Government Accused Of Illegal Child Discrimination

Published: Thu 27 Nov 2003 10:31 AM
Government Accused Of Illegal Child Discrimination
Top government officials have been invited by the Human Rights Commission at the request of the Child Poverty Action Group to a meeting to discuss why approximately 300,000 of New Zealand's poorest children are missing out on financial support because of discriminatory government policies.
The Child Tax Credit of $15 a week per child is not available to all low-income families, instead it's only available to those who do not receive an income-tested benefit. If the caregivers receive any of their income from NZ Super, a student allowance, ACC (for longer than three months), DPB, or a widow's or unemployment benefit, then the family is not eligible to receive the Child Tax Credit.
"This is punishing children for the source of their parents' income, which is illegal under the Human Rights Act and breaches New Zealand's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child," says Susan St John, CPAG spokesperson and University of Auckland economics lecturer.
"These children are among the most vulnerable citizens in our society, and we are taking money away from them that children in similar economic situations are entitled to. The whole point of the tax credit is to help ensure that children aren't living in poverty. If you're not giving it to the poorest families, then it's obviously not doing what it's supposed to do.
"Families with three children are missing out on $45 per week - that's a huge amount of money if you're on a low income. This policy contributes directly to New Zealand's appalling child poverty statistics."
CPAG first complained to the Human Rights Commission about the discrimination under the Human Rights Act in October 2002. Crown Law responded in July 2003 on behalf of the IRD which administers the tax credit. They say that beneficiary families receive more money from the government than families who don't get benefits. Thus, they claim that excluding those on benefits from the Child Tax Credit isn't discriminatory.
CPAG is unimpressed with this argument, as it compares benefits for adults with a tax credit which is meant to help ensure the welfare of children. It is children who are being discriminated against.
"It is comparing apples with oranges," says Ms St John.
"The tax credits for children are needed to recognise the additional demands extra children make on the family budget. They should not be used to provide a half-baked incentive for the parents to be in full-time work."
Large numbers of low-income children have been discriminated against by being denied an increase in family support.
"When the Child Tax Credit was first introduced in 1996, it served as an inflation catch-up for Family Support - but those families who were deemed ineligible missed out," says Ms St John. "Entitlement was based not only on the low income qualification - which is fair - but also on the source of the income, so some of the poorest families were denied assistance."
After meeting with the Human Rights Commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, and the Commissioner for Children, Cindy Kiro, CPAG has decided to invite the government to mediation, so that the complaint can be heard and discussed as soon as possible.
If the case went straight to the Human Rights Tribunal, it would take approximately a year to get a decision.
"Another year is too long to wait for families in dire straits," says Ms St John. "We see mediation as an opportunity to get our concerns across, and we still reserve the right to start legal proceedings if the government doesn't listen to us at this point."
Invitations to the Commissioner of the IRD, David Butler, the Secretary to the Treasury John Whitehead, and deputy secretary for social policy, Peter Mersi, and CEO of the Ministry of Social Development, Peter Hughes, have been sent by the Human Rights Commission via Crown Law.
"It is imperative that we speak with people who carry authority and influence as our ultimate goal is to change this discriminatory policy," says Ms St John.
"This is not to be taken lightly by the government. That we have got this far, and that the Human Rights Commission is taking our complaint seriously shows that the government has a case to answer."

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