Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Point of Order: Buzz from the Beehive - 20/2/24

Govt prescribes stiff medicine for some beneficiaries while easing access to drugs containing pseudoephedrine

One of two new announcements on the government’s official website – given plenty of publicity by the mainstream media over the past 24 hours – has been pitched as the first steps in a “reset” of the welfare system. Stiff medicine for beneficiaries, in effect.

The second announcement, released today, is loftily portrayed by Associate Health Minister David Seymour as the deliverance of greater freedom and choice for sick New Zealanders.

Seymour is drawing attention to
  • The introduction of a bill amending the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975; and
  • changes to the Medicines Regulations 1984.
The aim is to reclassify cold and flu medicines containing pseudoephedrine from prescription to restricted medicines, which will allow the public to buy them from a pharmacy without a prescription.

Pseudoephedrine was banned because of concerns it would be used for methamphetamine production.

Seymour took the opportunity to do a bit of deregulatory grandstanding by saying:

“The reality is that the gangs have far more effective ways of obtaining pseudoephedrine to manufacture methamphetamine and we should tackle these head on instead.

“Alternative cold and flu medicines have been shown to be no more effective than a placebo. New Zealanders are being denied decent cold and flu medication, but the gangs are selling more methamphetamine than ever.

“The current law isn’t working and that’s why the government is acting.”

But this isn’t total deregulation:

“The use of these medicines will still be subject to a level of oversight as consumers will be required to purchase them directly from a pharmacist. Restrictions on importing and exporting these medicines will also be retained.”

Seymour said he looked forward to pharmaceutical companies applying to Medsafe for product approval in New Zealand.

Medsafe is using an expedited process to approve the medicines as quickly as possible.

Taking into account supply chains and the ability for companies to prepare products, it is expected the medication will be back on shelves in 2025, Seymour said.

“Removing the ineffective ban on the sale of pseudoephedrine is a principled decision to remove unnecessary red tape and give New Zealanders greater choice and freedom over their own lives.”

Much greater controversy has been generated by news of changes to the administration of welfare benefits.

Hard on the heels of “tough love” policies being foreshadowed in the PM’s State of the Nation speech at the weekend, the government has instructed the Ministry of Social Development to make use of “all obligations and sanctions” it has available against beneficiaries who fail to fulfil their requirements.

Te Maori News reported this – and reactions to the news – under the headline –

Newstalk ZB headlined its report –

Politics of cruelty?

Who said that?

The answer is buried more than 40 paragraphs further down the report:

Greens hit back at welfare announcement – ‘politics of cruelty’

The National-led Government’s plans to arbitrarily increase benefit sanctions will have a lasting impact on the people who need our support the most, the Greens said.

“Today’s announcement confirms the Government’s goal of pushing more people into poverty via benefit sanctions,” says the Green Party Social Development and Employment spokesman, Ricardo Menéndez March.

“Sanctions do not work. They do not support people into meaningful employment, nor support them to participate fully in their communities. Taking away people’s incomes only makes it harder for people to get by.”

Menéndez March said this Government was quickly building a legacy of cruelty.

In her press statement, Social Development Minister Louise Upston harked back to 2017, when 60,588 sanctions were applied to beneficiaries who did not comply with their obligations to prepare and look for work.

That slumped to 25,329 in 2023.

During those years, the numbers of people on Jobseeker benefits increased by about 70,000. About 40,000 more people have been receiving this support for a year or more.

Upston said she believed the previous minister set the tone for a lighter touch to benefit sanctions by saying they needed to be used ‘sparingly’ and as a ‘last resort’. This had dampened their effectiveness as an incentive to fulfil work obligations.

She has written to the chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development to make the Government’s view clear that it wants to see all obligations and sanctions applied.

If job seekers fail to attend job interviews, to complete their pre-employment tasks, or to take work that is available, there must be consequences.

“I’m not prepared to accept the welfare system we inherited, where work-ready job seekers are forecast to spend an average of 13 years on a benefit, and teenagers could become trapped on welfare for 24 years of their working lives.”

Upston also announced that, from June, MSD will begin work check-ins for job seekers who have been on benefit for six months, particularly young people.

“These check-ins will make sure job seeker beneficiaries are taking appropriate steps to find employment and are receiving the right help.”

These actions are a precursor to the Coalition Government’s wider reset of the welfare system, which will include mandatory reapplication for Jobseeker Support every six months, community-provided job coaching, proper needs assessments, a traffic light system that makes obligations clear, new non-financial sanctions, and action being taken for those who repeatedly fail to comply with their work obligations.

Additional information on work check-ins
  • Of the roughly 189,000 people currently on jobseeker benefits, MSD only has strong visibility over the 60,000 or so who are receiving case management, including whether they are regularly applying for jobs.
  • From June, MSD will proactively book the target cohort into work check-ins after 26 weeks, focusing on those who are work-ready but do not have a dedicated Work and Income case manager.
  • This is expected to see an additional 2,500 job seekers a month reporting on their progress.
  • These check-ins will focus on making sure job seekers are taking sufficient steps to find work in line with their obligations and provide them with greater support, if needed, to help them into employment.
  • Jobseeker Support recipients will be required to attend as a work testable activity in line with current legislation. Failure to attend will result in a breach of obligations and ultimately means a sanction could be applied.
  • MSD will ensure attendees are advised of the requirement to attend these check-ins, and the consequences of non-attendance.
  • The work check-ins will cost $1.2 million each year and will be funded within MSD baselines.
Latest from the Beehive

20 FEBRUARY 2024

The coalition government is delivering on its commitment to making principled decisions by getting rid of red tape that doesn’t make sense and allowing sick New Zealanders greater freedom and choice to purchase.

The Coalition Government is taking early action to curb the surge in welfare dependency that occurred under the previous government by setting out its expectations around employment and the use of benefit sanctions.

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton

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