Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Prisoners and benefits

The news that around half of all prisoners are paid benefits (which they are not entitled to) while in prison has (predictably) caused some to froth at the mouth. But while the number is shocking, there's an important piece of data missing that is required for us to judge whether this is in fact incompetance on WINZ's part: the average length of time such benefits were paid for. Without this, we cannot judge whether prisoner's benefits are being swiftly cut off shortly after their incarceration (in which case the data matching system in working), or whether they are being paid for months and months before anybody notices (in which case there is gross incompetence and heads should roll).

As for concerns about the Privacy Act, MSD is simply using the Act as an excuse. The ten day waiting period is not required by the Privacy Act, but by the risk and consequences of a misidentification. And the Act fairly clearly does not prevent data matching between WINZ and Corrections, otherwise we would have no data here at all! Which makes Marc Alexander's complaint a bit of a beat-up; privacy concerns are not the issue, it's the speed of data matching which may be a problem. As for his call for

prisoners who had invalidly received benefits to be made to repay the amounts of money immediately or forfeit assets to that value, where possible

this is (like so many of Alexander's ideas on law and order) simply mindlessly punitive. While criminal conviction justifies a loss of liberty, it's hard to see why it should justify different treatment with regards to debt collection.