'Reprehensible' - Sepuloni slammed over contentious sanction

The Green Party says Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni is "reprehensible" for continuing to punish beneficiaries with a controversial warrant to arrest sanction that she admits shouldn't be being used.

When a beneficiary has a warrant issued for their arrest the Government cuts off their benefit until they resolve the matter with the court. If the beneficiary is single, their benefit is cut completely. If they have children their benefit is cut in half.

In 2021, Sepuloni told 1News she was worried the sanction was harming children and that she would like it gone immediately.

This week, she told Parliament that while she doesn't believe the welfare system "should be used as a tool for the justice system", removing the sanction was not a priority for her and would not be happening under this Government.

"I don't agree with the intent of this sanction but we hit up what is of most urgency with regards to the changes that we make," Sepuloni told 1News.

"It's certainly not on the immediate work programme."

The Greens' social development spokesperson, Ricardo Menéndez March, said it is "reprehensible for the Minister to be standing by a policy that is doing nothing than causing harm".

But National's social development spokesperson, Louise Upston, was pleased.

"November last year, she [Sepuloni] was pretty clear about the fact that she wanted to get rid of it so it does look like a a backdown."

Upston said the policy is highly effective and wants Sepuloni to promise never to remove it.

"Taxpayers do not want to be funding people who are on the run from the police and who are acting illegally to harm our communities," she said.

But around 99% of those sanctioned are not deemed to be a risk to public safety, according to the Ministry of Social Development, and the most common reason for having a warrant issued for their arrest is an unpaid traffic or parking fine.

Of the 2500 beneficiaries hit with an arrest to warrant sanction in the first six months of 2022, 27 were deemed to be a risk to public safety.

Of the more than 4000 beneficiaries hit with the sanction last year, 24 were deemed a risk to public safety.

While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern slammed National when it introduced the sanction in 2013, her Government is deploying the sanction against many more vulnerable New Zealanders than National ever did.

In 2017, the final year of National's term, 2406 beneficiaries were sanctioned. That number has risen every year under Labour, to 4014 in 2021.

Of the 2500 beneficiaries who have had their benefits cut by a warrant to arrest sanction in the first half of this year, more than 500 of them have children.

Menéndez March said Sepuloni "needs to get on with the work and stop hurting children and end the sanction once and for all".

In a statement, the Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers said she's frustrated with the lack of progress on removing the sanction by the Minister.

Judge Eivers said she cannot support a policy of sanctioning those with warrants out for their arrest when the impact will fall squarely on "that person's family, particularly their children".

"Children must not bear the responsibility for their parents’ mistakes, nor should they become another victim of them," Judge Eivers told 1News.

Yet both Labour and National are comfortable deliberately endangering the children of beneficiaries.

The warrant to arrest sanction is overwhelmingly used against Māori beneficiaries.