The Ministry of Social Development has made clients feel “worthless”, bullied, depressed and “treated worse than a criminal”, one woman’s informal survey of nearly 350 people shows.
Canterbury woman Mahara Tahuhu used her “nightmare” experience with the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to reach out to others who use its services.
Tahuhu said she and her partner, who suffers from debilitating mental health issues, were offered a Housing New Zealand (HNZ) flat in Ashburton about three years ago on the presumption the MSD would help with relocation costs.
But when she was told they would not, she “scrambled, borrowed [and] begged” to find the means to move from Christchurch as they were given less than a week to accept and be in the flat, she said.
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“This was the beginning of a constant culture on the part of the MSD consisting of a distinct lack of clear, consistent communication, constant chopping and changing, mixed messages, losing paperwork [and] fluctuating payments.”
Tahuhu said she wanted to survey people’s experiences, so when former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei’s benefit fraud became public she put some questions together and posted them on Facebook.
The 347 respondents from around New Zealand had used a range of MSD services, from Studylink to HNZ, but 95 per cent of respondents had Work and Income among their choices.
When asked if the MSD generally treated people with dignity and respect, 256 of the 330 who answered that question said no. Just 45 said yes.
“Going into WINZ (sic) has been the most dehumanising experience in my life,” one respondent said. “I have major depression and anxiety and I try to avoid that place. I would rather catch the plague.”
Tahuhu said she was shocked and angry to learn what some other people had gone through.
“It’s hard enough being on a low income as it is, or battling a chronic illness or disability,” she said.
“Nobody, I think, is saying that it should be cushy … but you want to make it so it’s not a living nightmare at the same time.”
Respondents to Tahuhu’s survey also pointed out positive experiences, or situations where particular people had helped them through a tough situation.
One person said having a good case manager could be “the difference between hungry and homeless”. Another said they had “a lovely case manager” who had helped them and their partner into fulltime work.
“They are employees just like any others and do their best to help people, they seem to endure abuse from people when it’s not warranted.”
Negative experiences ranged from a lack of privacy when meeting with case managers to a claim of getting sick from a “drug state house” that was not decontaminated because it fell “slightly below” Ministry of Health guidelines.
“It got to a point where I would be so stressed going to their office that I would feel physically sick,” another respondent said.
“Now I avoid doing so because I don’t need the extra stress which, in turn, affects my living situation.”
Work and Income national commissioner Kay Read said the organisation welcomed any feedback and would “read the results of this survey with interest”.
A recent MSD-commissioned survey of more than 11,000 working-age beneficiaries and senior clients who had visited a service centre called the contact centre or used an online service showed Work and Income was “exceeding satisfaction level targets,” she said.
“The survey also asks clients how satisfied they were with the manner in which our staff treated them, ie with respect. This has consistently returned results of 93 per cent for the last two years.”
Tahuhu said that although her survey was not completed by an independent research organisation, she “would hold what people have said in pretty good faith”.