The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Andrew Becroft

Published: Sat 8 Jul 2017 12:56 PM
On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Andrew Becroft
The Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft is calling for an index-linked system of benefits for families with children. He says superannuitants are largely better off than children in benefit-dependent families due to superannuation being linked to wage increases, and the two systems should be aligned.
Judge Becroft has also called on the government not to dock the benefits of solo mothers who won’t or can’t name the father of their child. “It’s not child centred or child focused”
Judge Becroft says he’d like a series of markers to tell us we’re on the way to halving poverty by 2030, as required by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “Time is ticking”
Lisa Owen: New Zealanders like to think that we punch above our weight, and when we hear we’re being singled out, we assume it’ll be for something good. So when a recent UNICEF report singled us out as proof that high national income doesn’t guarantee child wellbeing, it might have come as a surprise. The report places us 34th out of 41 developed countries, and in some measures, we were the worst. So why are our children faring so badly? The Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, joins me now. Good morning.
Andrew Becroft: Good morning, Lisa.
Last time you were on this show, you challenged the Government to making a reduction target for child poverty of 10% by the end of the year. John Key said no to accepting that target. Bill English has subsequently said no. How do you feel about that?
I mean, I think the starting point is no government’s elected to make it worse for kids. I don’t think any politician’s elected thinking, ‘I’ll make it worse for kids.’ We’ve really had a problem in New Zealand for 30 years now. And overall, you could say 70% of our kids do really well. They might be world-leading in some measures. We can be proud of that. But there are 30% who do badly, and then of that, you’d say 10% do very badly – as bad, or if not worse, than Western world counterparts. So the challenge is absolutely clear. Part of my job, I think I’ve found out since I last spoke to you, I don’t think most New Zealanders know how bad it is at the bad end. It’s a real challenge. So I’m absolutely rock solid on the fact that we need a plan, we need targets, and we need to see progress. Actually, most New Zealanders don’t know this – we have a target. That is the Sustainable Development Goals, one of which says halve poverty, including child poverty, by 2030. And that’s a great aspirational target. We’ve got the target. It’s relatively easy to measure child poverty with a suite of acceptable international measurements.
Well, so, then, is it disappointing that the leader of this country will not adopt a target?
Well, it’s going to be a matter for a political decision. I wish that aiming for that half poverty by 2030, I wish we could have a series of markers that tell us are we getting there. Because we’re not going to wake up on the 1st of January 2030, and by magic, have halved child poverty. We’ve got those way-posts.
So does it worry you that we’re leaving our run a bit late on that target?
I think time is ticking. That said, this year, would be fair to say – albeit election year – this year, there was some progress in the right direction with the Working For Families rationalisation, improving the family tax credit, sorting out the accommodation supplement. So on the Government figures I mentioned with you last time, the 5% to 10% improvement this year – if the government figures bear the fruit that Minister Joyce says they will, that 5% to 10% increase in reducing relative income-related poverty, that will have been achieved. So credit where credit’s due.
So, then, why not set a firm target? Because the Government keeps saying that child— This is a government that measures stuff – you’ve got to remember that as well. Social investment is one of their flagship policies, and that’s all about measuring outcomes. They keep saying it’s too hard to have a single measure for child poverty. Is it too hard to have that measure? Or do you think they’re just worried it’s too hard to achieve that?
Well, I mean, you convinced me, Lisa – I mean, I, obviously, would love to have a series of targets. It’s not too hard to measure. There are three or four good, internationally accepted measurements to do with income-related poverty, material disadvantage and a combination of them both. They’re government figures. They’re easily accessible. And if we mean business about the 2030 halving poverty goal, then that’s going to mean, surely, some step-by-step markers, and that’s what I’m committed to advocating for.
So do we look like we don’t mean business in terms of that sustainable target – reducing poverty by half by 2030?
I mean, your words, not mine, but I think we’re in a bit of a muddle.
Well, what do you think?
Yeah, I think we’re in a bit of a muddle, actually. Unless we have a clear process that tells us how we’re going to get to 2030, without those targets, then I think we are boxing blind, as it were. And I think we need, as a country, to take that target that we’ve signed up to seriously and mean business about it. And, yes, that will involve setting targets.
You said there, ‘Credit where credit’s due,’ about the budget package, and you gave credit also for raising benefits a couple of years ago. But you’ve also talked about consistency, and you’ve said that we need to see measures like this coming in, improvements like this every year. Now, I’m wondering, do benefits need to be tagged to wages, like super is? Because you’ve also identified older population as having very little poverty in that group of people, compared to young people. So should we be doing something like tagging benefits to wages, like super?
It might surprise most New Zealanders, but the over-65 cohort, as you say, are on most measures six times better off than under-18-year-olds, largely because of an index-linked superannuation scheme. Yes, the logic to me is inescapable – we should have an index-linked system of benefits for our children. The thing is we could solve this issue, Lisa. It’s relatively short in duration. It started late ‘80s, early ‘90s. There was a big spike in most of the figures. It stayed relatively stable since then, for the last 27 years or so. It’s within our ability to fix it. We could do it if we had the will. And that would be one way of doing it at the government level. And community-wide – good business, commercial and charitable initiatives working with government. But I don’t see that at the moment. I see pockets of good work, but we lack, as a country, a coherent, nationwide policy for improving the prospects of our most disadvantaged 100,000 Kiwi kids.
If you’re suggesting that that’s something that should be under consideration – indexing to wages – if supers index to 66% of the average weekly wage, do you think that would be a fair deal for beneficiaries as well? Is that the figure that you would think is reasonable?
Well, at least I think this. Whatever the exact indexation, the consumer price index and wages for the super beneficiaries, should at least be the same sort of principle adjustment for benefits for children. I mean, it doesn’t say much about our country, does it, if we’re prepared to do it for adults, but we’re not prepared to do it for children. If we want a country that’s really progressing and developing, where children thrive and flourish and become, as much as possible, functioning, mature adults. We’ve got to do better for that really hard core group of children.
Well, seeing as we’re talking about benefits, there is more than 13,000, and they’re mainly women, who are currently getting their benefits docked because they name or won’t name the father of their child. That equates to 17,000 children who are missing out because that money’s not in the benefit every week. Do you think that that is a policy that puts kids at the centre?
No. I don’t. In fact, we gave to this government three, what we thought, were doable improvements that would improve the position of children at the most disadvantaged end. That was one of them – to remove that obligation.
So, you believe that those sanctions – because there’s an opportunity to do it, as that piece of legislation is under review – so you do you think that they should can that? That it’s too punitive for kids?
In principle, I don’t think it’s child-centred or child-focused. And whatever the rationale for it, it disadvantages kids and it’s not good for children.
When we talked about benefits there, you talked about the kids and making sure they get appropriate income. So would it be a prospect to have a universal allowance? Because I know your predecessor mentioned this before – for under-3s a universal allowance for children. Is that something that you support or are looking at?
Yes and yes.
What work are you doing on that?
My predecessor I saw that he had a child poverty expert advisory group. In fact, you’ve got one on your panel, Phil O’Reilly. He would be well placed to mention that. We still keep up contact with a group of those economists and—
So you think under-3s should have some kind of-
You’re floating ideas. I don’t have a clear view on it, but I think we need to make provision much more comprehensively. Whether it’s universal or whether it’s targeted, to be honest, I’m not sure of that. If we’re going to half child poverty by 2030, I’d rather we focus on the most needy group to begin with, but I’m not opposed to a universal approach.
Another thing that you’ve talked about recently is consulting children directly about policy. So let’s take an example of a topic that’s been in the media a lot lately, which is housing – emergency housing. Families squeezed into hotel rooms, kids living in cars with their parents. What do you think that you might get out of those children if you ask them about that issue? Because we already know that this is a bad situation, and we know enough to act arguable, so what would talking to those kids add do you think?
You could take a number of examples. Perhaps one of the biggest things that stood out for me in this role in the last year is that we don’t do well in New Zealand in hearing kids’ voices and factoring them into decision making. Kids always add quality to the debate. They always improve policy, but we don’t do it for that reason. We do it because children are people in their own right and they’re entitled to have their views taken into account. You take the example, for instance, of education. As far as we could see in the new Education Amendment Bill, there wasn’t one instance of focused consultation with kids. When we tried to do it, we got some interesting answers. For instance, many kids said one representative on the school Board of Trustees is really tough. If you had three of different age groups, we could work together and we could make a real impact on the board.
How do you think that would work in practical terms? Because kids do often give their opinions, but if we don’t take them into account or use them, then they’re of limited value. So how, in practical terms, do you make it work?
I spoke to the Clerk of the House and his staff last Friday. We talked about how we can make select committees more user-friendly, understand the petition process. We talked about engaging with good civics education. But the most important thing is that we actually seek out children’s voices. It’s one of our statutory obligations. We do it through focus surveys, using the internet. We use focus groups. There’s a variety of good ways that can be used all on our internet. I’d encourage people to have a look at our website and see the ways that we recommend it. That’s why I float at maybe 16 or 17 year olds being given the vote. I think that our democracy is imperilled if a younger generation doesn’t connect to the process, especially the voting process. We want a community where everybody has a stake in it and votes in it. Scotland, Argentina, Brazil, Austria all give votes to 16 and 17 year olds. We could think about that. I know there are disadvantages, but there are also advantages. Habits formed early in life carry right through. Kids have a really interesting view. A 14-year-old said to me the other day, ‘You know, Judge, we should have two votes to your one. You grey-haired guys, you’re gone soon. We’re twice as invested in the future.’ I said, ‘What are your issues?’ He said, ‘Clean water, climate change, housing for everybody, and getting rid of child disadvantage.’ I thought for a 14-year-old to say that, well, there’s hope for New Zealand.
Where do you draw the line in that consultation process, then? Because we’re going to be talking about legalising marijuana a little bit in the show, so do you ask children about that? And what age?
I think the four things to say is that you always benefit from children’s voices and we ask them, we factor it into the decisions. Taking the views of others, and experts in the balancing process, and if we can’t give effect to what children, we explain why that is the case. But the important thing is we go through the process. You’ve chosen two issues that are relatively controversial. There would be nothing wrong, in principle, with hearing what children say. You might be surprised. We all might be surprised, because they might say, ‘That’s not something we want to be involved in.’ My own views are, whatever we do with the cannabis legislation issue, too many kids that I saw in the Youth Court had their brains utterly scrambled by regular cannabis use and dependence. We have to be very careful that we don’t endanger the physiological development of our children in the cannabis debate.
We’re running short of time, but I want to ask you about this call for an inquiry into abuse in state care because that’s something you support. At the moment, the National Government is the only party holding out on that, doesn’t want a bar of it. Your office has relatively free range to investigate issues. Is that something you and your office could take on?
Interesting question. Actually, I haven’t publicly supported it for this reason – since 1989 one of our office’s statutory roles has been to investigate care services to children. So, actually, our office had a stake in stopping the very abuse that has been complained about. So I think it would be inconsistent of me to publicly, enthusiastically –and I understand why the inquiry would be valuable –support it, when actually, we don’t exactly have clean hands ourselves. We were part of the process that should have stopped it. So that’s why I’ve backed away from that. For us, a key priority is to ensure there are processes in place for the future where this cannot happen again. Sadly, I don’t think it will ever be eliminated, but we must work to do all we can to stop abuse in the future and to stop an inquiry being called for in 2030 and 2040. I think we’re making progress, but we would be Pollyannaish to think that it won’t be happening again, and we’ve got to be absolutely rigorous, and we’ve got to have an independent and very clear complaints process that’s available for all kids in care right from the start. That’s something that I really have got significantly involved in and we’re giving the best advice we can to the new Oranga Tamariki that we can on that point.
All right. We need to leave is there. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for joining me this morning.
Transcript provided by Able.

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