Holly Walker

Will the White Paper address child poverty?

by Holly Walker

Submissions on the Government’s Green Paper for Vulnerable Children close tomorrow. Today is your last chance to have your say, which you can do with relative ease online here.

To give credit where it’s due, I applaud the Government’s efforts to solicit submissions on the Green Paper. From its online and social media presence, to the series of public meetings Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has attended around the country, to the poster I saw on my Wellington commuter bus the other day urging me to “say something“, this has been one of the most effective efforts at consultation (in terms of getting the word out) I have seen this Government undertake.

Thanks to these efforts, thousands of submissions will now be winging their way to the Ministry of Social Development. I hope the rumour that a draft of the resulting White Paper has already been circulated is not true, because submitters will have a lot to say, and their views deserve to be taken seriously.

One unintended consequence of the Government’s efforts to foster engagement in the Green Paper process is that there is a widespread perception that the Green Paper is about how to address the issue of child poverty in New Zealand. When I was in Whangarei in January at the same time as the Minister, the local paper called it a “poverty roadshow.”

In fact, it is anything but, though it should be. As you’ll find if you click through to make a submission, there’s nothing in the Green Paper about addressing family incomes, or material hardship, or child poverty, or inequality, even though we know these things are major contributors to the high rates of child abuse and neglect that the paper seeks to address. This is a major shortcoming.

Instead, it’s focused on quite narrow responses to child abuse, like information-sharing between agencies and mandatory reporting. There might be some improvements to be made in how agencies share information – though there are privacy considerations – but mandatory reporting could be downright harmful if it puts families off accessing support for fear that they will be dobbed in. Many of the NGOs, social service providers and individuals I’ve been speaking to about the Green Paper in recent months share these concerns, and say they have robust information-sharing and reporting practices already.

Perhaps more importantly, many if not all of the people I have spoken to have indicated their intention to address the issues of poverty, material hardship, financial stress, poverty, and inequality in their submissions even though the Green Paper doesn’t ask for views on these issues, because they seem them as so fundamental to effectively tackling high rates of child abuse and neglect.

Still more will no doubt make submissions addressing these issues due to the widespread (and understandable) perception that these are what the Green Paper seeks to address.

My challenge to the Government is this: take these submissions seriously. You’ve made a mammoth effort at consultation, now listen to what the people have to say. If they ask you to address child poverty, if they say that family incomes and financial stress are major contributors to child abuse and neglect, if they ask you to address these things in the White Paper – then do it! You owe the children you’re trying to help that much.

I tried to secure a commitment from the Minister that such submissions would be taken into account in my first question in Parliament earlier in February.

Paula Bennett was away and Judith Collins answered on her behalf. Her answer was that the Minister “is also going to look at what the submissions actually say before she comes to a conclusion.”

Jacinda Ardern asked a similar question the following week, this time answered by Chester Borrows, who said: “We look forward to everyone engaging with this process and bringing his or her submissions to the table, including submissions around child poverty.”

I hope very much that what these acting Ministers have said on behalf of Paula Bennett is true, and we can look forward to a White Paper that addresses the root causes of child vulnerability – poverty and inequality.