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Kathryn's Story highlights need for major welfare overhaul

A new report from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) describes how an innocent mother, still grieving her the killing of her young son at the hands of her ex-partner, was imprisoned for relationship ‘fraud’, and how the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has subsequently hounded her for debt repayment. Fifteen years later, and chronically ill, she is still fighting to clear her name and to stop MSD taking reparations from her Supported Living Payment.

Kathryn’s Story: How the Government spent well over $100,000 and 15 years pursuing a chronically-ill beneficiary mother for a debt she should not have, written by barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan was launched on Friday 1st July at the Auckland Women’s Centre.

Kathryn’s Story builds on CPAG’s work around relationship status as defined in the welfare system, published in the 2014 report The complexities of "relationship" in the welfare system and the consequences for children.

"One the key purposes of Kathryn’s Story is to inform and educate those in positions of power about the contexts of the lives of many defenceless women who may fall foul of the system used to establish relationship fraud," says CPAG spokesperson, Associate Professor Susan St John.

CPAG is calling for a broad review of the use of a 'couple' as the unit for determining welfare support, as well as a major shift in attitude towards beneficiaries and sole parents by policy makers, so that relationship fraud convictions of sole parents become a thing of the past.

"A parent who flats with another person may be in a very similar financial situation to one who is living with someone in a 'relationship'. It is difficult to justify a policy that pays less to a couple than to two individuals who share accommodation and costs.

"For sole parents this is a particularly difficult area to navigate. It must not be assumed that a new partner is automatically providing financial support for either her or her children," says St John.

"A complete overhaul of policy is required. As far as practicable, all standard welfare benefits should be on an individual basis; the Government should keep out of the bedrooms of the nation."

The case study also draws attention to the punitive approach to reparations that apply in the welfare system. Kathryn’s treatment is in sharp contrast to that for white collar tax evasion, which has been well documented by recent Victoria University research.

To reflect the changed nature of relationships in the 21st century CPAG recommends that the Ministry of Social Development policies are redesigned to:

 

  • Acknowledge the contradictory, confused nature of the relationship definitions throughout the system and their potential to negatively affect the well-being of children.
  • Remove distinctions in rates based on marital status and progressively move the benefit system to an individually-based entitlement.
  • Consciously prioritise children's needs in policy development of any kind that impacts directly or indirectly on children’s well-being.
  • Review the intrusive and stressful nature of the investigative process for ‘relationship fraud’ and the activities of the National Fraud Investigation Unit.
  • Abolish Benefits Review Committee and establish an independent review process and provide beneficiaries with legal aid so that a lawyer can assist them in preparing their cases.
  • Write into law a ban on sentencing mothers with dependent children under 20 to jail following conviction for relationship fraud.Require any debt to be a real loss to the state from over-payment or alleged fraud by taking full account of entitlements that would otherwise have been paid.
  • Provide an independent expert review in an open process of the amount of debt so established.

The full report: Kathryn’s Story: How the Government spent well over $100,000 and 15 years pursuing a chronically-ill beneficiary mother for a debt she should not have is available for download here.