Archbishop heads delegation to discuss beneficiaries with English

Most beneficiaries are genuine, a Catholic delegation told Finance Minister Bill English last week, and the government should not describe beneficiaries in ways that stigmatise and stereotype the poor.

The delegation, led by Archbishop John Dew, met Mr English on 15 August to discuss welfare reform, a day after the National government began a series of rolling announcements on welfare policy.

The delegation included current and past Caritas Board chairs Mark Richards and Fr Gerard Burns; Wellington Catholic Social Services director Barbara Gilray; Caritas director Michael Smith and Caritas research and advocacy coordinator Lisa Beech.

Mr Smith said the delegation outlined to Mr English the considerable experience and interaction with beneficiaries and low-income families that the Church has through Catholic parishes, schools, religious orders and a wide range of Catholic agencies and groups.  Many poorer families and individuals are feeling very anxious and stressed about the proposed welfare changes.

‘Most beneficiaries are genuine,’ said Mr Smith.

‘Most are working very hard to manage, despite living with disadvantage often resulting from bad experiences such as illness, disability or job loss.’

The government needed to show leadership from the top to describe  beneficiaries in ways that don’t reinforce stereotypes.

Mr Smith said the delegation appreciated Mr English’s explanation of the government’s commitment to an investment approach to assisting people into work.  This considers the long-term costs of joblessness and exclusion from the paid work force, and invests resources early to prevent financial and social costs.

The Catholic delegation welcomed many aspects of the investment approach. However, it said such an approach does not require punitive aspects such as sanctions and penalties, increased work testing on sick and disabled people, and compulsory management of incomes – signalled in impending welfare changes.

Mr Smith said, ‘We recognise that some people may require extra help to manage their money, but that doesn’t justify a blanket approach to treat all beneficiaries in this way.’

The delegation raised deep concerns with a government Welfare Working Group recommendation to provide ‘ready access’ to contraception to reduce children born in beneficiary households. It objected on the grounds of not only Catholic doctrine, but that it is also a human right that parents should be able to make their own choices about their families.

The importance of adequate job-creation policies was also discussed, so those being required to find work had a realistic chance in a job market which cannot currently provide employment for all seeking it.

Mr English told the delegation he agreed with many of their concerns about the Welfare Working Group recommendations and process, and noted that the government’s response will become clear as welfare policy is made public over coming months.

Image: John Whitburn

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