Extract from submission to a Select Committee of Parliament (Social Services and Community Committee).
The proposed Child Poverty Reduction Bill is potentially world leading. However the mechanisms it proposes for the assessment and monitoring of poverty are primitive. As I said to the select committee, they are more like a penny-farthing than a modern mountain bike.
My submission detailed the weaknesses of the measurement, assessment and monitoring approach currently proposed in the bill. It explained how the suggested measures can be corrupted; that is, one can envisage policies which reduce poverty numbers according to the measures but actually increase poverty on any objective judgement. (This happened in the ‘Redesigning of the Welfare State’ of the early 1990s although I do not think the corruption was deliberate.)
In the course of discussion at the select committee, I was asked whether there should be an agency to report on how well the targets were being met. My answer, implicit in the submission where it draws parallels with the Fiscal Responsibility Act (now merged), is that while the Government Statistician should report on the outcomes, any monitoring and evaluation should be done by the public and by parliament rather than by a formal body.
The detailed submission is here. Below are some extracts from it. (The paragraph numbering is that from the original submission)
6.1 The proposed Child Poverty Reduction Bill enables the people of New Zealand, especially through its representatives in Parliament, to hold the government to account in regard to two important issues:
(i) the level of economic inequality in New Zealand;
(ii) the hardship among children and their families not only effects their wellbeing but compromises the long-term development of New Zealand.
It should be proceeded with following the amendments set below.
6.2 The Bill adds a further responsibility to fiscal policy in addition to the (now merged) 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act by explicitly adding a dimension of social wellbeing to narrower budget concerns. As such, it formally broadens the notion of fiscal responsibility.
6.3 Setting a target for reducing poverty among New Zealand’s children makes sense because:
(i) given its size and extent, child poverty is almost certainly the most serious issue of wellbeing in New Zealand;
(ii) reducing child poverty will have long-term benefits to New Zealand including improving the nation’s economic and social performance and its sustainability;
(iii) substantially reducing child poverty will also substantially reduce economic inequality in New Zealand.
Even so, the needs of smaller groups who are also in poverty through no fault of their own – such as from disability and sickness – should not be ignored.
6.4 The Bill is currently ambiguous as to whether it is concerned with absolute poverty – that is, individuals are in material hardship – or relative poverty, that is, whether they have sufficient to participate in and belong to their community and able to share in its progress. The Bill should make it clear that it is the second notion with which it is concerned.
6.5 The current measures of poverty levels and the numbers they report are imperfect. While they are useful for public discussion they are not robust for public policy or research. As such they need to be improved.
6.6 In the interim the flawed measures will have to be used for targeting purposes. It makes sense to choose a suite of targets, not only to reduce the inadequacy of each measure but to limit the ability of any government to manipulate policies to attain the particularities of the individual targets while ignoring the spirit of the exercise to improve the wellbeing of children. .
6.7 In order to replace the flawed measures with higher-quality ones the government should establish a working group of technically competent researchers. They should prepare improved measures (although they will be limited by data availability). However, the research working group should not make recommendations on the precise poverty line.
6.8 Instead, there should be established an advisory group to assess the research findings and recommend to Parliament and the government a suite of robust poverty lines. The advisory group should be representative by such social characteristics as age, ethnicity, family experience and gender. (However the chair of the research working group may be appointed to it in order give the lay group better access to the research findings.) Given a commitment, the work program and the decisions which evolve out of it should enable the incoming government in 2020 to set out revised poverty targets.
6.9 The import of these recommendations is that Parliament should not only pass the Child Poverty Reduction Bill, albeit with some improvements in the evaluation, monitoring and reporting, but it should also ensure that the measures necessary to implement it effectively are taken (including ensuring that there is enough funding to enable the research working group to work quickly and efficiently).
Recommend Changes to the Bill
7..1 The drafting of statutes involves specialist skills which I do not have. The following are intended to guide the those drafting the revised bill..
7..2 That all references to absolute poverty be eliminated from the Bill and that it be clear that notion is relative poverty perhaps as implicitly defined by the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security.
7..3 That the current processes of setting targets in the Bill be replaced as follows;
7..3a That each incoming government be required to table in Parliament a set of targets for poverty reduction.
7..3b That the Government establish an independent technical committee to provide measures of the wellbeing of children and other New Zealanders.
7..3c That the Government establish an independent representative committee to use the measures provided by the technical committee to make recommendations on a suite of poverty lines which the Government may use when setting its targets. .
In addition, the bill addresses Oranga Tamariki. I proposed one change which is such a no-brainer that one does not have to go into any detail
Part V The Best Interest of the Child
5.1 The Bill should include the principle that all activities of Oranga Tamariki involving a child, the best interests of the child should be paramount.
5.2 This would put into a New Zealand statute a central principle of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children which New Zealand has ratified.
5.3 In particular the Convention’s Principle 2 states
The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.
The submission recommended that:
7..4 That the Bill make it explicit that in the case of decisions involving individual children Oranga Tamariki should always treat the best interests of the child as paramount.