19th Century thinking about relationships — how we hate the poor

First published on The Daily Blog March 20, 2014

Oh my, watching parliament is not good for the soul. The nasty bill on relationship fraud passed its second reading Tuesday night. Only the Greens, Mana and Maori Parties could see its damaging consequences and voted against it. Labour tried to have it both ways: railing against the stigmatising effect it will have for the most vulnerable who often don’t have enough money to look after their children, at the same time as trying to not to look soft on crime.

Their support gives rise to the suspicion that their heart is not in opposing the harsh welfare stance of National.  Were they listening when their leader said “Scrap it” in response to this question from Gordon Campbell?

I haven’t asked about your welfare policy, so I’ll make it specific. We all oppose fraud. Does Labour oppose the government’s new welfare fraud policy whereby the partners of welfare fraudsters will be criminally liable for the fraud, and for the repayment of the entire amount – and not simply for the amount from which they might have indirectly benefited.  If re-elected will Labour retain this provision or scrap it?

So called ‘Relationship Fraud’ is in a quite different category to actual benefit fraud, such as for example use of multiple names to access benefits, or deliberately accessing a benefit once in full-time work. In Chester Borrow’s words:

This bill deals with one particularly troubling aspect of welfare fraud, which we refer to as relationship fraud. Relationship fraud is when someone is receiving a benefit that is dependent on them being single, such as a sole parent support—the old DPB—yet they are in a marriage-type relationship. In this case, their relationship is not simply part of their private life; they are being given money by the taxpayer based on that fact. By failing in their obligations to tell the Ministry of Social Development or even lying to hide their relationship, they continue to receive money that they are not entitled to. The reality of this offending is that it can occur only when the partner is present, but it takes two to tango. The current law means that the beneficiary, usually the woman, is held accountable for her fraud, while the partner often gets off scot-free. We say this is wrong. This bill will create a new offence to hold those partners to account.

The National line has been pious and disingenuous:

 In 2013 relationship offending cost the taxpayer $26 million. That $26 million could have been spent on our most vulnerable families who are in genuine need of assistance. 

Given how complicated the legal test is for “relationship in the nature of marriage” and how it is often incorrectly applied by Work and Income, and how often the alleged debt is overstated, the $26 million figure is highly disputable, small though it is. And then, how hard is it to imagine government actually divvying up any savings for the benefit of the poor?

The fact is that policy has been operating over many years to impose severe penalties on women on the DPB accused of so-called ‘relationship fraud’. Women may be deemed to in a relationship even when that relationship has provided little or no financial support, and/or the relationship is irregular or unstable.

Decisions have led to situations in which primary caregivers, almost exclusively women, have been charged with ‘relationship fraud’, served custodial sentences and become separated from their children, wider family and whanau, with associated disruption to their children’s lives and on-going distress.

Mothers may emerge from prison with large debts that are not forgiven even in cases of extreme hardship. In large part, the media have failed to investigate and report these cases, or to highlight the harm to the children that can result from incarceration of  their primary caregiver, her subsequent debt and diminished income.

The Opposition in the debate pointed to tax evasion as a bigger problem and more worthy of attention.  Of course tax evasion is a huge problem, but the real issue is that pursuing relationship fraud as this bill intends is plain wrong.

The Bill gives the message is that the treatment doled out to women has been justified all along.  The Opposition got side-tracked into arguing that if it applied to someone on a benefit it ought to be extended to the spouses in white collar fraud cases.

Logical maybe but unhelpful! The film ‘Blue Jasmine’ highlighted how women can be complicit in living the lifestyle afforded by the ill-gotten gains of their husbands. But to criminalise them could make marriage extremely dangerous for women who have little or no control over or understanding of what their husbands do.  Note the gender implications: it is no accident that all the rogues in the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ are men.

So let’s see how ‘relationship benefit fraud’ might arise.  The underlying premise seems to be that a couple collude in pretending they are separate so she can access the DPB. Immediately of course, she comes under pressures to work and the intense scrutiny of WINZ. He becomes liable for child support, but that goes to WINZ not the mother. She loses the ‘In Work Tax Credit’ for her children. Then if he moves out to keep the pretence, there are additional housing costs. They may be marginally better off but at considerable cost of privacy. Few,if any couples would be this calculating or take the risks of this approach.

A second situation may arise when both are unemployed or sick with children and get only the married person rate. Their income is impossibly low. They would be somewhat better off with a sole parent benefit and a single unemployment benefit and for the sake of their survival and their children may try this route.  In the 19th century parents could be sent out to Australia as convicts for stealing a loaf of bread for their children. This bill would fine them $5000 or jail them for a year. Such is progress!

The “villains” that Chester Borrows is actually hounding are described in an impassioned speech from the former  Families Commissioner Dr Rajen Prasad,

… if you are a person who is dependent on a benefit and have children, you virtually have no right to have relationships. … If a person is a sole parent who has children and who is doing their best forms a friendship with somebody, they might see that person a few times a week, and then that may develop over a 4 or 5-month period into something a little bit more than that—maybe visits to the home. In another 3 or 4 months’ time there may even be a night that that person might spend at the home of the person who is on a benefit.

At what point does that become a relationship for which the other person—the person not on a benefit—is then responsible financially? At what point does that happen? This happens in the glare of public life. If you live in a neighbourhood that is hawkish about others, and if you have people who are hawkish about a particular person, then this creates an environment in which those bringing up our children in vulnerable environments, vulnerable situations, and who are dependent on limited State funding are really made more vulnerable by these kinds of provisions.

Let’s hope Labour has a rethink about their support for the bill. Fundamentally it sidesteps the real issue: whether or not a relationship in the nature of marriage exists is far from a black and white exercise. Burrow’s bill makes the potential for harm worse because it does not question the underlying premise that women are and should be dependent on men.

In the 21st century, fluid relationships, same sex relationships, living longer with multiple partners or extended periods on one’s own, make the married/single distinction ludicrous. The tax system treats the individual as an individual, as does ACC, and NZ Super even though it has old fashioned different rates based on marital status. Paid Parental leave is another example. It is past the time we began to do the same in the benefit system instead of widening the net of control, harassment and fear.