A group of the country’s leading frontline beneficiary and child rights organisations are calling for a select committee inquiry into what they dub the “demeaning and inhumane” processes and culture at the Ministry of Social Development’s service delivery arm, Work and Income New Zealand. 

The group says systemic under-delivery of services, inconsistent rules, insufficient staff training and a culture that punishes and demeans those in desperate need leaves people struggling to access timely and appropriate assistance. The group has written to the chair of the Social Services and Community Select Committee Angie Warren-Clark calling for an urgent select committee inquiry.

“As a society that values compassion and justice, we have a collective responsibility to reduce poverty by ensuring our welfare system is delivering fair, decent and timely support to those who need it,” the letter states. 

“Anyone who needs support from MSD should be able to expect to be treated with dignity and have their rights upheld in all interactions they have.” 

One example included a young man who was told he didn’t qualify for emergency housing or a benefit but not told why. The man, who had been living on the streets for three weeks before going into the office to apply for help, was sent back on to the streets with no information where he stayed for several months. He now works to help others access assistance.  

One of the 13 organisations to sign the letter, the Citizens Advice Bureau, says their branches see around 6000 New Zealanders annually looking for help to navigate Work and Income’s inconsistent rules and advice, with close to 30% of the work involving intervening on a client’s behalf. 

“We see many people struggling to understand what help is available and WINZ staff are not always proactive in helping people access the support they should be getting,” CAB Acting Chief Executive Andrew Hubbard says. 

“This would be tragic in normal times, but with the added stress of Covid lockdowns and job losses, it’s a failure we cannot allow to continue.”

Save the Children New Zealand’s Advocacy and Research Director Jacqui Southey says that while some changes have been made at the Minister's direction since 2018, the system remains fraught with confusion, stress and negative interactions. 

“As well as needing to urgently increase the resources that are available to families and whānau to liveable levels, it’s vital that the way the resources are delivered is in a fair and timely manner, upholding the dignity and mana of everyone seeking help. Nearly three years on from the 2019 Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations designed at restoring dignity to social security in Aotearoa, some whānau are still facing the same problems and hurdles when trying to access support.” 

The group hopes that through a select committee review, a fit-for-purpose welfare system could be built in order to meet the needs of all New Zealanders, one that would be responsive in times of crisis, such as Covid.