Children walking on beach

Is Anne Tolley competent to be Minister of Social Development?

It has been a full-on topsy turvy week. I have seen the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley lose control over what is happening in her portfolio, and I just don’t see her as having the competency to stay as Minister of Social Development.  Broadly speaking, the Minister isn’t bringing people and the community along with the changes she has decided to push through. Very real issues are being raised by tangata whenua, the Privacy Commissioner, and the community and voluntary sector who the Minister ultimately needs to deliver the programme of social change. Instead of properly consulting before announcing policies, the Minister seems to think she knows best.

Last week the Minister said the changes to the whānau-first principles in the Child Youth and Family Act had been too “nuanced.” This was reported as the Government going back to the table to fix this attack on the whānau-first approach. We, cautiously, celebrated this as a win for all the thousands of Māori and very esteemed Māori leaders and organisations who have been raising alarms about this for months now.

Then the Minister tweeted “To be clear – we’re not going back to the drawing board. Through the select committee process some of the wording of the Bill may change but its intent won’t. We will not be reinserting the whānau first principle. Safety will always come first.”

In answer to questions in parliament, the Minister avoided any explanation of what she meant by too nuanced and any responsibility for this mess. She said it was now in the hands of the select committee. The Minister has created a huge amount of concern across Te Ao Māoridom and the community sector. If she’s not going to back down, then she really needs to ask herself how she’ll achieve good outcomes for tamariki Māori in a more devolved model when she’s alienated the very people she will need to rely on the deliver the results.

She also avoided answering a question about how she can expect to get the outcomes needed for tamariki Māori when the official documents say they don’t think there will be any significant cost associated with these reforms. There needs to be a whole lot of resource put into changing the culture and system of the child protection system to ensure staff are culturally competent and enabled to find safe whanau to place tamariki when their immediate family isn’t safe.

Back in the 80s the report Puaote-Ata-tu told us how to do this. Most of those recommendations weren’t implemented and CYFS remained in essence a monocultural organisation. Successive reports have continued to tell us that tamariki were often worse off in State care/after state intervention than they would have been otherwise. This needs to end.

On top of this nightmare, Anne Tolley is also the Minister responsible for trying to push through without adequate (or any real) consultation the requirement for community organisations to hand over individual client level information to MSD in return for funding, from July this year. Just one week on from Anne Tolley saying in the House that she expected sexual violence providers to “reassure clients there would be sufficient privacy” she has exempted sexual violence services from this requirement for a year. The Minster says this is because sexual violence services are undergoing significant change. This is true for family violence services and this is true for all social services that MSD fund.  There are no obvious logical differences except Rape Crisis said they wouldn’t accept the requirement.  Women’s Refuge have expressed concern that this will mean women don’t seek help, other providers have said 40-60% of their clients have said they don’t want their information shared.

Then there are also the privacy concerns in the CYPF legislation signalled by the Privacy Commissioner who has said may be unworkable, unnecessary and might put some children at greater risk. He also noted Clause 38 in the bill “will allow a practically unrestricted range of agencies to receive, disclose, and use highly sensitive information about children”, which for example would mean a social worker telling staff at local swimming pool intimate details about a family. He told the select committee he had been consulted yet his submission clearly advised us not to go ahead with the information sharing provisions in the bill. Clearly Anne Tolley has ignored this and is waiting to see if she can get away with it, because she thinks she knows best.

The Minister’s seems to be alienating tangata whenua and much of the community and voluntary sector. The very organisations she’ll need to implement her reforms. A competent Minister would have realised that she needs to work with the people, not against them. Anne Tolley, it is time to go.