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Address to Child Policy Seminar - Laila Harre

Hon. Laila Harre
July 19 2000 Speech Notes

Embargoed against delivery


Address to Child Policy Seminar
Focus on the future: an agenda for children
7.30pm, Beehive Theatrette

Good evening, and thank you to all of you who have travelled here from around the country to take part in this seminar.

I would also like to pay tribute to the people who are not here, but make a positive contribution to children's lives on a daily basis.

Your input is crucial if we are to set an agenda that comes close to achieving the objectives that Labour and the Alliance set out before the people last election.

These objectives recognised that we are not sufficiently meeting the needs of our children and young people, and that the development of public policy should not solely be the preserve of central government and its agencies.

Most importantly, the development of this agenda must involve children and young people themselves. As we meet, the people we are talking about are in classrooms, at home, on the streets, working, in hospital, looking after others, playing and talking with friends.

Setting the Children's Policy and Research Agenda is just one of the ways we will work towards meeting the real needs of children and young people over this term of government.

Youth health and sexual health strategies are also under development, and the first ever Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa.

This will provide a statement of the government's goals for young people and set out how we plan to work towards achieving them.

Rather than being mutually exclusive, these strategies should be the strands we use to weave a holistic and coordinated approach to youth policy across government.

I think there is a significant risk of duplication with so much under review by government – in health, education and youth development. There is absolutely no point in engaging in several processes when one will do. For this reason I see it as vital that this seminar and any further work it leads to is not conducted in isolation.

For the purposes of this agenda we are focusing on children and young people under 18.

In doing so, we must focus more on developmental stages than the confusing myriad of age bands outlined in government policy, or the legal ages that tell young people what they can and can't do.

But what does the label 'child' really mean?

At the moment, each government portfolio has a different set of assumptions on who a child or young person is and the best way to interact with them. The result has been a very uncoordinated approach to the delivery of services, either directly to this group or through their families.

This is coming through strongly in consultation on the government's draft report to the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child.

One example was put forward by IHC regarding a young girl, who, because of a disability needed a special chair to help her sit comfortably at school. It took 18 months for this child to get a seating assessment, yet an assessment of what technology she needed could not be done until her seating assessment was completed.

In this case, the interface between education and health became blurred, with the child caught in the middle while government departments argued over who should pick up the tab. While the debate went on this young girl had to attend school in an adjustable buggy provided by the Health Funding Authority.

Too often we hear about children with special needs who are subjected to multiple assessments against criteria that varies according to different sectors' views of what they are responsible for.

Whether able-bodied or not, positive youth development is not about giving our children what they need to get by. It's about giving them what they need to thrive in all their main social environments – at home, at school, in the community and with their peers.

We need to think carefully about what we can do to protect our children and teenagers from the different pressures they face in each of these environments. In other words, we need to focus on what we can do to build resiliency, rather than looking only at the risks they face and trying to decrease those.

While we have much anecdotal evidence about where children and young people are falling through the gaps in current policy, there is very little hard data with which we can back up these assumptions.

For example, we know intuitively that an increasing number of young people are entering the workforce before they are legally entitled to minimum wage protection.

It's very difficult to convince some people that under-16s need to be protected from exploitation in the workplace when there's no evidence with which to argue the case. Information on the working habits of teenagers over 16 is also scant, and virtually non-existent if you're after a detailed demographic breakdown.

We complain that our children are being treated badly, but in cases like this we can't even claim to know just how badly.

We may not see paid work as a natural function of childhood, but for a growing number of young New Zealanders it is a reality. Ignoring this fact by not reflecting it at a policy level doesn't stop 13 and 14 year olds giving up their homework time to stack shelves in the local supermarket. It simply creates an environment where our young people don't have the same rights as other workers, for no other reason than their age. If the same logic were applied to any other group, it would be an out and out case of discrimination.

But it's not only policies directly relating to children and young people that promote positive outcomes. We must also equip parents and caregivers with what they need to do the job well, and make policy decisions that promote their opportunities to participate at all stages of a child's life.

Like Paid Parental Leave, I have to say that it offends me to hear the strident opposition of employer advocates to even the possibility a levy of around $1.20 a week to fund 12 weeks maternity pay on the basis that having children is a lifestyle choice, and supporting parenting is not an employers' responsibility. I'd like to know when we exempted employers and employment from society.

Employment is a social process and as such inseparable from the other things we do, such as having children. If we cannot accommodate the most primal relationships and the most basic of social responsibilities alongside jobs then things have to change.

Family-friendly policies are inherently child friendly, and acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of workers, mothers and fathers, have children in their lives that require their care and attention.

I am certain that improving conditions for working parents, and enabling parents to join the workforce without compromising their care for others are necessary requirements for the wellbeing of children and teenagers.

We also need to find ways of working with, and relating to, children and young people that empower them, and make them feel as if their contribution to society is truly valued. This means looking honestly at the degree to which we actually exclude them from the democratic process.

Up until now, the government hasn't even considered consulting children and young people on many issues that affect them significantly. And while it can be argued that certain lines of communication are open to those of all ages, can you imagine making a submission to a select committee if you are 12?

It's even less likely if you are 12, have a disability, or speak English as a second language. But more than being seen and heard, children and young people should be looked at and listened to. It's up to us, the adults, to create the opportunities for this to happen.

I accept this means deep change in our power relationships with children and young people, which means more than changing formal rules. But changing formal rules can affect behaviour outside the rules. For instance, the current review of guardianship rules and family court processes will affect children and should involve them. Children and young people want more say in family matters. But will grown ups let them have it?

As long as we lead by example and keep talking to one another, the Children's Research and Policy Agenda and the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa will become two parts of the same thing. This will be an overarching statement about how we propose to care for, support and respect children and young people as they grow into adulthood.

I can personally vouch for the fact that there are children and young people out there who also want to be part of this process. I look forward to working with you tomorrow, and over the coming months and years, to find ways we as grown ups can do our bit to improve the status and self-esteem of our children.

Thank you.

ENDS

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