Monday, May 18, 2015

A state of terror

A study by Canterbury Community Law has confirmed what we all knew: beneficiaries are terrified of WINZ:

New Zealand's social welfare system "dehumanises" people in need, with beneficiaries described as "scared stiff" of Work and Income case managers, a report says.

A Canterbury Community Law (CCL) investigation, which looked at access to justice for beneficiaries, said beneficiaries felt they were treated as "non-humans" by Work and Income – not even allowed access to toilets during lengthy waits at offices.

Fear was at a level where people were forgoing entitlements from Work and Income, instead going to non-government organisation's food banks, or the Mayor's Welfare Fund because of previous negative experiences, the report said.

Morally, this is simply wrong. It is wrong for public servants to treat those they are meant to be looking out for as subhuman. It is wrong to deny people the basic dignity of access to toilets or a private place to discuss their personal business. Workers at WINZ who do these things should be ashamed of themselves, as should managers who permit such treatment. They are failing to live up to the moral standards we expect from our public service.

Legally, treating people this way is arguably discrimination on the basis of employment status, which is unlawful under the Human Rights Act.

And policywise, when people are too terrified to claim the assistance they are entitled to, then the system is not working (though it probably does wonders for their budget - yay, more trips to expensive resorts for WINZ bureaucrats!).

WINZ needs a culture change, so that it treats people with dignity, and so that it is seen as a source of assistance rather than terror. But that's difficult when successive Ministers have made it very clear that they see beneficiaries as subhumans with no privacy rights. The change is going to have to come from the top. And that means changing the government. Sadly, I'm not sure that "starve the poor if they don't vote for us" Labour would be much better.