• Roger Sowry
Social Services, Work and Income

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Dominion President David Cox, National President of the Returned and services League of Australia Major General Phillips, returned servicemen, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this 82nd Dominion Council meeting today.

As you know from October 1 this year Income Support and the Employment Service and the Community Employment Group are merging to create a one-stop-shop where New Zealanders will be able to access all their employment and income support services.

War Pensions will also become part of this merger so that from 1 October this year all war pensions queries and processing will be handled by the new agency.

War and Veteran's pension payments will not be affected by this change.

The most visible difference will be that instead of having separate Income Support and Employment Service offices in the same town, there will just be one single agency offering a better and more comprehensive service primarily to our clients.

War Pension applications may be lodged at any of the new agency shop front offices.

Income Support has undergone a revolution in welfare delivery in recent years, with one aspect being the establishment of free-phone call centres in five areas around the country to take the load off the front line staff in the offices so they have more time to meet with customers.

These call centres are making a huge difference to people who want to get their questions answered quickly over the phone without the need to come into an Income Support office.

Technology is enabling many businesses like banks and Income Support to offer such efficient services which mean that customers like many of you can phone up a freephone number from the comfort of your own home and get you queries answered quickly.

I am aware that currently these call centres offer very limited services to War Pensioners and we intend to do whatever we can to make using the toll-free call system as user-friendly as possible for War Pensioners and those with War Pension queries.

I have asked the Department to investigate the possibility of setting up an 0800 number which is dedicated solely to War Pensions. Such a dedicated 0800 number would be staffed by War Pensions experts who would handle everything to do with War Pensions from initial queries to entitlements, to informing callers about the application process right through to making appointments for you with your local customer services officer at Income Support.

The purpose of such a set up would be to modify the current process to position War Pensions for the future by ensuring that customers like yourselves are getting an efficient and consistent and informative service both now and in the years to come.

Government welfare delivery agencies are working to make sure it is as easy as possible for people to ask for help and find out their entitlement and have any queries answered, and these call centres are part of making sure that it is as easy and convenient as possible for people to be informed.

Historically a good relationship has existed between the RSA and War Pensions which I think is a testament to both parties wanting to work constructively together.

The claims panel decision making process is confirmation of such cooperation and is much envied by other countries.

I know that you have a particularly good working relationship with War Pensions Manager Margaret Faulkner and I would like to thank her for the commitment she makes in her role to liaise with veterans' groups like the RSA to ensure they are well informed.

This need for this good working relationship was made evident earlier in the year with the Government's announcement that full access to war pensions be given to nuclear test veterans who were engaged in "Operation Grapple".

This British hydrogen bomb testing programme at Malden and Christmas Island in 1957 and 1958 involved New Zealand sailors, some as young as 17. They were exposed to considerable risk from nuclear fall-out while observing detonations, and it was only fitting that we recognised the sacrifice these veterans made while serving their country.

Both the Nuclear Test Veterans Association and the Government agreed that the risks of Operation Grapple could not be considered a normal peacetime activity.

I am very pleased that both parties could progress an issue that I know means a great deal to the veterans who served during this time.

Uppermost in veteran's minds recently has been the Vietnam remembered parade to acknowledge the sacrifices that New Zealand servicemen made for their country over 30 years ago. The Prime Minister called for our respectful recognition and support for those veterans and called the parade a time for reconciliation and understanding to positively recognise the contribution of those men and women who answered their Government's call to serve in Vietnam.

This parade is also a time to satisfy ourselves that the veterans and their families are well cared for. While New Zealand Vietnam Veterans have had full access to war pensions since they returned from the war, but there remains one area of uncertainty and that is the question of any flow-on effects in relation to the children of veterans who are currently not specifically recognised or covered. The Prime Minister repeated yesterday that she believed it would be appropriate for this Government to consider whether the use of defoliants in Vietnam has left any residue in the children of those who served there.

The Government has begun to consider the case for a review of veterans claims of children's disabilities, and that whatever is concluded the Government will not stand aside from the issue.

While I am here today speaking with my Minister in Charge of War Pensions hat on, as the Associate Minister of Health responsible for drug and alcohol policy, and the Minister of Social Welfare with responsibility for the Children, Young Person and their Families Service, and I have a keen interest in the health and welfare of our young New Zealanders.

So it is with a great deal of gratitude that I acknowledge the RSA's interest in the well being of the young people of New Zealand, and its support for the Life Education Trust.

I agree with the RSA's remarks in this year's annual report that it is a sad commentary on our society that drug and substance abuse is now affecting children at younger and younger ages.

I wholeheartedly commend your support back in 1990 to fund a mobile classroom for the Life Education Trust in its fight to combat drug abuse by children, and again last year to fund another mobile classroom so the Trust could ensure its message reached more children than ever before.

That is on a national level, but I also know that in addition local RSA's all around the country help with running expenses to assist other organisations who have funded mobile classrooms in their region.

The Trust with help from the RSA is committed to reaching out to both parents and children with an educational message to help prevent drug and substance abuse.

This support means that Life Education is able to take its message further to young people that they have a choice in the way they live. And as we all know it is their choice that will shape the future of our society.

Commitment today by groups like the RSA will result in a solid investment in tomorrow for our children in all our communities, an investment that will not result in a financial, measurable return but an intangible return - safer and stronger communities.