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OSCAR in the Community - Laila Harre Speech

September 1 2001

Speech Notes - Hon L Harre

Address to National Out of School Care and Recreation (OSCAR) Conference 2001 - "OSCAR in the Community"

Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation to be here today.

It's quite awesome to be in the company of so many people dedicated to the wellbeing and happiness of children and communities, and I would like to start by paying tribute to the work, usually unpaid or underpaid, that those of you here today so tirelessly do.

A special thank you also to the members of the National Association for OSCAR who not only organise this annual event but also work very hard to increase the professional standing and recognition of OSCAR services throughout New Zealand.

Working with children is demanding at any time, but the needs that OSCAR formed to meet go much further than simple day to day care and recreation issues. They overlap into workforce issues, gender issues and the broader role of the state in supporting families.

So if you thought you were simply involved with a group that was providing a bit of support for kids and parents before and after school, think again.

OSCAR programmes provide opportunities for children to socialise and be involved in recreational activities outside of school, and give many children a chance to take part in activities they may not otherwise have the chance to.

Quality programmes also provide an environment in which parents can be sure their children are well looked after, and the significance of the service OSCAR is providing is evidenced in the way the sector has grown over the last decade.

While it has been steady, this growth has also been fairly ad hoc and largely supported by volunteers, parent contributions and community goodwill.

Local and central government support hasn't been non-existent, but its fragmented and perhaps unfocused nature means that while OSCAR is still here today, it severely lacks the support to be confident that the network is moving towards a solid and formalised infrastructure. Because as you've identified, that is what's needed to reach full capacity, achieve adequate standards of care and move beyond that to enrich our children's lives.

That said, the excellent relationships that OSCAR has established with both CYFS and DWI mean that we have much information, research and evidence on which to work out the best way the government can support the network in coming years, and vice versa.

The first of these changes are due to come into effect next year, and OSCAR is an important part of a package of measures the government is looking at to make work a more worthwhile option for low income people and families.

Last year we increased the maximum number of childcare hours that OSCAR can be subsidised from 30 to 37 so that the level of payment would more realistically reflect the needs of parents in work or training.

As of next year the government will pay the OSCAR subsidy directly to you, the care providers, rather than leaving it up to parents to claim it individually through the Department of Work and Income. There were a number of problems with this regime, which I know won't be news to you. It was a lot of hassle for a very small amount of money, which meant many parents simply didn't bother. Unfortunately that also meant that they often didn't bother, or simply couldn't afford to pass this subsidy on to their OSCAR provider, who was then left with the arduous and often embarrassing task of hassling parents for money.

The new scheme will mean that parents still have to notify Work and Income of the fact that their child or children is enrolled in an OSCAR programme, but it will be up to the provider to directly claim the entire subsidy. It will mean a bit more work for providers, for example in keeping attendance records, but I believe it will be worth the effort, and I encourage you all to become approved to enable your parents to access this support.

Actually access to the subsidy also raises a whole raft of issues for parents and communities, and herein lies a bit of a vicious cycle. At the moment low income parents in work or training have been able to access an OSCAR childcare subsidy for primary school aged children provided their child or children are attending a CYFS approved OSCAR prgroamme.

But less than half of New Zealand's estimated 1000 OSCAR programmes fit this bill, and there is currently no requirement that OSCAR services be approved or registered.

We recognise the need here to help more programmes receive CYFS quality approval, and will be working closely with you on this one to work out the best way to achieve and monitor an across the board standardisation of services.

In the 2001 budget the government announced its intention to invest an extra $20.6 million over the next four years in both OSCAR and childcare subsidies, and to extend development assistance funding for a further year to OSCAR programmes threatened with closure because of financial problems.

Even with current assistance, it is clear that many programmes continue to struggle to make ends meet on parental fees alone. The government is well aware of this fact and recognises that a solid infrastructure needs more than just start-up help. It needs consistent and guaranteed funding, and I can tell you that in the coming months we will be closely examining our responsibilities to OSCAR on this front. Of late we've all heard too many stories about good programmes closing down because they simply cannot make ends meet, leaving a gaping hole in communities.

Take for example my local area, Waitakere City. Up until a couple of years ago the local council used to contribute to the cost of before and after school care and holiday programmes. With its commitment and reputation as a city signed up to the UN's "First Call for Children", Waitakere recognised the social and community value in having well run, well resourced programmes to look after the needs of both children and parents. The change of heart came with a change of council and the election of a ticket that was voted in on a platform of rates reduction. It defended its decision to cut OSCAR services by deeming this the domain of central government, saying that local authorities have more important things to spend money on.

Perhaps they have a point about funding, but I think it is a very shortsighted way to facilitate change.

The resulting closure of both OSCAR and Banardos care programmes has hit some of west Auckland's low-income and ethnically diverse communities the hardest. Not only is there a shortage of programmes in these areas, but many families don't even qualify for the fee subsidy and face a double whammy when it comes to accessing quality affordable childcare.

It's worth noting that an estimated 70 per cent of children attending OSCAR programmes have employed parents, and 80 per cent of children are European. So on top of the basic issues around access and affordability there are also specific issues to do with unmet demand, particularly for unemployed parents and Maori and Pacific Island families.

One of the most important issues here would have to be the relationship between employment and childcare, and the disincentive to work created by high cost and poor access. It's here that we need to look a bit more broadly at the scope and potential of OSCAR, which the Labour Alliance Coalition will be doing through the "Making Work Pay" project.

This project aims to explore ways the government can better support low income working people and families in a variety of ways, and reduce the marginal advantages that exist for many low income earners when it comes to deciding between work and a benefit. For example, affordable childcare could be what's needed to allow someone to make a successful transition into employment. It could simply be more cost effective to be around to look after the kids before and after school and during the holidays than paying someone else to do it, especially if you're earning the adult minimum wage of $7.55 an hour and expected to fork out $200 a week for school holiday care.

Making Work Pay will take this sort of scenario into account, and look beyond the basic need for job creation. I'm talking about things like the need for income security, the level of reward associated with being in paid work as opposed to a benefit and how we can provide better support for those who have a responsibility to provide care for dependent children. In short, it will be a package of measures to ensure that more people, particularly women who continue to shoulder the lion's share of caring responsibilities, have real opportunities to participate in paid employment.

So it's logical that out of school care is an important part of this package. The availability of quality and affordable out of school care has been identified as an important factor in helping parents move into the workforce. So it's in everyone's best interests - communities, parents, children's and government's - to work together to make sure that OSCAR programmes have a better chance of achieving and maintaining a level of financial viability.

The 1998 New Zealand childcare survey showed that parents of an estimated 31,000 children were not currently using, but wanted to use, out of school care programmes. The main reasons given were affordability and the lack of available services. Fifteen per cent of parents with a youngest child aged 5 to 9 and 10 per cent of parents with a youngest child aged 10 to 13 reported that problems with accessing childcare affected their participation in employment. Of those fathers affected, 61 per cent were prevented from changing their regular hours. For mothers out of the labour force, an astonishing 85 per cent were prevented from looking for a job.

Neither can we overlook the value of OSCAR in child development. One of the big issues we are addressing through the development of an Agenda for Children is how do we actually create systems that help our children to simply be children. This sounds simple to you, people who are actively following this agenda, but it actually demands quite a shift in thinking for many of the adults that are in charge of children and children's policy.

But this shift won't just be philosophical. It will ensure that our kids get a good deal from child policy initiatives, which must include policies to deal with the pressures families face when it comes to work/life issues.

While I was out consulting with children and young people on the Children's Agenda I discovered that there is a huge difference between children's approach to children's policy and an adult approach.

While adults focussed on childhood as a current process of "growing up", children focussed on childhood as a current state of being. In other words, for children it's not about what they are becoming; rather it's about what they are. For example, a parent might be focussed on how their work supports their child's development, while a child is much more focused on its impact on their life now. And another thing that came through very strongly is that children and young people are very aware of the stress, particularly through financial pressure, that juggling work and family life creates for their parents.

We now know that there is virtually no substance to the school of thought that would have us believe that what children really want is mum or dad to quit work and return to the home. Recent studies that actually get out there and speak to children themselves, particularly those carried out by Ellen Gallinsky, have revealed that kids don't actually mind mum or dad working, what they do mind is the impact work has on their ability to spend stress free time with their families.

It's great to see that you are also adopting the "Ask the Children" approach by involving young people in the growth and development of OSCAR, and I applaud you for including a youth stream in this year's conference.

So as you can see there is much scope for the development of a closer relationship between the government and OSCAR for the greater good of New Zealand children, parents and families. So keep up the good work. As was noted in a recent OSCAR newsletter, the reversal in government policy is evidence that the sector is being heard and that persistence pays!

I've heard it said that at the moment the only thing common to OSCAR programmes around New Zealand is the name. We know we will have achieved something for New Zealand children when this statement can be extended to include accessibility, viability and quality of care. I look forward to working with you to achieve this goal.

Thank you.

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