KAPITI COAST ENTERPRISE TRUST BREAKFAST

  • Roger Sowry
Social Services, Work and Income

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
Its good to be delivering my first speech as Minister of Social Welfare to a Kapiti audience.

A few weeks into my term as Minister of Social Welfare I released the Social Welfare Briefing Papers to the public.
Written before last years election, their purpose was to give the incoming government a clear picture of the entire department, its purpose, structure, initiatives and its direction.

Information they contained was a wake up call for New Zealand.
Some of the statistics were startling.
Some of the programmes were exciting.
Indeed with some of our initiatives we are leading the world.

Let me start today by briefly giving you an outline of the Social Welfare Department. This year the Department will consume 11 billion dollars of your taxes.
That is about 33% of the total tax take. The vast majority of this, some 10 billion goes to welfare benefits and superannuation.
180 million goes to the running of Children, Young Persons & Their Families Service.
The Community Funding Agency spends around 110 million on voluntary agencies and the not-for-profit sector. They provide a range of services from anti-violence programmes to counselling services and full residential programmes for Children and Young Persons in need of care and protection.

The stand alone social policy agency and computer agency TRITEC add to the department which is all administered by corporate office.
Total staff number around 6,000 full time equivalents.

But more important than these statistics was the information outlined in the briefing papers.
They show that New Zealand is facing severe social policy problems as benefit numbers continue to rise in the face of record economic growth.

In the year ending June 1996, our strong economy saw 62,000 more people employed but only 5,000 fewer on unemployment benefits, and an extra 7,000 on other benefits.

Put simply, 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.

There were also some alarming facts about our children.

30% of New Zealand children (some 268,000) live in benefit-dependent families compared to only 12% in 1985.
76% of beneficiary children live in sole-parent families.
Current forecasts show that numbers on domestic purposes benefit will outstrip numbers on the unemployment benefit before the year 2000.

Intergenerational welfare dependency is now a real problem for New Zealand. We have families who are into their third generation of welfare dependency.
High levels of dependency have the potential to undermine the social and economic fabric of New Zealand.
Long term and intergenerational dependency add stress to peoples lives and contribute to social problems such as child abuse, domestic violence, youth offending, poor health and low educational attainment.

To turn these statistics around requires a determined effort from government and from communities. The entire focus of Social Welfare and all its agencies has shifted from a hand out to a handup philosophy, coupled with the Welfare to Well-Being strategy which aims to break the cycles of welfare dependency.
Breaking cycles of welfare dependency can not be done by just one agency. We need to inform New Zealanders of the problem we face and mobilise New Zealand to combat it.

The Government launched a Welfare to Wellbeing programme in 1994 aimed at doing just that. The concept forges partnerships between the Department and organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors and aims to see us developing and nurturing families which raise children who are physically and socially healthy.

It aims for young people to develop into self-reliant adults, older people to retain their independence, and communities which provide a supportive environment so that everyone can maximise their potential.

The government focus on giving people a hand up not a hand out and encouraging people to move to self reliance does not mean the state is cutting its support.
I believe there will always be a need for the state to provide a safety net for those New Zealanders who need it.
What we want to see in return is people accessing the programmes and services we offer so they can improve their lives.
The old cliche of giving someone a fish, or giving them a rod to fish with, still applies today.

The group we are targeting most are the 5% of families trapped in a cycle of dependency.
My message to those families is this: yes the state will look after you, but we want something in return.
We can give you encouragement and assistance to gain the skills you need to help yourself.

Social Welfare initiatives like one-to-one service and Compass are helping to break the welfare dependency cycle.

One of the most basic and positive ways the department is doing this is with one-to-one service.
Every customer - a person receiving a benefit - 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.

Societys expectations have changed.
We are now more accepting of sole parents, we have different family structures and the traditional support bases for families has changed compared to previous generations.

Parenting is an area which has a impact on a childs life and future development.
Good parenting can mean the difference between a positive, sociable child that finishes high school and a truant child who gets into juvenile offending during the day, doesnt finish high school and is at risk of moving into adult offending.
But there is no handbook to good parenting, and no single school of thought on what is right and what is wrong.

The Department has been very proactive in establishing a number of pilot projects around the country to help parents.
The COMPASS programme targets sole parents.
At the end of the fist pilot, 71% of parents on the programme had been helped by Social Welfare into education, training or employment.
Customers who have been on the programme talk about the difference it has made to them and to the lives of their children. These parents are better informed about the choices available to them, they have access to networks they never knew existed, are setting goals and moving towards self-sufficiency.

The Coalition Governments commitment to helping families is set down in the Coalition agreement.
We are developing a major strategy called strengthening families.
It is an interdepartmental strategy across the welfare, health and education sectors and stems from the philosophy that families are the best institution to care for and make decisions for their children.
The ministers of health and education are very supportive of the strategy and the CEOs of all three departments are already working together on the project.
It makes sense for these sectors to integrate and work to common goals.
Many of the children and families that come to DSW for help also use a number of other agencies, particularly health and education.

Truancy is one issue that crosses over both Police, Education and Social Welfare.
Hamilton city has a very effective programme run by the Hamilton Truancy Service which I visited last month.
It was set up in response to the increasing relationship between juvenile daytime offending and young people not attending school.
The service is made up of Police, truancy coordinators and volunteer attendance officers. They work in conjunction with Hamilton schools to track down absent pupils and return them to school.
The service relies on voluntary officers to carry out the key functions.
They work mainly with 14 and 15 year olds but the frightening discovery was the fact that around a third of the cases they detected involved five to eight year olds.
That group is not strictly truanting but often kept at home by their parents because there is not enough money for school trips, shoes or lunches.

Social workers in schools is another trial initiative having some success. I recently visited Penrose High School where the Children Young Persons and their Families Service (or CYPFS) had placed a social worker.
The benefits have been better liaison between the school and CYPFS and much earlier intervention in problems.
What we have found is that families are more likely to accept social worker help through the school than directly through CYPFS.
The social worker at the school I visited had reduced the liaison work for senior teachers dealing with problem children. And the school was obviously happy as the teachers are able to get back to their core business of teaching.

These measures will help us to build a fence at the top of the cliff rather than being the ambulance at the bottom of it.
One set of family home caregivers I met in Auckland told me that they see themselves as being like a bandage - helping children who then go back to difficult situations.
With education, encouragement and good information networks we can begin to change those situations.
It will not happen overnight.
It will not happen in three years.
It takes time to undo patterns entrenched through generations, but with determination and coordination with our communities I believe we can make some positive changes and make a difference.

Change will not be welcomed by all however.
We have made changes to toughen the eligibility criteria for sickness and invalid benefits after a huge increase in numbers.
In April 1980 there were only 23,000 people receiving these benefits.
In June 1990 this had risen to 47,000.
Currently 75,000 people receive sickness or invalids benefits.
After a review in 1995 changes were implemented to make it tougher for people to buck the system. These included designating doctors to reassess claims and a shorter duration for medical certificates for the sickness benefit.

On April 1 this year, Income Support and the Employment Service will bring in changes to work testing for benefits.
The changes affect spouses of unemployment beneficiaries, and people on widows or Domestic Purposes Benefits.
This means that if you are the partner of someone on the unemployment benefit and you have no children or your youngest child is 14 years or older, you will have to register with the New Zealand Employment Service and be actively seeking work.
It is a similar situation if you are on a DPB or Widows benefit. If your youngest child is 14 years or older you must be seeking part-time work and/or training for at least 15 hours per week.
If your youngest child is aged between seven and 13 years, you must come into Income Support each year for a planning meeting with your customer services officer.

Tougher criteria for benefits, targeted programmes to encourage people off benefits, the Coalitions strengthening families initiative, and work testing to move people back into work or training are ways in which the government will slowly but surely reduce the Social Welfare statistics I detailed earlier.

Social Welfares priority must be to improve peoples lives.
We want to make sure that people in receipt of a benefit have, and acknowledge, their responsibility to society.
This does not mean that beneficiaries arent good parents or citizens.
The vast majority of them are.
Any welfare reform must also recognise that just because people are on a benefit doesnt mean they dont have dreams and aspirations.

Our job is to enable them to reach out and fulfil them.

Thank you.