Updated: Jun 30, 2020
People with disabilities are a vital part of New Zealand’s diverse society. And yet our country’s benefit system discriminates against them and their whanau. In its Covid-19 response, the Government has an opportunity to address this inequity. In the wake of the crisis, all New Zealanders deserve to be properly supported.
Government-funded benefits are big news right now. Billions of dollars have been spent on business wage subsidies; 30,000 New Zealanders have applied for the jobseeker benefit since March 2020; and economic forecasts indicate thousands more will be lining up as wage subsidies taper off.
The government will need to make good decisions and is pivoting quickly to address new challenges. To date, the government has been proactive, supportive, and showed enormous leadership in addressing the welfare of our people. Many new subsidies and benefits have been rapidly designed and rolled out to support and enable people and businesses in need.
This is an opportunity also for the government to help more people by making pragmatic and rapid design changes to existing benefits, which are outdated, and in some cases, discriminatory.
Top of the list, should be how disability benefits are delivered.
Funding for our citizens with disabilities, and their families and whanau who support them, was designed at the end of last century and needs immediate change.
Thousands of people with disabilities are assessed for, and depend on, benefits so they can live better lives. These may be standard or personalised benefits and can range from a few thousand dollars each year up to very high amounts. Studies show disability benefits are used to meet essential daily needs, pay support workers, transport, equipment and other support essentials.
But while unemployed people, older people, and countless others get benefits paid directly into their bank accounts to spend on essential daily needs as they wish, people receiving disability benefits mostly do not enjoy that trust.
Many disability benefits are still not paid to the people who need and use them, instead the Ministry of Health pays the money to a 3rd party budget manager who controls the disability benefit budget, checks receipts, approves spending, makes payments, and reports to the Ministry.
This system, that should be serving disabled people, instead discriminates against them. Rather than enabling, the system appears to be designed to control. This is an institutional approach which has no place in 21st century Aotearoa/NZ. There are many who rightly say disability issues should no longer be a Ministry of Health domain, and the Simpson Report has glossed over the fundamental flaws in existing system approach and services.
How are other people treated? Does your unemployed niece have to account for what she spends her jobseeker benefit on? What about how a pensioner in Remuera spends his superannuation? Is there an ongoing audit of how a parent spends her sole parent support benefit? No, no, and no.
Then why do people with disability benefits have to provide receipts and submit their lives through gatekeepers who control their every day lives including payments for support workers, transport, essential equipment, respite care? How does that show trust, build resilience or encourage inclusion?
Years ago, the Ministry of Health itself recognised the current system was outdated, if not unlawful and contrary to its own policy. So it started a programme called 'system transformation', to make direct payments to people with disabilities. A decade later and the job is nowhere near done. Politics, priorities, personnel changes and resourcing have all played a part, but regardless of why, an outdated system remains firmly in place as a monument to last century's institutional approach of "top down command".
If this dinosaur system is not a breach of NZ and international human rights law - then it should be. There is no justification to treat people with disabilities differently to jobseekers or superannuitants or others receiving necessary financial support. This is discrimination dressed up as service delivery, and it cannot be defended or continued. Government funding for disability support must come from a place of trust and empowerment.
Advice, coaching, budget management and other services are available and these services can be provided to those who want or need them. But these excellent services should be by choice rather than forced on all people with disabilities and their whanau regardless of their capability to manage things themselves. With the vast array of services, use of bank accounts, money laundering rules, and online transaction records from a virtually cashless society, there is very low risk.
Over 6,000 people with disabilities already receive personalised benefits and over 20,000 more are entitled to modest benefits (a few thousand dollars p.a.) for respite purposes. For the vast majority of people receiving disability benefits the amount is well less than the jobseeker benefit or fortnightly national superannuation. For thousands of other people with disabilities and their whanau the likelihood of receiving and exercising choice over personal budgets are still years away.
As part of the government’s response to Covid-19, the government has shown it can act quickly. It is the government's choice whether it will treat people with disabilities the same as others receiving benefits and subsidies. Payments are direct to other benficiaries, they should be direct to people with disabilities, or where relevant to their authorised whanau or supporters. No one knows better than them how and when their support benefits need to be spent.
It doesn't take ten years to do this. It is time to end the mountains of briefing papers and years of excuses. It is time to enable and enhance the capability of people with disabilities, and their families.
If the government doesn't take this opportunity now and leaves equity and equal treatment for the disability community on the back burner, then another generation of people with disabilities and their whanau will be disadvantaged, on its watch.
That’s not good enough for an inclusive society. A government truly interested in addressing equity and wellbeing, not to mention kindness, can and would act on this issue now.
Mark Jeffries is a director of Platforms for Good, an NZ enterprise delivering online platforms enabling people, communities and governments to re-imagine how community, health and social services can be accessed.