How to Have More Coherent and Directed Child Policy and Support Services.

The new government may talk about paying greater attention to children, but it needs to change the advice and delivery institutions to achieve its goal.

One of the successes of the fourth Labour (Lange-Douglas) Government was the restructuring of the scattered environmental responsibilities of the bureaucracy into three agencies: the Ministry for the Environment, which provides policy advice (and without which there would have been no Resource Management Act which consolidated scattered law), the Department of Conservation which brought together a diversity of operational activities into one agency, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (more below). The changes were not Rogernomics driven at all – they were led by Russell Marshall supported by Michael Cullen and Philip Woolaston – and they have been so successful that there are no demands to redisorganise them.

The sixth Labour (Ardern-Peters) Government could do the same for children. The Prime Minister has identified them as a specific responsibility (the Minister for Children is NZF’s Tracey Martin). Perhaps to match her the deputy leader of the Opposition, Paula Bennett, has children among her responsibilities.

The environment model may a good place to start. There could be a separate ministry for children which is the lead agency for policy towards them instead of relying upon responsibility for the policy being scattered among a number of agencies; the Ministry for Vulnerable Children which provides the support services, which already needs an overhaul even though it is only a few months old, while the Children’s Commissioner should become the Parliamentary Commissioner for Children.

A commissioner is an officer of Parliament, independent of the executive who reviews te activities of the executive government, reporting directly to Parliament. As well as a Commissioner for the Environment, there are also the Ombudsman and the Controller and Auditor General. They variously deal with complaints from the public and initiate policy and administrative reviews. Think of them doing what MPs or select committees might do, had they the expertise, time and resources – perhaps with greater discretion (since complainants are not so vulnerable to being mentioned in the House).

An interesting feature of the Commissioner for the Environment is that (currently) she represents something which otherwise has no representation or vote in Parliament; children are as bereft of such representation.

On the whole, we have had an admirable and successful succession of Children’s Commissioners. Upgrading the position’s status to a parliamentary officer would raise the status of children in the constitution and signal that the office was not subordinate to the executive.

The Ministry for Vulnerable Children has a dreadful title indicative of its faulty conception. It has tried to hide the stigma to the children with whom it is dealing by also calling itself ‘Oranga Tamariki’ (children’s wellbeing) and while that is a far better title and ambition, the use of the Maori term suggests the stigma is confined to them. (That it is sticking plaster, observe that the electronic address is ‘mvcot’.)

The Government has announced that it will change the name of the Ministry for Vulnerable to Children to the Ministry of Children. What a pity the new name does not match Oranga Tamariki However it is critical that it is not in charge of policy for children which needs to be in a separate agency and not subordinate in another. I leave others to untangle the naming of things.

Having insulted children and Maori, the MVC went onto insult taxpayers, by forgetting to include its head office charges in its calculations. I know there is a touching tendency in New Zealand to give another chance to those who did a botch-job – think of the numerous ministers who have been kept on – but in this case all those involved in choosing the title and doing the costings should be redeployed – Corrections perhaps?

The direction of Oranga Tamariki needs to be refined. It describes itself as ‘dedicated to supporting any child in New Zealand whose wellbeing is at significant risk of harm now, or in the future’. Perhaps a better remit (implied in the Maori title) would be ‘dedicated to supporting the wellbeing of children in New Zealand’. It would deploy its limited resources to where it can make a significant difference.

The ministry for child policy need not be a large one. It – indeed all government agencies and the law – will need an overarching concept. My choice would be that government policy should always take into account the best interests of children.

I came across the phrase in the 1970s as the title of a book (a contributor was Hillary Rodham – now Clinton; the voteless American children suffered from the election of Trump). Through the decades it has informed my perception of what has been happening to our children. Too often I cringe.

Take, for example, the repressive measures imposed on beneficiaries over the last nine years. My impression is that the measures were designed without noticing the impact on the beneficiaries’ children, let alone taking their welbeing into consideration.

A more specific instance underlines the failure. I came across a beneficiary who was found guilty of having fraudulently obtained extra benefits and was incarcerated. (She still denies she did and I can see why, but the ham-fisted law decided otherwise.) She was promptly sent off to the cells, without even a chance for her to farewell her children who were put into care (where at least one suffered abuse).

Suppose there had been a statute requiring that the best interests of children had to be taken into account. At the very least, the judge would have required a report about her children’s situation and taken that into account when sentencing. (As an aside, the children were also beneficiaries of the monies being disputed over but that fact does not appear to have been noticed by the court. Perhaps that was a good thing; in the current repressive climate they might have been judged as living off the proceeds of crime and also jailed.)

The statutory requirement of concern with the best interests of children would lead to all the government’s policy papers and legislation being checked against the standard. The claim that it would take extra resources would be an admission that government agencies do not bother nowadays; I am not surprised.

The checking would be done by the agency putting forward the proposals based upon guidelines set out by the Ministry of Children with the office of the Commissioner for Children verifying to Parliament it had been adequately done.

This relatively simple and cheap extension of the existing system would result in quality improvement to the lives of children. However, it does not directly address the complex and expensive task of substantially reducing the level of child poverty. That is the subject of a later post.


PS. There is no history of the child welfare services agencies, which go back at least to the 1960s as a division in the Department of Education. I am no expert on social work, but I would expect a quality history to give me some insight into the continuing difficulties the various agencies have faced. It might do the same for those running the current service.