authority held that the woman was entitled to the benefit. Unfortunately, my client was so stressed about what was happening that she saw a counsellor. The counsellor told her she would be going to jail and it didn’t matter how much I told her she wouldn’t be, I couldn’t convince her of that.  So for two years she was absolutely convinced she would be going to jail.


  • And this report is for the woman whose violent ex-partner took her to the cashflow every benefit day and stood over her while she withdrew her benefit money. And then he took it away. Lots of people might ask “Why did she let this happen?” The reason is that, when she was pregnant, he kicked her in the stomach and killed one of her babies. Later, he threatened to do the same thing again. So, after that, all he had to do to control her was say “Remember what I said to you” and they both knew exactly what that meant.  When I first visited this woman at home, she’d just moved into a new flat. She and her mother were really excited about it and said they planned to be there for a long time. The woman showed me around and there was almost no furniture. They didn’t have beds and the family’s clothes were in plastic bags on the floor. I and the community worker from the law centre I worked in went to Monte Cecilia and got a trailer load of furniture and took it to the woman. But the following week I got a call from the landlord to say the rent hadn’t been paid and he didn’t know where my client was. Her violent ex-partner had come round and she and her children had fled. So, not only did they once again have no home, but they also owed money to the landlord.


  • This report is also for a woman whose child was killed by her partner. Her other children were taken away from her. Child Youth and Family told her that it would help to get her children back if she got into a stable relationship. So she started a relationship with a man who later sexually abused her children. Work and Income established a debt of over $100,000 against her. She went to jail for six months and when she came out she still owed more than $100,000. She will never be able to repay that debt in her lifetime. This means that she can never improve her family’s financial position. If she could ever get a job – despite poor health, lack of skills, family commitments and interrupted work experience – her family would be no better off. Because, if she had extra money, Work and Income would immediately increase the amount it takes from her each week in repayment of the “debt.”


I’d like to thank Child Poverty Action Group and particularly Susan St John for researching and publishing this report. I hope that it will lead to change in the way we treat single parents who receive benefits.

At the moment, our approach is incredibly punitive towards these women. Work and Income is obsessed with seeking out alleged fraud and gives little thought to how its actions impact on the children involved.

When mothers are sent to jail, it’s the children who suffer most. These children have already had a bad start in life through coming from families where there is not enough money. They have gone through parental separation, and there is likely to be violence or abuse towards the mother and sometimes the children as well. The family’s housing will be incredibly insecure and they will move multiple times. This is seriously disruptive to the children’s schooling as well as to any sense of security and stability. The lack of money in the family means that the children don’t have enough food, don’t have healthy food and – as we all know – lack basic necessities like raincoats, shoes and money to take part in school activities.

The way in which we vilify and penalise single mothers is in marked contrast to the almost complete lack of attention given to tax avoidance and evasion, the non-payment of child support and so-called white collar crime. The New Zealand economy loses between $6 billion and $9 billion a year from these sources, while benefit fraud is $80 million a year.

At the moment the Inland Revenue Department is owed $9.3 billion by 425,000 people – the debts are taxes, child support and student loans. How often do we see these debtors vilified and their names and photos published in the paper ? It’s a real double standard.

For those of you who don’t know, Work and Income has a unit which investigates allegations of benefit fraud. People can make anonymous tip-offs. This is often done by disgruntled ex-partners. Work and Income seems to give little thought to the motivations of the men who make these allegations. Instead, they rush to take action against the mothers on benefits. The benefit may be cut off and the woman told she has to repay all the past benefit she’s received.

If people want to challenge a decision by Work and Income, they first have to apply for a Benefits Review Committee hearing. My experience is that these are a complete waste of time and almost invariably uphold the original decision. There are three people on the committee and two of them are from Work and Income.  Beneficiaries can’t get Legal Aid for going to the Benefits Review Committee, so most of them have to represent themselves.

If the decision goes against them, they can then go to the Social Security Appeal Authority. They really need a lawyer to help them do this and there are very few lawyers that do this work.

There needs to be an independent review process. Benefits Review Committees should be abolished. People can’t have confidence in reviews when two-thirds of those on the committee are from the department whose decision is being reviewed. Work and Income’s lawyers should also be required to examine files before they go to the review process so that they can hopefully ensure that the correct law is applied to cases at an early stage.

We should also stop sending mothers to jail for so-called benefit fraud.  We need to go back to the original aims of benefits – to support people who need them.  To enable people to live in dignity and to bring up their children to be fully participating and contributing members of society. Sending mothers to jail hugely penalises children. The mother is already a single mother, so who is going to care for the children while she is in jail is hugely problematic. The children may end up in the care of a father who is violent or abusive. He may actually be the reason the woman left the relationship and became a single mother in the first place. Sending the mother to jail will also do huge damage to the relationship between her and the children. It may be irreparably damaged.

At the moment,  we are sending women to jail on the basis of an unclear legal test which is not always properly applied. The Joychild report showed that Work and Income had been wrong in its application of the law about whether or not single parents were entitled to benefits.

We are also punishing these women twice over and treating them far more harshly than other offenders. Usually, the reparation imposed on people convicted of offences is in some way proportionate to their ability to pay. However, with these women, Work and Income seeks to recover the entire debt, regardless of whether or not there is any realistic chance that the woman will be able to repay it in her lifetime. These women have debts of tens of thousands and sometimes more than $100,000 hanging over them for the rest of their lives.

So we need to change policies and laws to state that the maximum amount recoverable by Work and Income is a sum that the woman can realistically repay within five years. We should also require the Chief Executive to take into account the welfare of children when deciding whether or not to recover debts. This should be a primary consideration in making this decision. The Chief Executive has in the past had a discretion as to whether or not to recover the debt, but that was more and more rarely used. Instead, it was largely assumed that the full amount of the debt would always be recovered.  Even worse, a law change earlier this year toughened up the section to place the Chief Executive under a legal duty to recover the debt. We should repeal that law change and instead pass a law saying the debt should only be recovered if repayment will not adversely affect children.

Let’s stop focusing on punishing women and instead make decisions based on the long-term interests of children. What children need is to be with their mothers, having an adequate family income and living in dry, good quality and secure housing. Giving children a good start in life benefits the entire country economically as it makes it far more likely that they will grow up with skills enabling them to sustain jobs and contribute to the community.

Saddling their mothers with life-long debts and wringing $10 or $20 a week out of already impoverished families does the opposite of this.



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