Minister defends welfare reforms

Unemployed graduates will get less help from Work and Income, and sole parents and sick people will get more, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says.

Ms Bennett interrupted her honeymoon, after getting married last weekend, to deliver a passionate defence of her welfare reforms at a Council of Christian Social Services conference in Auckland on Thursday.

She said a welfare system that was designed as a backstop for a few had become a "mammoth beast" with 220,000 children growing up in families on welfare and more than 30,000 women on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) who had first received benefits as teenagers.

Reforms announced in February will make about 93,000 people on a new sole parent support benefit look for part-time work when their youngest child turns 5, and move a further 20,000 off DPB or widow's benefits on to Jobseeker Support with fulltime job search requirements, because they have no children under 14.

A further 58,000 people now on sickness benefits will also be moved on to Jobseeker Support and required to look for work "according to their capability".

The only working-aged beneficiaries who will not have to look for work or training are about 84,000 on invalid's benefits and 7500 on the DPB to care for sick or infirm relatives.

"We spend more on helping an unemployed graduate find a job than we do on someone who is sick, disabled or has a child," she said. "We need to distribute those funds more fairly."

She said the new system would not punish people who could not find jobs.

"If someone can't find a job, their benefits will not be cut. We are merely asking people to be available to work and actively out there looking."

But sole parents would no longer be able to "reset the clock" and stay on a benefit for another 18 years just by having another baby, as 29% of parents on the DPB had done.

Challenged by a delegate who asked where the jobs for sole parents and the sick were, Ms Bennett pointed to falling unemployment benefit rolls and rising job vacancies advertised online.

Unemployment benefit numbers dropped by 6461 (10.8%) in the year to March 31, partly because since September 2010, Work and Income has made everyone on the benefit reapply for their benefits after a year.

Work and Income boss Janet Grossman told the conference: "You'd be surprised how many people, in reapplying, their circumstances have changed so much they didn't require a benefit."

The Labour Department's trend index of jobs advertised online rose by 8.6% in the year to March, but this was mainly because of a 59% rise in vacancies for skilled jobs in Canterbury.

Skilled-vacancy advertising dropped 4% in Auckland and 10% in Wellington.


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