Imagine a country where government officials/investigators are hired to spy on citizens to establish whether or not they are in a relationship ‘in the nature of marriage’ or not. It sounds kind of sci-fi and more than a little bit outdated, but unfortunately this is happening in modern day New Zealand folks.
Not by IRD – who assess your income and tax on an individual basis, regardless of your relationship status; but by the Ministry of Social Development, who determine eligibility for income support based on not only whether you’re in a relationship but also the ‘nature’ of that relationship.
For example, some of the things the Ministry suggests on its website people should think about when determining this include, whether you: ‘socialise and holiday together’, ‘have a sexual relationship’, ‘give each other emotional support and companionship’ the list goes on…..but there is notably no mention on the Ministry’s website of the Court of Appeal’s finding in R vs Ruka where the court quashed beneficiary Isabella Ruka’s conviction for benefit fraud after holding that she had not been living in a relationship in the nature of marriage as she was subjected to vicious beatings by her partner four or five times a week for 16 years.
You see the thing is, the moment the State threatens to dock a person’s income due to that person being in a relationship, is the very moment that you take away the full independence and citizenship rights of that individual. And when that individual is a solo mother just trying to survive, this kind of policy fosters a greater degree of potentiality for perverse and unintended outcomes to occur. The point being that beneficiary income, just like any other income received, needs to be attached to the individual (like tax is) independent of relationship status.
Now here’s the clincher, in 2001 the Associate Minister for Social Development, Ruth Dyson, commissioned Barrister Frances Joychild to examine the way in which the Ministry was applying the legal test for what constitutes a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’. The Joychild report found that there was “strong evidence” that the law was being applied incorrectly and recommended that all 15,600 relevant cases between 1996 and 2000 be reviewed. But MSD chose not to do that and instead put the onus on benefit recipients to request a review of their files (Source: Catrionna MacLennan, ‘Kathryn’s Story’, June 2016, pp32-33). Consequently, very little, if anything, has changed and what’s worse is we know from the Coroners recent findings regarding the suicide of beneficiary Wendy Shoebridge that MSD’s persecution of anyone suspected of benefit fraud (a large proportion of which are related to ‘relationship status’) is aggressive and punitive.
So here we are in 2017 and women beneficiaries – the majority of them sole parent mothers – continue to be persecuted under this outdated law based on whether or not they are in a relationship. It’s ridiculous, it’s archaic and it’s wrong.
If we want to empower, support and facilitate good outcomes for these women and their children – we need to make sure that they have a secure source of income and can live a free and independent life – without the fear of losing the tiny bit of income that they have to survive on because they may or may not want to have a relationship. To be frank it’s time to take away MSD’s ‘right’ to know who people are sleeping with – and this is something I’m going to fight to make sure happens when our party, the NZ Greens are in government.