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Government gets its welfare bill through first reading

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Tariana Turia
Tariana Turia

By Peter Wilson of NZPA

Wellington, March 30 NZPA - The Maori Party turned its back on the Government and voted with Labour in Parliament today when the bill that enacts welfare changes was given its first reading.

The changes, announced last week, place greater obligations on more beneficiaries to look for work, tighten work-testing regimes and introduce sanctions for those who don't meet the new requirements.

The Maori Party has a support agreement with the Government, but it is free to oppose legislation that isn't a confidence vote.

It had to split its vote, with four MPs opposing the bill and co-leader Tariana Turia, an associate social development minister, supporting it because she had to.

"It's bloody ridiculous to make beneficiaries look for work when there aren't any jobs," Maori Party MP Hone Harawira said during the first reading debate.

"We support getting people off welfare dependency, but don't target the victims. Life on a benefit is a nightmare and there are heaps of people looking for work and going hungry rather than going on the dole."

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the previous Labour government did nothing about long-term welfare dependency and an entitlement mentality had become entrenched.

"We expect those on the dole to make every effort to find work," she said.

"All we're asking is for people to meet their obligations -- the safety net isn't being hauled in."

Ms Bennett said the Government was putting an extra $223 million into training-related programmes to help beneficiaries get back into the workforce.

"Every dollar that is spent on welfare has to be earned by a hard-working New Zealander," she said.

"We're simply calling a spade a spade."

Labour's social development spokeswoman, Annette King, said the previous government brought the number of beneficiaries down from 400,000 to 280,000 and the current government was destroying the programmes that achieved it.

"This bill gives beneficiaries a kick in the backside," she said.

"You have to have jobs for people go to into -- even the Treasury said this wasn't the right time for this bill."

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the Government was attacking vulnerable people.

"This is a dreadful, abusive piece of legislation," she said.

"National has a pathological hatred of beneficiaries, this is ideological beneficiary-bashing."

Ms Turei said the new work-testing regime for sickness beneficiaries meant 49,000 extra taxpayer-funded doctor visits every year which was going to be a heavy burden on a health system that was already struggling to meet demands.

The Government was supported by the ACT Party. MP Sir Roger Douglas said the welfare system was originally intended to provide temporary assistance to alleviate poverty, not to make people dependent on the state.

The Social Assistance (Future Focus) Bill passed its first reading on a vote of 65-57.

National, ACT, United Future and Tariana Turia supported it. Labour, the Greens, the Progressive Party and four Maori Party MPs opposed it.

The bill has been sent to the social services select committee for public submissions.

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