When is MSD going to give up its damaging and arcane views towards sole mothers who repartner?

When Wendy Shoebridge died in 2011 after a benefit fraud investigator issued her an ill-advised prosecution notice for being in an undeclared relationship - probably in order to fill his quota - the results of the subsequent coroner’s inquiry has the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) attempting to improve its processes.

The Ministry acted according to a zero-fraud tolerance rule and regardless of a fraud investigator’s knowledge that Wendy was a suicide risk, although the manager in charge denied this was the case. The coroner’s inquest concentrated on Wendy’s mental health history and who had knowledge of whether she was suicidal or not, and how the prosecution related to her cause of death.

But what the coroner didn’t find out was whether Wendy should have been considered to have committed fraud in the first place. She didn’t pick up the fundamental flaws in the ministry’s definitions of ‘relationship’ that led Wendy to land the debt to start with.

Let’s just consider for one moment if it was the stress of poverty and uncertainty of income that severely impacted on Wendy’s mental health in the first place.

Is the Ministry of Social Development going to be held accountable for that?

It took for a woman to die, and an inquest costing nearly $300,000 - a cost to the Government that far outweighed any benefits to prosecuting Wendy - for them to admit they should sharpen up their processes. It’s worth noting too, that after Wendy’s death the amount alleged fraud of $22,000 was reduced to to $5000, and then to nothing.

I’m not condoning fraud, don’t get me wrong. Fraud is illegal. Too many people get away with fraud in this country. But fraud has to have realistic grounds for prosecution, and my argument is that the grounds the MSD uses to prosecute for fraud are not realistic.

Should sole parents who are fighting just to get by, and to raise healthy children, really be considered fraudulent, if all that’s happened is they started a new relationship, and possibly shared some bills? Maybe they didn’t even share bills. If the rules were changed to allow sole parents financial independence, such prosecutions may have never occurred.

Benefit fraud is not uncommon. Between 600-900 beneficiaries are prosecuted for fraud yearly, while their rich, sophisticated tax-evading counterparts go free on charges they managed to skirt.

One so-called crime is about survival. The other - the real crime - is just damn cheek. But our systems turn the other (or privilege the fancy lawyers) while punishing parents who are in serious hardship. This punishment is a double-edged knife with the harm done to the children.

A grandmother has just gone to prison (a sentence of 2 years 7 months) for having an on-off relationship for years while supporting extended whanau. At the time of her prosecution, she was sole caregiver of a young child. The judge said that she was wrong, and must do her time. All this does is drive home how little we care about those who are on the side of the fence we don’t like to look at. Our systems don’t LIKE poor people. They don’t LIKE beneficiaries. They sure as heck don’t respect them, or there would be more attempts to make their lives a little less hellish. While we have Government systems in place that are so critical of people’s living situations, we are also coaching society to be judgemental.

Doesn’t this beg the question then, WHY are sole parent beneficiaries committing these so-called crimes of fraud? We know it’s not because they simply can, and know that at the other end they’ll heckle their way out of it, with dollars still to spare.

It’s because the rules are wrong.

They are poor. Their children are going hungry. And in many cases, they probably aren’t aware that as soon as the Ministry of Social Development gets wind that they’ve got a boyfriend, they’re under scrutiny.

We know why, so we have to look to the systemic flaws that are the cause.

Repartnering is no easy decision for a sole parent, even less easy is the decision to move their kids under the same roof as somebody who is not their children’s parent. Society frowns on that. Society also frowns on parents becoming single to start with. There’s no point denying the level of judgement that’s out there.

But surely being responsible for the financial well-being of the children can’t be the new partner’s role?

The MSD’s rules don’t recognise modern relationships at all. They reminisce on an old-fashioned, family unit rule, where a new partner becomes the household provider. These rules financially cripple sole parents, and their children. Furthermore they make it hard for sole mothers to leave dangerous relationships, where they are financially dependent.

If so-called benefit fraud is committed, it’s usually because the mother is in a casual relationship but does not declare it, and the partner is on a benefit too.

But what is the logic behind having a couples rate that is less - per person - than the single?  

The MSD says that couples are advantaged because they:

  • could be able to enjoy lower accommodation costs than two single people
  • could be able to have their personal household effects on one insurance policy whereas two single people who are sharing accommodation would be more likely to have separate insurance costs totalling a higher amount
  • could share vehicle expenses, while two single people may be more likely to have their own individual transport and vehicle costs
  • could generally share meals, while two single people sharing accommodation may not have merged their lives to that extent.

As Susan St John points out:

“Lots of couples do not share finances and some may even live in different houses. Lots of singles share meals and costs.”

Maybe the parent and the new partner don’t think their relationship is serious enough to combine finances, or care of the children?

Even if the couple does have combined finances and childcare, the couple’s benefit rate simply commits a low-income family to even worse poverty, considering benefits have not kept up with children’s needs since they were cut in the early 1990s. This can be compounded by the repayments they are forced to make even if they go to prison.

But the MSD takes away a sole parent’s financial independence, by slapping them with a bill, or cutting their benefit, or worse investigating them for fraud and prosecuting them, then jailing them and insisting on repayment even after serving their term.

But it’s not just about relationships.

A debt to a loanshark can be considered income, even if there are high-interest repayments, simply because on paper, outgoings look to be more than you get on the benefit. A sole parent can be slapped with a debt to Work and Income for having paid for repairs on their home with a loan. How is this logical?

The damage done to families and children, especially where there is an unjust prison sentence imposed is severe.

Take Kathryn for example, who was dragged through hell and back after her child was killed by a former partner, and then a subsequent violent partner abused one of her children. The MSD found that she was in a relationship in the nature of a marriage during this time after the partner  ‘dobbed her in’ in an act of revenge. The court imposed a prison sentence and also required her to pay back more than $115,000. Kathryn has maintained her innocence ever since, and appealed the decision of  MSD to deduct money from her benefit. Her case still hasn’t been resolved 17 years on, even though she is ill and receiving a sickness benefit, and unable to care for herself adequately.

As Lisa Marriott points out, there is no financial gain to the government by imprisoning a mother for fraud. It costs around $100K a year - with no regard for the needs of her children. Is this just spending money to make a point, and what’s the point? That our government is disapproving of a mother’s life choices?

Where is our social conscience? Where is the village these families need? New Zealand’s government has proven that they’re not going to be it. It’s no wonder we hear from so many people who say they have very little trust in the system.

What we have in New Zealand is a system that punishes sole parents - most often the mothers - and harshly.

Things have got to change, or we will see more Wendys, and more children suffering the worst of poverty, and its long-term effects.