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Commissioner for Children Bill first reading

11 October 2001 Speech Notes

Commissioner for Children Bill first reading

Mr Speaker, I move that the Commissioner for Children Bill be now read a first time. The Bill will be referred to the Social Services Committee.

This Bill is further evidence of this Government's commitment to children and the protection of children's interests, rights, and welfare. The Bill reflects an approach to children that is being carried through in the Agenda for Children work currently underway. At the heart of the Agenda is this Government's desire to enhance the place of children in New Zealand society. The Bill also complements the changes to the Human Rights Commission set out in the Human Rights Amendment Bill by clarifying the role of the Commissioner for Children in working for the human rights of children.

The Labour/Alliance Government has a clear commitment to making New Zealand a great place for children. In achieving our aim to create a more inclusive society and higher living standards for New Zealanders, a focus on children is critical. It is well known that children who experience good outcomes in terms of care, education, health and so on are more likely to do well later in life.

This Bill will contribute to improving the lives of children by improving the ability of the Commissioner for Children to protect their rights, welfare and interests.

Overall, the Commissioner for Children Bill gives the Commissioner additional statutory functions and explicit statutory powers in order to give better effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child here in New Zealand. The Convention was ratified by the New Zealand Government in 1993. This Bill improves the fit of New Zealand domestic legislation with the Convention.

Mr Speaker, the Commissioner is currently established under Part Nine of the Children Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989. The Commissioner for Children Bill will enact these provisions in a new and separate statute, with new provisions to give better effect to the Convention.

The three Commissioners for Children to date have all contributed in significant ways towards effective advocacy for children in New Zealand society. They have also played a major role in safeguarding the welfare of New Zealand children.

This Bill builds on work done by the Social Services Committee when considering the Member's Bill, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Children Bill, introduced in the previous Parliament by my Government colleague, Mr John Wright, and carried over to this Parliament. I would like to thank the Social Services Committee for their excellent work and contribution.

The Bill will re-enact the Commissioner's functions, with additional functions that are consistent with the Commissioner's primary role as an advocate for children. The new functions include:

- promoting the establishment of accessible and effective complaints mechanisms for children and monitoring complaints;

- raising awareness and understanding of children's interests, rights and welfare;

- raising awareness and understanding of the Convention;

- acting as an advocate for children's interests, rights and welfare generally, and in that regard, advancing and monitoring the use of the Convention by government;

- presenting reports to any court, at the court's request, if there are issues in the proceedings relating to the Convention or the interests, rights or welfare of children generally; and

- promoting children's participation, and an approach that gives weight to their views, in decisions affecting the lives of children.

The Bill also changes the Commissioner's current investigative function so that the Commissioner can investigate any decision or recommendation made, or act done or omitted, in respect of a child. This means that the investigative function is not limited to decisions under the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act.

Mr Speaker, the Bill takes an unprecedented step in raising the profile of human rights for children. It explicitly gives the Commissioner the right to report directly to the Prime Minister on matters affecting the rights of children.

Mr Speaker, this Bill puts the Commissioner's independence beyond doubt. It also strengthens the Commissioner's powers and provides for new principles for the exercise of the Commissioner's functions and powers.

Those principles are that the Commissioner:

- should have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child;

- should give serious consideration to the views of children and take those views into account; and

- should recognise the diversity of children in New Zealand.

The Bill also provides that the principles set out in section 5 and 6 of the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act will continue to apply to the Commissioner's work. The section 5 principles are to guide the Commissioner in decision making under that Act. They are:

- families should participate in decision-making;

- family relationships should be maintained and strengthened;

- the welfare of the child or young person and the stability of his or her family should be considered;

- the wishes of the child or young person should be ascertained;

- the support of children and young people and of their parents, guardians or caregivers should be obtained for decisions; and

- decisions that affect a child or young person should be made within a timeframe that is appropriate to the sense of time of the child or young person.

The section 6 principle is as follows: where any conflict of principles or interests arises, the welfare and interests of the child or young person shall be the deciding factor. This principle applies to care and protection matters included in the Children Young Persons and Their Families Act.

The Bill sets out a copy of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in a schedule in order to reinforce this Government's commitment to that Convention, and to increase New Zealanders' knowledge and understanding of the Convention.

Mr Speaker, accurate information is critical to the Commissioner's role in investigating matters relating to children and inquiring into matters that relate to the welfare of children.

The Bill gives the Commissioner, for the purposes of the Commissioner's investigation and inquiry functions, powers to require the supply of information and documents, and to apply to access court records. These powers are crucial to ensuring that the Commissioner can track down information that is needed to complete investigations, and to uphold the human rights of children.

Mr Speaker, the Government recognises that personal information about children must be protected with the same vigilance as all personal information about New Zealanders. The Bill requires the Commissioner and his or her employees to maintain secrecy in regard to any information obtained in the course of an investigation.

The Bill empowers the Commissioner to refer a matter that he or she is proposing to investigate or inquire into to another statutory officer or office, such as the Health and Disability Commissioner or the Privacy Commissioner or to a department more appropriate to deal with it. It also empowers the Commissioner to consult with, and supply information to, those officers or departments.

The Bill also provides for matters relating to the appointment of the Commissioner and the administration of the Commissioner's office. It sets out standards that are fitting for an organisation of government and that are consistent with this Government's approach to the governance and accountability of Crown entities.

Mr Speaker, it is clear that any knowledge society needs to focus on children as a cornerstone of success. Children are our future and this Government aims to ensure that New Zealand is once again the best place in the world to be a child.

This Bill will put into place the necessary legislation to ensure that the Commissioner for Children can be fully effective in protecting and advocating for the rights of children in New Zealand. The new functions and powers provided for by this Bill will significantly enhance the ability of the current and future Commissioners to fulfil their role.

I commend this Bill to the House.

ENDS


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