Speaker by Various Artists

63

How is Government evaluating its welfare reforms, and why aren’t we allowed to know?

by Michael Fletcher

Welfare reform is one of the Government’s flagship policies. By any standards it’s a major public policy initiative – arguably the biggest change to our welfare system since the introduction of the Domestic Purpose Benefit 40 years ago.

Government estimates the changes will save more than $1 billion over four years and reduce the number of people on benefit by up to 46,000. More importantly, the goal of the reforms is to help people at risk of long-term benefit receipt into employment to attain better social and economic outcomes, higher standards of living, less risk of poverty and extra resources for their children.

The impacts of the reforms are therefore a matter of major public interest. They affect not just the 300,000 or so people and their families who are on benefit but all of us, both as taxpayers and as people who may at some point need social security support ourselves.

It’s disturbing therefore that the Ministry of Social Development is refusing to make public its welfare reform evaluation plan, the document which sets out how they intend to assess the reforms’ effects.

To date, the main information about the impacts of the reforms has been the annual estimates of "future welfare liability". These million-dollar reports from Australian consultants Taylor Fry use a black box which, in simplified terms, tallies up the change in the number of people on benefit giving extra points for reductions in the number of people such as sole parents and the disabled who might typically need a benefit for longer. The Minister lauded the most recent report (see Minister’s press release here) which estimated a $4.4 billion reduction in lifetime welfare costs due to factors that MSD is judged to have some capacity to influence. (NB: Since this post was submitted the ministry has published its "first internal actuarial report produced in relation to the forward liabilities of the welfare system.")

That’s fair enough. A reduction in welfare numbers is potentially a good sign. What it doesn’t do is tell you anything about the lives or circumstances of those who’ve left the benefit, or those who never got through the Work and Income processes to get the benefit they need. Have these people’s lives improved? Are they in secure jobs that give them and their kids a higher standard of living? In other words, are the reforms achieving the objectives claimed for them?

These are questions you’d expect the evaluation plan to address. But the Ministry of Social Development – in consultation with the Minister’s Office - has decided it is not in the public interest that the public should know how the reforms will be evaluated.

Last December Dr Simon Chapple from Otago University wrote to the Ministry asking for a copy of the evaluation plan and related material. He was told six relevant documents existed, including the Welfare Reform Evaluation Plan – July 2013, but that all were being withheld under provisions of the Official Information Act.

Two reasons were given. The first was to protect the conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinion. The second was that because the information is under active consideration the wider public interest of effective government would not be best served by release. Sure, some of the other documents cited were evaluations and they may not yet be complete and ready for release, but the evaluation plan itself?  Eighteen months after the Cabinet decisions and with some evaluations already underway how can that be?

So, on 1 April I also wrote to MSD and simply requested a copy of the plan. First I was told "we don’t usually release these". Really? Since when have policy evaluation plans not been publicly available?

Then I was told I would need to start over and make a formal OIA request. I pointed out that any request of this sort is automatically governed by the OIA so my request of 1 April comes under the Act – and must be dealt with ‘as soon as practicable and in any case no later that 20 working days after it was received’.

Then on 24 April I received a letter saying MSD "needs to extend the time available to answer my request". I complained to the Ombudsman and finally, on 8 May, I received a reply, declining my request. The Ministry explained (the law requires an explanation) that:

… [the] evaluations are expected to continue for a long period with further analysis as more developments occur. As these evaluations continue, the evaluation plan is also constantly evolving to ensure that it can best meet the demands of this large, complex and long-term piece of work. Therefore I must withhold the Welfare Reform evaluation plan under section 9(2)f(iv) of the Official Information Act as it is still under active consideration.

This, frankly, is nonsense. It is common in long evaluation projects for policies to change part way through and, yes, sometimes that does mean amending the evaluation process. That is no justification for keeping the original plan secret. An agreed evaluation plan must be available to the evaluators so they can begin their work. It should be publicly available as well. If the Ministry’s logic is to be accepted, the public could never know how a government proposed to measure the effects of any policy until after the event as future "developments" would always be a possibility.

I have asked the Ombudsman to investigate the Ministry’s decision. But as the Minister and the Ministry both know, the Ombudsman’s Office is overloaded and decisions take many months, by which time the work will have been done, the evaluation money spent. Besides, as the Ministry told me, they hope to be able to release some material in “late 2014”. That is to say, after the election is safely over.

Twenty months after the first of the welfare reforms took effect and with an election just a few months away, we not only don’t know whether the reforms are improving New Zealanders’ wellbeing; we don’t even know how Government and the Ministry intends to measure whether or not they are. The reforms are in large part based on a strategy that one previous head of Work and Income was said to have described as ‘shaking the tree’ – imposing conditions and obligations on beneficiaries that make it harder to stay on (or get onto) a benefit.

It’s an easy strategy for reducing welfare numbers and the ‘fiscal liability’. And, yes, it will identify some who could be working. But it also risks shaking off some of the most vulnerable, those without the strength and determination to cling on to the tree however much they may need it. Most don’t have the tenacity and articulateness of Sarah Wilsonwho has documented her dealings with Work and Income.

Neither do we know if the reforms are succeeding in their basic aim of helping people into employment. One thing we do know is that in its recent Delivering social services every day report the Government states that “every week, around 1,500 people leave benefit into employment”. That is actually 11 percent fewer than the 1,690 1999-2005 weekly average reported by the Welfare Working Group in its Issues report. It’s likely the flow of people into jobs will increase as the labour market picks up, but on the face of it, it doesn’t appear that the new policies and operational processes have resulted in any sort of step-change in placements into employment.

Welfare reform is about so much more that saving on benefit costs. As the Government and the Welfare Working Group both argued, its objectives are to improve the lives of ordinary New Zealanders. Publicly available monitoring and evaluation information on these outcomes – on what is happening in the real world outside Taylor Fry’s black box – is the only way we can judge the success or otherwise of the reforms. So why is the Ministry of Social Development hiding behind the Official Information Act to avoid telling us how they plan to do that? Are they only interested in cutting the fiscal liability?

Michael Fletcher is a social sciences lecturer at AUT University in Auckland.

5

Kultur in the heat

by Graham Reid

It's a happily weird thing, especially at this time of year, to listen to taonga puoro master Horomona Horo evoke the sounds of New Zealand bush and its native birds . . . then walk outside into the 36 degree heat and hot breeze.

Even with the ocean on its doorstep and the towering jungle of Mt Santubong at its back, the Damai region of Sarawak – about 40 minutes from the city of Kuching – holds the heat. And my room is a walk across a shadeless carpark and up three flights. By the time I get back there after breakfast I just want to have another shower and lie down.

Why would anyone put up with such hell? Especially when the folks back in Auckland are turning on heaters.

I'm here because of the 17th annual Rainforest World Music Festival held in the Sarawak Cultural Village. It's a complex of houses, rooms, stages and theatre spaces around a brown lake. Like a Taranaki Womad with nowhere near as many people, buffet-style catering rather than the diversity we are familiar with from a Womad, and plenty of places serving ice cold Heineken for a paltry $3 a can. If it's a toss-up between that and bottled water . . .

The RWMFest is living up to its name. On the first day alone I caught an exciting performance by Talago Buni from Indonesia, the emotionally charged one-man performance of haka and taonga puoro by Horomona Horo before a hushed audience and the local Bisayah Gong Orchestra.

There were also the voices and percussion of the three-man Kalakan from France who sing in Basque, a hugely popular set of Cuban music by Son Yambu fronted by the extraordinarily energetic and long-legged singer (the star for me though was Oscar on a weird guitar), a religious-cum-cultural dance party delivered by Karinthalakoottam from Kerala in India . . .

Yes, this is why we put up with the humidity, cheap buffet food (about $4 a plate, tops) and serial Heineken. It's a hoot in the heat.

As with a Womad, the artists just amble around the small, level site and you can just bowl up and have a chat if you speak their language or the common tongue of exceptionally polite English. Faced with the courtesy of the local Malay people you realise how often a casual comment made in good humour can seem abrupt. I mind my language and smile a lot, the latter is easy.

Late on the first night as Blackbeard's Tea Party are delivering their brand of punched-up English folk and high-revving sea shanties to a crowd worn down by the dance party of Karinthalakoottam, I chat with Oscar from Cuba. He tells me his guitar – three sets of double strings, like half a 12-string – was once called “the piano of the poor” and that he was a bit disappointed he couldn't really let loose.

“I play behind my head, behind my back,” he laughs.

Over the three days there are talks and workshops (I refuse to go anywhere near a “drum circle” because I am well brought up), dance lessons, and the artists in conversation.

I'm hear enduring this hell thanks to Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines, and I will be writing a wide range of stories for various magazines and newspapers, and of course for my website elsewhere.co.nz.

I think I'm not going to be short of stories: today I went to Kuching (my favourite city in this part of the world, I've been previously) and missed the tropical downpour which soaked the festival site.

As I type this the evening's entertainment has begun again and from my room I can hear what sounds like Liam Gallagher yowling into the night. It's a group from Malaysia called Geng Wak Long and I've already bought their CD. 

Later there are performers from Sarawak and Canada, Tanzania and France.

Can't wait.

By the end of the first day – and I didn't get here until after 1pm – I'd drunk half a dozen beers, seen as many bands, bought CDs by Indonesian and Malay groups (all up about $30), met people from Australia, Germany and the village down road, eaten terrific stir fry chicken pieces in black bean and pepper sauce . . .

Before I got into bed I poured myself a medicinal large slug of duty-free Jameson (to kill germs, you understand) and asked myself, why would anyone put up with this?

Pure hell here, I tell you.

120

The problem of “horror tenants” is dwarfed by that of horror houses

by Elinor Chisholm

Yesterday's Herald piece, "Horror tenants frustrate landlord", was its most popular throughout the day. The article is about "horror tenants", or, as this landlord describes them, "pigs". The "renters as pigs" genre is clearly a popular one, and includes TV shows such as Renters, which warns the viewer against even living next door to one of these "dirty, dim and despicable" creatures.

It's odd that a third of the population get such a bad rap. It's particularly odd when “horror tenants” are not that much of a problem, in the scheme of things. According to the article, only a small proportion (0.6%*) of tenancies wind up in damage disputes in the Tenancy Tribunal per year, and one supposes that the proportion that finds the tenant at fault is smaller. In any case, that's why we have such a court: to settle disputes.

Although this case is clearly on the extreme end of things, it too has been dealt with by the Tribunal. Presumably the landlord was not content with the court's judgment, and sought media attention. However, the Herald is wrong to say the landlord is "chasing rent". The Tribunal has ordered compensation. Whether compensation is swift enough, or whether the case was dealt with quickly enough is another issue altogether; it's about the justice system and its potential reform rather than "horror tenants".

It's wrong when tenants maliciously damage the houses they rent. But as with any investment, it’s sensible for property buyers to look at both the potential risks as well as the likely benefits of buying any one property. Property damage, falling values, and the chance an employer will leave town are some of the risks of buying rental properties. Tax-free capital gain, and the speed with which property values rise in New Zealand, are some of the gains. Presumably this landlord decided that this investment was worth their while.

The Herald asks readers to send in photos of the damage wrought by their own problem tenants. There's no similar call for photos of damage wrought by landlords' neglect of their rental properties (most landlords don't budget for maintenance). But if there were, we might not see many people submit their stories, for the same reason that it's far less common for a tenant to take a landlord to the Tenancy Tribunal - even though we know that, according to BRANZ, 44% of rental homes are in poor condition (twice the amount of owner-occupied homes). This has massive and well-documented detrimental effects on health.

We hear less about horror houses because of the lack of options available to renters. Complaining about, say, housing conditions, to the media or to the courts, may damage the tenant-landlord relationship, and the tenant might get their notice, despite the illegality of 'retaliatory evictions', as Dr Sarah Bierre has written. There's a disincentive to complain when you risk losing your home - moving is financially and emotionally taxing. Added to that, having a reputation as a tenant that complains won't do you any favours when you search for a new home. The article, in fact, recommends that landlords check the references of potential tenants; it's probably that a positive reference is unlikely to come from a landlord who you took to the Tenancy Tribunal for not fixing the leaky roof.

"Horror renters" are a very small issue, about 0.6% of the population, that, fortunately, we deal with through the courts. Horror rental houses, on the other hand, is a huge issue – 44% of our rental homes. Our current system, with its lack of quality standards, and with its disincentives to tenants for taking issues of quality to the court, is not working. Bring on the WOF.

---

* I think it is it something like 0.6%, at least based on the figures provided. 32% of 1.5 million houses rented makes 480,000 tenancies. 45,000 of those per year wind up in the Tribunal  An article this morning says that 6% of claims from July 2013 to May 2014 were about damage; 6% of 45,000 is 2,700. 2,700 cases of damage from 480,000 rented houses – that’s 0.6%. There must be repeated cases, however, so this figure is just a best guess. 

Elinor Chisholm (@ElinorChisholm) blogs about housing issues at www.onetwothreehome.org.nz

10

Crowding and displacement in Auckland

by Elinor Chisholm

On Tuesday night, TVNZ reported on two things: one state tenant’s vow to resist eviction from her Glen Innes home, and overcrowding in Auckland state houses. While both things are newsworthy, we should be wary of thinking that one causes the other. TVNZ’s framing – and, actually, the government’s – confuses the issue.

In the report, Dalyce Poulson, a member of a 12 person family in a three-bedroom state house, says, with her baby on her lap:

“We’re struggling with everything. We need a…There’s just not enough houses.”

Later, Niki Rauti, the state tenant who has decided to resist her eviction, and who is described as living on her own in another three-bedroom, was quoted saying: 

“They’ve offered me two places to go to. I do not want to go there. I don’t want to be a transient. I would rather stay here and fight.”

When you hear these two things together, it might seem only rational to think that Niki should move, so families like Dalyce’s can live in better homes. In reality, however, such framing of the issue misses a couple of important things.

First, Niki’s house is not going to be filled by a bigger family, it’s going to be demolished so that eventually, other houses can be built there, most of which will be houses for private sale. This is problematic. At present, as Dalyce put it, there’s just not enough state houses, and, as the TVNZ report showed, they’re not being built at the speed previously promised by Government.

Second, Niki’s concerns about transience reflect those of a whole lot of people who are concerned with the effect of Housing NZ’s new policies on relocation (for redevelopment or through reviewing tenancies) on individual and community wellbeing – from Regional Public Health to the Productivity Commission (pdf, p.16).

Finally, we should put ourselves in Niki’s shoes. “Place”, David M. Smith wrote twenty years ago, “is necessary for human existence. This goes beyond other needs, such as for food and clothing, and indeed beyond the physical occupation of space and of a structure thereon. Our place, and sense of geographical space or territory, merges imperceptibly with a broader sense of identity, of who we are, of position in the general scheme of things. Satisfaction with all this is central to well-being.”

Smith continues with an idea we should all consider while watching the countdown to the end of Niki’s lease: “Those who would take other people’s place should have very good reason, and the moral principle of universalization, expressed in the question of how they would feel if the positions were reversed, is an appropriate test of whether the reason is good enough.”*

Elinor Chisholm (@ElinorChisholm) blogs on housing issues at onetwothreehome.wordpress.org.nz

*David M. Smith (1994), Geography and Social Justice (Oxford, Blackwell), p.253, 276 via Tom Slater

2

State tenants and the right to the city

by Ellinor Chisholm

Last week, the Social Services Committee criticised how Housing New Zealand has gone about the redevelopment of three areas of state housing. It’s about time. By the accounts of the communities of Maraenui, Pomare and Glen Innes, what’s happening looks very different from the glossy photos on the redevelopment websites.

It looks like boarded-up and vandalised housesthe halving of a school roll, or watching bulldozers demolish a neighbourhood, and waiting three years for new houses to begin to appear. It feels like not being heard and losing a home and a community.

The acknowledgement from MPs of the failings of the redevelopment processes, and the admission of errors from HNZ, is a credit to the efforts of state tenants in the three communities over several years. In order to make their voices heard, they’ve tried many avenues. They have marched to their Mayorto their police station, and to Parliament.  They have gathered to physically prevent the removal of houses. They have planted gardenscreated memorials and gathered together to sing, eat and camp out on empty sections. They have made three submissions to the select committee. Their children have made a movie and a submission on how it feels to watch your community disappear.

We should keep an eye on HNZ to make sure they’re true to their word of communicating better with state house communities.  As one state tenant from Pomare told the select committee, while it’s too late for her community, her actions are motivated by a desire to prevent others experiencing what she and her neighbours have been through.

 But we should also keep in mind that state tenants did not just protest the process of the redevelopment. They protested the whole idea behind the displacement. In doing so they’re challenging the ideas behind HNZ’s new goal of having no more than 15% state housing presence in any community.

While Housing New Zealand argues for this goal in terms of its putative social benefits, state tenants are right to describe what is actually happening as gentrification: replacing the poor with the rich. Urban renewal is only possible in a place where middle and high income people are willing to move. Land previously used for state housing has been sold. By definition, lower proportions of the new, mixed communities will be poor.[1] The areas selected for redevelopment are close to the centre of their respective cities.[2] They have all been reported as desirable and popular places to buy, where property prices are rising rapidly.[3]

The redevelopments are not just about, as Housing NZ claim, improving communities through mixing the rich in with the poor, and making houses warmer and dryer through the sale of state house properties. Improving shoddy houses and investing in disadvantaged communities is something that should clearly happen, but just as you don’t need to sell a school to improve another school, there’s no reason that funding should come from state house sales.

The clearest beneficiaries of this type of urban renewal are not the poor, but the current and future private property owners of the area, who benefit from living in well-connected, central places, or owning land in areas where prices are rising as the rich buy in.

We already know about Auckland’s housing affordability issues, and how these are compounded by high transport costs for those living on the outskirts. Choosing to displace poor people in one of the few places in central Auckland available to them is working towards a city mainly for the rich.

Like the state tenants of Maraenui, Pomare and Glen Innes, we should challenge public sacrifice for private gain, and work to ensure the right of everybody, including the poor, to the city.

Elinor Chisholm blogs about housing issues in New Zealand at http://onetwothreehome.wordpress.com/

References:

[1] In Pomare’s case, 89 houses were demolished, and 150 new houses will be built. 13% of the new houses will be owned by community providers, “up to” 13% by the state, and the remainder will be privately sold. In northern Glen Innes, 156 houses are being removed in order to build 260 houses: 78 owned by the state, 38 owned by other social housing providers, and the remainder for private sale. Development in Maraenui, so far, is not on such a large scale or as concentrated: 96 houses have been demolished throughout the suburb, and only 18 new homes are planned.

[2] Glen Innes is 9km from the centre of Auckland. Maraenui is 3km from the centre of Napier. Pomare is 7km from the centre of Lower Hutt.

[3 See: House prices up in Maraenui, Property Report: Continued property growth but questions over 2014, Strong interest in new Pomare subdivision, Glen Innes Area Profile.