• Roger Sowry
Social Services, Work and Income


Thank you Margaret.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests.

Firstly Id like to extend a warm welcome to our visitors from overseas. It is good to see so many leading welfare experts from other countries willing to come so far to share their ideas.

It is a great pleasure to be opening this international Beyond Dependency conference today but unfortunate that my commitments as Minister of Social Welfare will keep me from attending most of it. However, I look forward to meeting with those of you who are visiting Wellington next week.

Internationally New Zealand staked its claim to be a social leader late in the 19th century when in 1898 the Government of the day passed the Old Age Pensions Act. It provided for pensions to be paid by the state to over 65 year olds, the first country in the world to provide a state funded pensions scheme of this nature. For the first time there was recognition of the principle of state responsibility for the relief of hardship in society.

New Zealands moves to provide state help to those unable to help themselves, significantly changed in the late 1930s.

Substantial legislative changes were made to enable programmes which provided for people who were unable to provide for themselves.

The last major review of our social security system in 1972, clearly endorsed the principles and framework of the 1938 legislation. Unfortunately the review did not address the issue of long term dependency.

Ironically almost immediately after the report was tabled, New Zealands economic situation and terms of trade began to deteriorate dramatically, fuelling the increasing numbers becoming dependent on welfare.

The architects of the welfare state clearly saw the existence of work as the primary way of maintaining living standards.

If the legislators of the original scheme were alive today they would be horrified at the pace of its growth and that for a small and persistent minority of welfare recipients, dependency has become a way of life.

In the year to June 1996 despite 62,000 more people in the workforce, benefit numbers had risen by 2,000.

Between 1991 and 1996, the number of unemployment beneficiaries fell by 12%.

Domestic purposes beneficiaries rose by 11%.

Numbers of sickness beneficiaries rose by a staggering 68%. And invalid beneficiary numbers rose by an equally staggering 44%.

So that by last year 21% of working age people were dependent on a benefit.

This compares to just 8% in 1985.

Many countries in the western world face common social problems.

In our cities and rural communities there are signs of multi-generational welfare dependency taking hold. Yet it is estimated that no more than 5% of New Zealand families are severely at risk. In other words we still have an opportunity to turn our social problems around.

We are making progress.

With some of our initiatives like Compass for sole parents, Boost for 16 to 17 year olds and customised service we are leading the world.

Every customer - over 300,000 New Zealanders - is allocated an individual staff member who is responsible for that person.

This benefits everyone.

The customer is better informed about entitlements, they have one person to contact with queries and they have a greater access to education, training and employment services.

The staff member can find out what the customers dreams and aspirations are and help the customer achieve them.

There is also a reduced need for emergency benefit payments and less debt creation and benefit crime.

These programmes together with the overarching welfare to well-being strategy and our focus on giving people a hand up not a hand out are changing the face of welfare in New Zealand. But we must remain open to new ideas. New ideas that have been proven to work in other countries. This does not mean that we will transplant ideas to New Zealand. We can look to other countries for a lead but ultimately our programmes must be designed by New Zealanders for New Zealanders. We can also avoid reinventing the wheel if we take opportunities like this conference to share information.

Over the next three days a menu of choices will hopefully emerge from this conference, a menu from which each country represented at the conference can pick and choose, adapt, accept or reject. If it does no more than kick start a flow of innovative suggestions from a variety of sectors it will have achieved a great deal.

I look forward to hearing the results of honest, vigorous and wide ranging debate and to an abundance of possible solutions to what is surely one of the greatest challenges facing countries like New Zealand as we near the new millennium.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to New Zealand and I am pleased to announce the international Beyond Dependency conference open.