[Sitting date: 05 December 2012. Volume:686;Page:7137. Text is incorporated into the Bound Volume.]
JACINDA ARDERN (Labour) to the
Minister for Social Development: When was she first aware that the Transition to Work Grant had been used to pay for flights to Australia for job seekers who had an offer of employment?
Hon PAULA BENNETT (Minister for Social Development)
: It was just after 1 p.m. yesterday that I was advised there might be cases where payment had been granted for flights to Australia. I am aware that there has been the odd request for airfares to Australia via correspondence to my office. I have been clear that my expectation is that they would not be paid. Transition to Work grants were introduced in 2007 under Labour. That year there were 16 cases where airfares were granted to Australia, and I have been informed that there have been six cases this year at a combined total cost of $4,600 approximately. I will be removing any ambiguity in the programme by a direction to the chief executive that will be tabled in this House.
Jacinda Ardern: Why did she claim in the House yesterday in relation to the Transition to Work grant being used for flights to Australia that “as far as I have seen to date, I do not have evidence of that.”, and yet that same afternoon she told journalists it had happened the odd time?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I do stand by that, because I did not have evidence. As I said to the member yesterday, I was told that there might be, and so as a consequence I was very careful about my answers in this House. As I say, I have now found out that there were at least 16 in 2007 under Labour, which did introduce this programme. But I am certainly not happy that there have been some recently as well.
Mr SPEAKER: Jacinda Ardern. [Interruption] Order! I want to hear this question. Order! I say to the National front-benchers that I want to be able to hear the question.
Jacinda Ardern: Can she confirm that because the Transition to Work grant is a discretionary fund where direct monetary transfers are made directly to the client, there is no way that she will ever know how many occasions Work and Income case managers used it to pay for flights and passports for job seekers who had found employment in Australia, and, in fact, every case I have has not been reported as she has claimed?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: If the member has cases, then she is welcome to bring them to me, and I would be very interested in seeing them. As I say, what they have done is, no, there is not a box that they can tick in the system that then can be looked at from head office. What they can do, though, is search the system, because they still put the information in; they just do it under certain words, so a manual search has been done. As I say, to date we have got at least 16 in 2007, and to date we have six, certainly, in the last year.
Rt Hon John Key: Does the Minister find it unusual that a party that set up the fund and used it 16 times in the first year now finds in Opposition that it is opposed to its very own policy that it established?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I suppose I am not really that surprised. I find that that is kind of the sort of standard practice of—[Interruption]
Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. [Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER: Order! A point of order has been called.
Hon Trevor Mallard: It is a very obvious point of order. I thought you would have got to your feet on the basis of the fact that the Minister does not have responsibility for the policy.
Mr SPEAKER: The question did not actually ask about policy detail. The question asked the Minister’s opinion—whether the Minister would find it unusual were something to have happened—and I have got to confess that I do not believe that the Standing Orders rule that out. If the Minister had started to comment on detail of what Labour’s policy had been, then—well, in fact, Ministers do have a reporting responsibility for past policy. What they must not do is pass an opinion on current Opposition party policies. But I believe the question—
Hon Trevor Mallard: Point of order, Mr Speaker.
Mr SPEAKER: Whoa, whoa.
Hon Trevor Mallard: Well, you should not dip, Mr Speaker.
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I am not dipping; I am standing very steadily, I think. The matter is pretty simple. These days Ministers can be asked their opinions, and the Prime Minister asked whether the Minister thought it was unusual. I was listening to the answer quite carefully to try to make sure it did not transgress, and I had not heard it transgressing to that point.
Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. My point was that the very question was out of order, because it asked the Minister to express an opinion on an issue for which she was not responsible, and that was an apparent change of policy.
Mr SPEAKER: Well, I do not think that the Minister was specifically asked to comment on a change of policy. She was asked whether or not she thought it was unusual for a party to have implemented a policy and now be criticising the outcome. You know, this is a robust place. Members of the Opposition get to ask questions that I am sure many Ministers do not like. We have heard a couple today that I think Ministers have not felt that comfortable with. Likewise, governing party members do have the chance to ask questions that other members of the House may not like, either. But I definitely draw the line where the Minister must not—and the member today saw me sit the Prime Minister down on a straight question when he started to make some allegation about what the Green Party’s policy may have been. These rules have to be interpreted very carefully and I try to be fair on this. I have tried to be fair today, and I think I would have been unfair had I ruled that out. I think, though, the question was answered.
Jacinda Ardern: Can she confirm that a number of the cases she has alluded to under Labour included domestic violence whereas more recent cases of overseas flights have simply involved a client finding a job?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: Speaking to that, I say that actually this is the Transition to Work programme. There are other ways that they can get funding to help with those circumstances, but it is not through the Transition to Work programme. As far as I am aware and have been advised, those 16 cases were to help people into work in Australia.
Jacinda Ardern: Has she examined every single use of the Transition to Work grant—[Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER: Order! I apologise to the member. I need to be able to hear, and there is just too much interjection. I apologise.
Jacinda Ardern: Has she examined every single use of the Transition to Work grant over the years 2008, 2009, 2010, and to date, and can she assure the House that it has been used as many times as she has told us today?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: The numbers I have given are from 2007 and then recently. No, we have not gone through every single one of them, but what we have done is look at airfares—
Jacinda Ardern: You’ve picked a year.
Hon PAULA BENNETT: No, the member asked about airfares to Australia, and that is what we have looked at and that is what we have done. We are still going through the files. I welcome giving the member other years as they come up, but we have got 2007 and we have got 2012, with 16 under Labour, which, quite frankly, did introduce this policy with a major hole in it and did nothing to actually fix it.