Holly Walker

Bill English wrong about child payment discrimination

by Holly Walker

This week I asked some questions in the House about child poverty. I wanted to highlight that while Working for Families (WFF) has been great for children whose parents are in paid work (the rate of child poverty has halved for such children since WFF was introduced), it has done nothing for the children of beneficiaries, 70 percent of whom continue to live in poverty, without access to the essentials.

Children have the same needs, whether their parents are in work or not. But if a parent loses their job overnight (as so many have in Christchurch), they also suddently lose access to part of their WFF support. The In-Work Tax Credit (IWTC) provides about $60 per week to help with the essentials for those on the lowest incomes, but only if you’re in paid work. If you can’t find work, or lose your job, you miss out, and so do your children.

When children have the same basic needs, regardless of the income status of their parents, this just isn’t fair. In fact, it discriminates agains some of our poorest children. That’s why we’re thrilled that our member’s bill to replace the IWTC with a child payment for all families who need it has been pulled from the ballot and will soon be debated in Parliament.

When I asked Finance Minister Bill English about this discrimination in Parliament this week, he said this:

“this case has been to every tribunal it can go to and no one has found that the difference in payment is discriminatory.”

In fact, that’s just not true. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) first took a case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal in 2008 alleging that the IWTC was discriminatory. In a 100-page judgment, the Tribunal upheld the claim of discrimination against 230,000 of the poorest children in New Zealand. However they did not go as far as to find that the IWTC was illegal, which is the part of the decision that CPAG appealed.

When the appeal was heard in 2011, the High Court again ruled that the IWTC is discriminatory. But it said that this discrimination could be justified because the purpose of the IWTC is to incentivise parents into work. CPAG disagreed and prepared an appeal on this point to the Court of Appeal.

Last month, the Court of Appeal granted CPAG leave to appeal against the decision of the High Court in relation to its claim of discrimination against the 230,000 children of beneficiaries.

So actually, Bill English was wrong. Successive courts have found that the IWTC is discriminatory; the issue is whether and how that discrimination can be justified.

We say it can’t, and that’s why we need our bill to replace the IWTC with a fairer, more universal child payment, that can help guarantee the essentials for all children who need it.

Meanwhile, CPAG is preparing the next stage of its appeal. Until now, the Office of Human Rights Proceedings at the Human Rights Commission has paid for CPAG’s top legal team. The Office is pledging to continue providing a junior counsel, but can no longer offer any funding for CPAG’s senior counsel, court fees or expenses. CPAG’s  counsel has committed to do some of the work pro bono, but they need to raise $50,000 to take their case to the Court of Appeal.

You can support their efforts to raise funds for their appeal here. They’re also selling three original Tom Scott cartoons, which first appeared in Bryan Bruce’s Inside Child Poverty documentary on TradeMe to help raise funds. But don’t buy them, ok? They’re on my watchlist.