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Questions And Answers - Thursday, 8 November 2007

Questions And Answers - Thursday, 8 November 2007

Questions to Ministers

Benefits—Beneficiary Numbers

1. LYNNE PILLAY (Labour—Waitakere) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: Has she received any reports on the number of New Zealanders reliant on a benefit?

Hon RUTH DYSON (Minister for Social Development and Employment): Yes, I have. I am advised that the number of New Zealanders reliant on a benefit has continued to reduce. At the end of October there were 261,409 working-age people on a benefit—35 percent fewer than when the Labour-led Government was elected. Even more pleasing is the low number of those on an unemployment benefit. The numbers have continued to drop, and there are now fewer than 22,000 people on that benefit—the lowest number since 1980, and 89 percent lower than in 1999.

Lynne Pillay: Has the Minister received any reports on the unemployment rate in New Zealand?

Hon RUTH DYSON: Yes, as a matter of fact, I have. I am pleased to inform the House that New Zealand currently has the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded of 3.5 percent. For more than 3 years, unemployment has been under 4 percent. We are the only OECD country that has sustained such a low level of unemployment. That result is a testament to the continuing success of the Labour-led Government’s economic management and employment policies. That result should be contrasted with the outgoing National Government’s record in 1999 of 6.2 percent.

Judith Collins: Why is it that in the period of so-called record low unemployment, almost 130,000 people—5 percent of the working-age population—are too sick to work, which is a 50 percent increase since 1999 and is yet another record high?

Hon RUTH DYSON: It would pay the member to be a little more robust with the accuracy of her figures. In fact, the number of people of working age on a sickness benefit is 1.5 percent of the total population, and the number of people of working age on an invalids benefit—

Madam SPEAKER: It is difficult to hear.

Hon RUTH DYSON: —is 2.5 percent, which is a total of only 3.9 percent.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. We could not hear any part of that answer whatsoever.

Madam SPEAKER: I thank the member. I will ask the Minister to repeat her answer.

Hon RUTH DYSON: My answer advised the member who asked the supplementary question to be a little more robust in the accuracy of the information she provides in those questions. The number of people of working age on a sickness benefit is 1.5 percent of the total working-age population, and on an invalids benefit it is 2.4 percent.

Sue Bradford: Will the Government give serious consideration to lifting core benefit levels and linking them to a fixed percentage of the average wage—as already happens with superannuation, which is another kind of benefit—now that we have far fewer people on working-age benefits than we did at the end of the 1990s?

Hon RUTH DYSON: As the member will know, we are working on the issue of a core benefit, and announcements about that will be made in the first half of next year. The rate will obviously be reconsidered annually, as it is currently.

Te Ururoa Flavell: Tēnā koe, Madam Speaker. Kia ora tātou to the Minister. What response will she make to the Waikato, northern South Island, te kaunihera, Auckland, and Wellington branches of the Labour Party, which are demanding that the Government urgently consider enhanced income assistance for those on low incomes who are not currently entitled to support under Working for Families?

Hon RUTH DYSON: As with any representation from within my own party, I would give it very serious consideration. It is not a surprise to me that members of our party are concerned about people who are dependent on benefits and then have a comparatively low level of income. Our party’s policy has always been to support those people into independence as much as possible, and the results in terms of the unemployment rate that I announced to the House in answer to the primary question are certainly testament to the success of that policy.

Lynne Pillay: What other predictions has the Minister seen concerning the unemployment rate?

Hon RUTH DYSON: I have seen a report from 1999 where the Hon Bill English promised that if the country stuck with National’s policies people would enjoy an unemployment rate of 6 percent, and said that any promises of an unemployment rate lower than that were unrealistic and “a hoax”. I am pleased that the country chose to reject National’s failed policies in 1999, in favour of the Labour-led Government’s approach to employment. Unlike the National Party, we are aspirational about New Zealand’s future, and as proven with today’s announcement of a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, it shows how little confidence National had, and holds, for our country.

Te Ururoa Flavell: Kia ora nō koe, Madam Speaker. What response will she make to remit 38 concerning welfare benefits, as tabled at the recent Labour Party conference, which called for “urgent consideration for enhanced income assistance for family members taking on caregiver roles”?

Hon RUTH DYSON: To the best of my recollection that remit was supported by the Labour Party conference, and as a member of that party I am bound by a collective decision.

Tax Cuts—Structural Surpluses

2. Hon BILL ENGLISH (Deputy Leader—National) to the Minister of Finance: Does he agree with the Prime Minister’s statement: “if your surplus is structural as has now been conceded then you can start to address the dividend from a tax cut as well.”; if so, does that mean tax cuts are only ever possible if there is a structural surplus?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN (Deputy Prime Minister): Yes; and unlike those members opposite we have always maintained that tax cuts can and should be delivered when it is fiscally responsible, and they should not be funded by borrowing or by cuts in social spending. I note that in the latest New Zealand Investor magazine, once again, Mr English commits himself to increased borrowing.

Hon Bill English: Can he confirm the factual accuracy of the Prime Minister’s statement that it was only “in recent weeks” that he advised the Prime Minister that surpluses were structural rather than cyclical?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Yes. If the member cares to look at the Budget 2007 forecasts, he will see they show the surpluses coming back into deficit on a cash basis, and the operating surpluses dropping. In other words, Treasury was not forecasting structural surpluses of the size that it is now likely to be forecasting in December.

Moana Mackey: Has he seen any reports opposing the Government’s four tests for tax cuts?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The problem is that I am not really sure, because the National Party has never publicly opposed any of the four tests, but it has promised to borrow for tax cuts. It does not care about cutting social services, it shows a pathological disregard for the inflation tests, and it is fundamentally committed to increasing inequality.

Hon Bill English: If the Prime Minister was advised only in recent weeks that surpluses were structural rather than cyclical, why did it take him 8 years to pass on to the Prime Minister a quote from his own Budget Policy Statement of December 2000, which reads: “Projected operating surpluses are structural, not just cyclical.”?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Those are the operating surpluses, not the surpluses that enable tax cuts to be made. The member is still living in a fantasy world where operating surpluses consisting of retained profits—investments in things like the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, and the like—can be used for tax cuts. That is why he is quite explicit in the New Zealand Investor magazine that he will borrow more. That is how he would pay for tax cuts.

Gordon Copeland: Does the Minister agree that tax cuts can also be funded from expenditure reductions, including, for example, private sector alternative mechanisms or the utilisation of the Crown’s exceptionally strong balance sheet, to finance a higher proportion of capital in schools, hospitals, etc., through intergenerational debt, or asset sales, if these actions improve cash flows?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The notion of funding tax cuts from asset sales is about the worst possible idea that one could come up with, because, of course, asset sales then reduce the assets on the balance sheet and remove the income flow for the future from that particular asset. Asset sales, if they are ever to be contemplated by a future right-wing Government, should be used for the payment down of net debt, not used for current operating requirements. The argument that there should be much more long-term debt rests upon a fundamental error—that is, long term there are more demands on the Government’s operating requirements, not less, because, of course, we face an aging population with increased demands in areas such as health. What that actually does is simply borrow from our children to fund our current consumption.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Has the Minister heard of the maxim that if one’s policy is to rob Peter to pay Paul, then one can always guarantee there is a Paul, and has he not heard reports of that as the basis between the National Party’s relationship and the Business Roundtable?

Madam SPEAKER: The Minister cannot address the question on internal National Party affairs, but the other part of the question was in order.

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: I think the one thing that it is fair to say in the New Zealand context is that if robbing Peter to pay Paul is a fiscal policy, then the Paul usually seems to end up residing offshore.

Hon Bill English: In addition to the Minister’s Budget Policy Statement in December 2000 that operating surpluses are structural, not cyclical, did he show the Prime Minister a copy of the Beehive Bulletin from 2001, which states: “Finance Minister Michael Cullen says the Crown statements show the Government is easily meeting all of its fiscal targets and is running a structural surplus.”, or a copy of his Budget speech from 2001, which presumably the Prime Minister heard because she was sitting next to him: “Because revenues are trending above spending, the structural surplus is rising.”?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: What the member does not seem to quite understand is that with the New Zealand Superannuation Fund—and of course he laughs about this because he really does understand; he is pretending not to—an operating surplus of about 3 percent, or so, of GDP has to be maintained if debt levels are not to rise. What is more, given the earnings on that superannuation fund, that 3 percent figure will tend to trend upwards over the next 10 to 15 years, not downwards. Only structural surpluses well in excess of that give the room for revenue reductions or further expenditure increases.

Moana Mackey: Has the Minister seen any reports on structural opposition to tax cuts?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Well, yes, I have. When the National Party voted against tax cuts for families, that could be seen as a one-off. When they voted against the 2005 business tax reductions, they could try to explain that away. But when they voted against the 2007 cuts to the corporate rate—[Interruption]—members have to remember that I have the microphone; they do not—the research and development tax credits, and the tax cuts for savers, all in one go, it became clear that National’s opposition to tax cuts is now structural in nature.

Hon Bill English: Does the Minister stand by his statement of last year, when the operating surplus was $11.5 billion and his own definition of the surplus was $8.7 billion—both larger than projected this year—in which he said: “anybody who thinks there are large fiscal surpluses to be spent now by means of large tax reductions should be taken out and quietly drowned.”—and is David Cunliffe going first?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: No, he will carry on running his own show, in that respect. The member needs to look at Budget 2006 and Budget 2007. In both years Treasury was forecasting substantial reductions in the surpluses in out years. It has had it so far wrong over the last 2 years that the cash surpluses have been a total of more than $7 billion above what it forecast.

Hon Bill English: Given that in almost every year there has been a structural surplus—and Helen Clark has found that out, apparently, only in recent weeks—what is now the Minister’s definition of structural surplus; is it one that means “a number that I can tell the Prime Minister so she can give tax cuts in election year”?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: As the Prime Minister made clear in the speech to the Labour Party conference, I will be delivering the tax cuts next year, as the Minister of Finance. I go back to remind the member of two points—firstly, a structural surplus of at least 3 percent of GDP is required to avoid debt rising as a proportion of GDP. The National Party is clearly committed to increasing debt as a proportion of GDP—that is, borrowing from our children to fund current consumption. The second thing is that Treasury has been continously forecasting that growth will fall away and that the operating surpluses will decline. Treasury is now beginning to indicate that it believes there is a shift in the forecast surplus. That shift is not consistent with meeting the Government’s underlying debt targets.

High-country Tenure Review Process—Threatened Plant Species

3. NANDOR TANCZOS (Green) to the Minister for Land Information: Does he agree that the Government’s South Island high-country tenure review process has seen land rich in threatened plant species being privatised?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD (Minister for the Environment) on behalf of the Minister for Land Information: Tenure review has delivered important gains for conservation, public access, and diversified use of the high country. But the Government is concerned about how well it protects some important natural values over the long term. That is why, in future, tenure review will not proceed if highly significant landscape, lakeside, biodiversity, or other values are unlikely to be protected satisfactorily.

Nandor Tanczos: Can the Minister confirm that fewer than 10 percent of New Zealand’s wetlands remain, and is he confident that the Government will secure enough valley floor tussock lands, scrublands, and wetlands through the renewed process to support indigenous biodiversity in the long term?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: I cannot confirm the member’s figures from the notes that I have, but, of course, I will take him at his word. Already, 112 threatened plant species and 104 at-risk plant species have been protected by the return of the South Island high country to full Crown ownership following tenure review. So some good progress has been made, but I accept that we can do better, and we will.

Hon David Carter: Will the Minister guarantee to the House today that if such land is to be taken over by the Department of Conservation, it will do a better job of preserving the high country environment than that achieved by the farming communities and families over the last 100 years?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: I can confirm that that is the objective.

Dr Ashraf Choudhary: Is tenure review a voluntary process, and does it apply to the Crown, lessees, or both?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: Tenure review has always been a voluntary process both for lessees and the Crown. The Crown now intends to exercise its discretion not to participate in tenure review in some cases.

Nandor Tanczos: Which of the following is true—is it the Minister’s statement in June that “Tenure review has delivered important gains for … the protection of distinctive and rare ecosystems.” or the conclusion of Landcare Research and Department of Conservation scientists that tenure review has “caused a net increase in the risk of biodiversity loss”?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: I have not seen the second statement previously. From the information that I have been given, the first statement is certainly true.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Does the Minister take the view that private ownership can look after the flora and fauna and threatened species of this country, or does he take the communist view that all land should be nationalised, and therefore the flora, the fauna, and—in the end—humanity are threatened?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: I think it is fair to say that having a balance between private and public ownership is the proper way of getting proper protection for flora and fauna, and that is what is happening as a result of tenure review. I do not support the National Party approach of privatising national parks, nor do I support the communist approach that some people might have of the nationalisation of all private land.

Nandor Tanczos: Does the Minister have confidence in the new processes that he alluded to for selecting places with significant biodiversity values, when evidence now suggests that Department of Conservation managers regularly override the advice of scientists working in the field as to which sites have significant value, and that many sites identified as having significant values do not end up being recommended for protection as a result of that?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: In acting or answering for the responsible Minister, I have not had a briefing on the quality of the Department of Conservation processes, and therefore I think it would be inappropriate to answer that question in any detail.

State Services Commissioner—Inquiry into Environment Ministry Appointment

4. GERRY BROWNLEE (National—Ilam) to the Minister of State Services: Has the State Services Commissioner completed the investigation into the Public Service recruitment and employment of Madeleine Setchell; if not, when is the investigation expected to be completed and the report made public?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD (Minister for the Environment) on behalf of the Minister of State Services: No; soon, and shortly afterwards.

Gerry Brownlee: Why, 14 weeks after Dr Prebble commenced his investigation into this matter and said he expected it would take no more than 6 weeks, is that report still not released?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: The difference between when Dr Prebble said it would take 6-8 weeks and now is that the former State Services Commissioner Mr Don Hunn has been involved. Dr Prebble did not know that at the time he made the 6-week comment. I am advised that that was the case

Gerry Brownlee: Yes, he did.

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: Well, I was advised today that he did not know that at that stage, and that that is the reason it has taken longer. We know that former State Services Commissioners are very thorough and take their time. Mr Hunn will produce, I am sure, a very thorough report, because when people prepare these kinds of reports their reputations are at stake. There are some very important issues as to the quality of work done by Dr Prebble and the commission generally, and I would prefer to have the answers done properly rather than quickly.

Gerry Brownlee: Can the Minister explain further the explanation he has just given as to why the investigation has taken so very long, and can he rule out the suggestion that the length of time indicates a conflict between the report that Mr Hunn has produced and the willingness of Mr Prebble to accept his findings?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: As Dr Prebble has not yet received Mr Hunn’s report, it could not be the latter.

Gerry Brownlee: What confidence should the New Zealand public have in Dr Prebble and his report, when both he and Mr Logan have previously demonstrated serious lapses of memory when it came to revealing details of their own knowledge and involvement in this matter when the Deputy State Services Commissioner, Iain Rennie, initially investigated all the issues?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: The reason Mr Hunn is doing the investigation is that there were questions as to Dr Prebble’s involvement. He will make judgments on that, and they will be released. In a similar way Dr Prebble, as Mr Logan’s employer, will be making judgments, and they will be released at the appropriate time.

Gerry Brownlee: Is the Minister telling the House that there will be two separate reports, and that in any event, regardless of what Mr Hunn comes up with, Dr Prebble remains part of the jury, part of the defence, and the judge in this particular case?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: As the employer of Mr Logan, Dr Prebble is a judge. It is inappropriate for Dr Prebble to make judgments about himself, and that is why Mr Hunn is doing a report, and it will be released.

Gerry Brownlee: Does the Minister think that public servants should be managed out of their jobs because of potential perceived conflicts of interest?

Hon TREVOR MALLARD: It depends on whether those perceived conflicts of interest can be managed.

Taxi Industry—Standards

5. LESLEY SOPER (Labour) to the Minister for Transport Safety: What recent reports has he received about efforts to raise standards in the taxi industry?

Hon HARRY DUYNHOVEN (Minister for Transport Safety): Land Transport New Zealand has advised me that members of its newly established taxi enforcement unit have taken part in two major police operations in Auckland over the past month, which have been greatly welcomed and commended by the New Zealand Taxi Federation. Although it was disappointing that a proportion of the taxis were found to be non-compliant, mostly relating to licensing offences, it is very pleasing to see that the impact of the new taxi enforcement team and the pressure that is continuing to be exerted are having an effect on non-compliant operators.

Lesley Soper: What other work has been undertaken by the Government to raise standards in the industry?

Hon HARRY DUYNHOVEN: This Labour-led Government is committed to regulating the taxi industry fairly and firmly in order to protect people. We have set in place a new legislative framework, the majority of which came into force in October. It sets in place new requirements for approved taxi organisations, including greater recording and reporting requirements, particularly around driver behaviour, and tougher area knowledge requirements for taxi drivers in Auckland and Wellington—long overdue. Combined with greater enforcement of standards and increasing support and cooperation from the industry, it is having a very positive effect.

Capital and Coast District Health Board—Audit Findings

6. Hon TONY RYALL (National—Bay of Plenty) to the Minister of Health: When did the Ministry of Health first become aware of the findings of the audit of Capital and Coast District Health Board discussed in the House yesterday, and what external action, if any, was subsequently taken by the Minister “running this show” at the time?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE (Minister of Health): I am advised that the certification process for district health boards is an independent, statutory quality assurance process undertaken by the Director-General of Health.

Hon Tony Ryall: When did the Ministry of Health first become aware of the findings of the audit of the Capital and Coast District Health Board, and what action was taken by the Minister in charge at the time?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: I am advised that the Ministry of Health received the final Telarc report on or about 27 September 2007.

Charles Chauvel: What other steps has the Ministry of Health taken in respect of the Capital and Coast District Health Board?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: Separately from the certification process, the Ministry of Health, I am advised, has elevated the level of its supervision of the board to intensive monitoring. A number of serious issues have been identified, which the ministry is working through with the board.

Charles Chauvel: Why is it Government policy to certify public hospitals?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: Certification facilitates regular checking of quality standards and processes. It provides an opportunity for external auditors to identify issues and for district health boards to take action.

Hon Tony Ryall: What is so different that the Minister would threaten to sack the Capital and Coast District Health Board, when the Government had known about this damning report of failure and neglect at Wellington Hospital, for at least 2 months?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: I have made no specific threats to sack anybody.

Hon Tony Ryall: Can the Minister explain the contradiction in his comments in the House yesterday when he said he was running the show now but also said in one answer that primary accountability rests with the district health board and that it would be inappropriate for him to reach over that layer of governance?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: The latter comment refers to the statutory governance protocols and the relationship between the Minister and the ministry. The former comment relates to the difference between the Government and the Opposition.

Hon Tony Ryall: Now that the Minister is running the show, how long will it take to fix the failures at Wellington Hospital?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: No doubt the board and the management are working very closely with clinicians to address the issues that have been raised by the ministry.

Katrina Shanks: Was not this Minister playing amateur dramatics yesterday when he threatened to sack a board that he knows is going out of existence in 3 weeks, and how tough is that?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: As I explained to the House yesterday, a wide range of options is available to the Minister.

Hon Tony Ryall: Does the Minister stand by his comment in the House yesterday that he was expecting immediate and comprehensive action on the issues raised at Wellington Hospital, and is he aware that this corrective action plan, approved by the board in October, suggests that it will take 12 months to deal with most of the failures addressed in that report?

Hon DAVID CUNLIFFE: I expect comprehensive action to start immediately.

Emission Standards—Imported Vehicles

7. PETER BROWN (Deputy Leader—NZ First) to the Associate Minister of Transport: When will she sign off the rule that will impose new emission standards on imported vehicles, and when will the rule come into force?

Hon JUDITH TIZARD (Associate Minister of Transport): My colleague the Hon Harry Duynhoven has responsibility for signing ordinary land transport rules. However, I anticipate that the rule will be signed by the end of the year, once the procedural formalities have been completed. These include consideration by the Regulations Review Committee, which is currently taking place. Rules come into force no fewer than 28 days after being signed.

Peter Brown: Is the Minister aware that there is huge concern about this rule that the regulation will lead to significant increases in car prices, resulting in owners holding on to their vehicles far longer and thereby defeating the very objective that the rule and the Government wishes to attain?

Hon JUDITH TIZARD: I have seen that there is criticism; there is also support—for example, from Perry Kerr from the Motor Industries Association. However, what we are saying is almost exactly what we said in 2002, when there was a huge uproar that it would be the end of the used car market. We expect New Zealanders to have the ability to buy safe, affordable vehicles.

Hon Mark Gosche: Why is the Government moving to impose new emission standards on imported vehicles?

Hon JUDITH TIZARD: In 2002 we received the Health and Air Pollution in New Zealand report, which estimated that 399 New Zealanders die prematurely every year as a result of harmful vehicle emissions. The updated report released in July this year estimated that that number had grown to over 500 New Zealanders dying prematurely every year as a result of harmful vehicle emissions. This Labour-led Government is serious about reversing that trend and improving the quality and length of New Zealanders’ lives by improving the quality of our air and the quality of the vehicles we drive.

Peter Brown: Does the Minister accept that if car prices increase, it will affect working people first and foremost, and, knowing that, will she sign the regulation, which will effectively say: “Stuff them; let them eat cake!”; is that a reasonable summary of this Government’s attitude to working people?

Hon JUDITH TIZARD: The major group who are affected by poor vehicle quality through both impact standards and emission standards tend to be lower-income New Zealanders. We are attacking this issue on three levels: by improving fuel; by giving people operations like the 0800 SMOKEY campaign, so that people maintain and use vehicles better; and by improving vehicle standards. We are also putting major money into public transport and trying to encourage better urban design so that people live closer to where they work. We do a whole lot of things, but I am deeply concerned by the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who are suffering from heart disease, cancer, and bronchial and other problems as a result of the lousy air quality we have, mainly because of the commercial diesel fleet but also because of the whole of New Zealand’s vehicle fleet.

Peter Brown: Does the Minister accept that the whole purpose of the regulation-signing process is to remove bureaucratic hurdles and that all regulations signed off by Ministers are meant to be non-controversial, and, knowing that this regulation is very controversial, will she still sign it off, regardless?

Hon JUDITH TIZARD: I pointed out in my answer to the first question that I do not sign the regulations. However, that is at present being reviewed. Cabinet has not yet made a decision on the rule.

Hon Member: Who signs it?

Hon JUDITH TIZARD: The Hon Harry Duynhoven signs the rule. The member should have been listening during my first answer. The Regulations Review Committee is at present reviewing it. I do not believe it is controversial to try to improve New Zealanders’ health and lives.

Peter Brown: I seek leave to table this advertisement, which states: “We will show the price of cars—”

Madam SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table that document. Is there is any objection? Yes, there is objection.

Peter Brown: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. I would like to put it on the Hansard record that I was advised by the Minister of Transport, the Hon Annette King, that Judith Tizard signed off this rule. So I have to ask who knows what is going on over there.

Madam SPEAKER: That is not a point of order.

Schools—New Entrant Class Sizes

8. KATHERINE RICH (National) to the Minister of Education: Does he stand by the Government’s promise that new entrant classes will be reduced “to ensure that by 2008 there are no more than 15 students in a class.”; if so, will this promise be achieved in all schools?

Hon CHRIS CARTER (Minister of Education): Yes; by the end of 2008 we will resource all schools with a staffing ratio of 1:15 for year 1 students.

Katherine Rich: Can he confirm that close to 400 primary schools that have rolls of 176 children or fewer will not have access to the policy of one teacher to 15 students in junior classes because those schools are staffed on a different ratio, referred to as the maximum average class size, so he cannot guarantee that class sizes will be reduced to ensure all new entrants are in a class of 15 students, no matter how often he refers to himself as “a very good salesman” for education?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: The member seems to be confused about how the maximum average class size policy works. In fact, she is correct that the 1:15 ratio will not apply to some 350 small schools in New Zealand, because they already have a ratio that is often better than 1:15. They already have those numbers.

Sue Moroney: What impact would bulk funding have on the teaching of new entrant classes?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: Bulk funding—a failed policy supported by National’s associate education spokesperson Allan Peachey—would encourage schools to employ cheaper, less experienced teachers. By contrast, the Labour-led Government is getting on with the job of putting more teachers into classrooms. Indeed, since 2000 we have put almost 5,000 extra teachers into classrooms, over and above those required by roll growth. Total investment in education has risen from $5.7 billion in 1999 to $9.6 billion today, demonstrating this Government’s commitment to providing the best possible education for New Zealand’s children.

Katherine Rich: Was it a good idea for him to say that he got the education job because “I think a lot of my colleagues think I’m a very good salesman.”; and can he tell the House whether part of being a salesman is pretending that he can deliver the 1:15 ratio in junior classes in 2008, when nearly 35 percent of our primary schools will not be eligible for that ratio, when he faces a shortage of over 500 teachers, and when even his own officials have confirmed it will not happen until 2009?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: To be a good salesman one has to have a good product to sell, and we have a fantastic product. Over 5,000 extra teachers are in classrooms, education funding has gone up by $4 billion, we have introduced 20 hours of free early childhood education, we have laptops for every teacher, we have given broadband and free software licences to every school, we have reduced the number of students leaving school with no qualifications, we have introduced the Modern Apprenticeships scheme, we have dramatically increased the funding for industry training, we have significantly boosted participation in tertiary education, and so it goes on. What a fantastic product that is to sell!

Katherine Rich: Does he accept that when his Government stated that class sizes would be reduced to ensure that in 2008 there would be no more than 15 students in a class, parents took that statement to mean exactly what it said; and can he tell the House what he will say to parents next year when they find that their new entrant children are in classes of 20 to 25 students?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: The member seems to be confused about how the student ratio system works. I can easily arrange a briefing with officials for her, but ratios have always been introduced on the basis that schools themselves determine how best to use them. I am going into next year confidently, saying that this Government will deliver on its 1:15 ratio for first-year students.

Katherine Rich: Can he confirm that his officials have advised that in order to meet the shortage of teachers next year, “some schools might have to compromise on their quality criteria to employ extra teachers”; and what does he think principals, parents, and other teachers will think about that?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: I cannot confirm that. I can confirm that New Zealand teachers are among the best in the world, but we will continue to seek avenues to upskill our teaching profession, because we want to keep teachers modern, up to date, and first-class.

Electoral Finance Bill—Human Rights Commission

9. RODNEY HIDE (Leader—ACT) to the Minister of Justice: Does she accept the Human Rights Commission’s conclusion that the Electoral Finance Bill will have a “chilling effect on the expression of political opinion during an election year.”; if not, which part of the Human Rights Commission’s analysis is wrong?

Hon PETE HODGSON (Minister for Economic Development) on behalf of the Minister of Justice: No.

Rodney Hide: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that the Minister does not have to answer both parts of a question, but that question was on notice. It is an important issue and I would have thought that when a Minister is asked what part of the analysis is wrong, the Minister would be expected to address that.

Madam SPEAKER: I think the Minister did address the question. Normally members want a definite, clear answer, and I think that was given to that question.

Rodney Hide: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sorry, I did not express my point well. Yes, the Minister gave a clear answer to the first part of the question, which was no, he did not accept the criticisms by the Human Rights Commission; but the second arm to the question asked, if not, which part of the analysis does the Minister not agree with.

Madam SPEAKER: Does the Minister wish to add anything to his answer?

Hon PETE HODGSON: Except to make the rather obvious remark that there has never been an electoral bill put to an electoral select committee that has not been changed before it passes into law. The whole process of having select committee hearings is in order to make a good bill better.

Rodney Hide: Now that the Minister is running the show, will she be recommending any changes to the bill, in light of the Human Rights Commission’s trenchant criticisms, when the bill returns to the House from the select committee next week, especially now that she has been briefed on the lack of any significant changes made at the select committee; if not, why not?

Hon PETE HODGSON: The member will be aware that justice officials are advisers to the committee on this bill, as they have been for all such bills; that the submissions have been heard; that members have been considering the submissions; and that because no such bill has ever gone into a select committee and not been changed, it is a fair bet that this one will be, as well.

R Doug Woolerton: Does the Minister agree with New Zealand First’s view of the Electoral Finance Bill, which is that free speech is being protected, not endangered, and that huge, expensive campaigns by rich third parties do nothing to enhance democracy?

Hon PETE HODGSON: I most certainly do. New Zealand is not for sale to large purchasers of election messaging.

Rodney Hide: Supplementary question, Madam Speaker—

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Supplementary question, Madam Speaker—

Madam SPEAKER: Supplementary question, Rodney Hide—[Interruption] I have ruled on this many times.

Rodney Hide: Winston, sometimes they go for charm and brains over seniority.

Madam SPEAKER: Just ask the question, Mr Hide.

Rodney Hide: I thank you for your judgment, Madam Speaker. Does the Minister realise that the bill will fail in its primary purpose of stopping the National Party from putting up its billboards early in the new year because the National Party has already bought and paid for them, or will the Government now consider restricting freedom of speech retrospectively?

Hon PETE HODGSON: The minutiae of the Electoral Act is well known to the member and I rather suspect he needs to think through that issue twice.

Madam SPEAKER: Supplementary question, the Rt Hon Winston Peters.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I will make sure I look less alike than Rodney next time. Is the Minister aware that the Human Rights Commission has come back with a revised view of the bill that is far less critical and which praises the committee members and their attention to the submitters’ concerns—

Rodney Hide: How would he know?

Rt Hon Winston Peters: He would know that because if he is brought abreast of the issues he would know it on a daily basis. Madam Speaker, can I just repeat that because—

Madam SPEAKER: No. Is this is a matter that is before the committee?

Rt Hon Winston Peters: The question is about the Human Rights Commission’s view, for goodness’ sake.

Hon Dr Michael Cullen: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. The problem the Minister is in is that Mr Hide previously referred to the fact that no significant changes had been made in the select committee. Everybody in this House is aware that significant changes are being made, and, indeed, the Human Rights Commission is supporting those changes.

Madam SPEAKER: Yes, but the bill has not been reported back. This is a matter that is still before the committee. I apologise to the House; I should have picked up on Mr Hide’s question. The member may ask a supplementary question, but must make sure that it is within the Standing Orders.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Has the Minister received any reports, official or otherwise, or rumours or inferences that maybe the Human Rights Commission now has a different view—but then again one cannot be taking swimming lessons, sartorial lessons, and spending one’s time on Dancing with the Stars and not attending the committee to not know that?

Hon Bill English: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. The rules around privilege of activities in the select committee have been strictly kept to in this House for a long, long time. If you allow questions of that nature, asking a member if he or she has heard any reports on something, that will certainly break down the intent of the Standing Order. That question should be ruled out of order.

Madam SPEAKER: I agree with the member. We cannot trifle with this matter. The matter is before the select committee. When it returns to the House, it is the appropriate time to discuss it.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I seek leave to rephrase the question, if that is the difficulty. Why are we all so sensitive about this? I seek to rephrase the question by asking the Minister—

Madam SPEAKER: Please be seated, and we will get this cleared. I agree. The question was ruled out, but the member is entitled to ask another supplementary question.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Can I ask the Minister as to whether he will find it possible to accept, if there is a Human Rights Commission submission on the amendment at the committee, that there might be a revised view when he knows about it; and will that be part and parcel of the bill’s passage through the House?

Madam SPEAKER: It is an opinion, but it is not on what is before the committee.

Hon PETE HODGSON: The formal answer is that the bill is changed by the select committee at the point of deliberation. The informal answer is that there may well be significant changes as a result of the views of the Human Rights Commission.

Housing New Zealand Corporation—Confidence

10. PHIL HEATLEY (National—Whangarei) to the Minister of Housing: Does she have confidence in Housing New Zealand Corporation; if so, why?

Hon MARYAN STREET (Minister of Housing): Yes, because it is doing an excellent job providing housing for the most vulnerable people in our society. But there is always room for improvement.

Phil Heatley: Does the Minister agree with Housing New Zealand Corporation’s statement on its waiting-list website about the 6,500 C and D category applicants that “It is unlikely that we will be able to offer ‘C’ and ‘D’ applicants housing,”?

Hon MARYAN STREET: Yes, I do.

Pita Paraone: Does the Minister have confidence that Housing New Zealand Corporation can adequately address the issue of affordable housing in a timely manner to ensure the Kiwi dream of homeownership remains achievable for all New Zealanders; is so, when does she expect policy details to be released?

Hon MARYAN STREET: New Zealand is not alone in having to deal with affordability issues. That brings us into line with other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. However, we have introduced targeted support for homeownership, including the Welcome Home Loan scheme and KiwiSaver. As far as future activities are concerned, we will be piloting a shared equity scheme, and we are also considering, for the near future, a housing affordability bill.

Gordon Copeland: Does the Minister have plans to further explore the scope for Housing New Zealand Corporation to play a constructive role in addressing the now serious issue of housing unaffordability for first home buyers in New Zealand, especially those with young families?

Hon MARYAN STREET: Absolutely; that is a priority for this Labour-led Government. The housing affordability issue is a critical one and we acknowledge that, and we will, through a lot of creative measures, ensure that we address that issue in the near future.

Phil Heatley: When is she going to publicly announce to these 6,500 people on the waiting list that they will not be getting a State home?

Hon MARYAN STREET: The system for allocating State houses is done on a priority basis; C and D applicants are not as urgent as A and B applicants. We will get to the C and D applicants probably through a variety of measures other than State housing.

Sue Moroney: What has the Government done to address the housing needs of New Zealanders?

Hon MARYAN STREET: We have turned Housing New Zealand Corporation from a real estate agency, which it was under National, to a vital social service working across the country to house needy families securely. The corporation, since 1999, has implemented multiple initiatives such as the Rural Housing Programme, the Healthy Housing project, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, the Housing Innovation Fund, income-related rents, and the Welcome Home Loan scheme. We will continue to build on that.

Phil Heatley: How come the waiting list was only 8,691 in 1998 and Labour has since added almost 7,000 homes, yet the waiting list has grown to 9,955 today?

Hon MARYAN STREET: We have introduced income-related rents, which have had a knock-on effect in that respect. But can I also add that in the course of our Government’s tenure, we have added about 18 houses a week to the State housing stock, which compares, in stark contrast, with the previous Government’s record where it got rid of about 28 houses a week, on average.

Phil Heatley: Is the reason the waiting list has grown by about 1,500 families in the last 8 years, even though Labour has added almost 7,000 State homes, that there is a growing underclass in New Zealand?

Hon MARYAN STREET: There are a number of reasons why the waiting list may have grown. Can I say that if there is to be any answer to that, it will lie with this Labour-led Government and not any National Government.

Phil Heatley: Why has the waiting list grown by 1,500 families in the last 8 years, even though Labour has added 7,000 State houses to the housing stock?

Hon MARYAN STREET: With the introduction of income-related rents, we have more people queuing up for State houses. That is part of the issue of providing affordable, secure housing to the most vulnerable families in our society.

Hon Paul Swain: Can the Minister confirm that the waiting list would be a lot smaller if National had not sold off 13,000 houses when it was last in Government?

Hon MARYAN STREET: I repeat what I said a moment ago. The reduction of the State housing stock by some 13,000 under the previous Government does seem to average out to about the loss of 28 houses per week. That may have something to do with the figures also.

Phil Heatley: Is she then telling the House today that the reason why the waiting list keeps growing, even though she keeps on buying houses, is the unrealistic expectations Labour has put out into the community; and is she telling us that she is not even going to publicly tell the 6,500 families on the waiting lists that they will never ever get a State home?

Hon MARYAN STREET: If the member wishes to have a briefing on just how State houses are allocated according to need, then I would be very happy to provide him with that information.

Phil Heatley: I have the 1998 waiting list of 8,600, and I seek leave to table it.

Leave granted.

Phil Heatley: I have today’s waiting list of almost 10,000, and I seek leave to table that.

Leave granted.

Statistics New Zealand—Cost of Accessing Products

11. DARIEN FENTON (Labour) to the Minister of Statistics: What is the Government doing to reduce the cost of accessing Statistics New Zealand products?

Hon DARREN HUGHES (Minister of Statistics): In this year’s Budget the Labour-led Government allocated funding to make a further 250 million pieces of information freely available in an easy-to-access form. So far, I am pleased to say, $5.4 million worth of data that had previously been user-pays has been accessed for free. We have done this after feedback from business leaders and community groups told us that making such data available at no cost could generate real benefits. We listened and we acted, and the results show enthusiasm for the Government’s policy.

Darien Fenton: What types of statistical information are now being made freely available?

Hon DARREN HUGHES: A range of information has been made freely available, including local and regional demographic information, population projections, and household expenditure data. This information, which includes Digital Boundaries CDs and StreetLink files, is helping businesses to identify the size and characteristics of potential markets and helping community groups plan for the better provision of their social services. The Government is committed to giving information that is collected by Statistics New Zealand back to the businesses and communities so that informed decisions can be made based on robust data.

Early Childhood Services—Licensing Standards

12. PAULA BENNETT (National) to the Minister of Education: How many complaints has the Ministry of Education received about creches in gyms, swimming pools, and Sunday schools?

Hon CHRIS CARTER (Minister of Education): Between January and October this year, 18 approaches were made to the ministry seeking information about individual services. Creches at pools, gyms, and Sunday schools have had to be licensed since 1989. Like all early childhood facilities, creches at pools and gyms have to keep children safe. They need to have safe facilities and they need to have adequately qualified police-checked staff to supervise children.

Paula Bennett: How many children can gather in one place under the supervision of an adult before such adults are subject to officials telling them that they have to be fully licensed or close their babysitting service?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: This Government is concerned about the welfare of children. The member has on a number of occasions in the past raised the question of what happens at drop-off centres—for example, at gyms or swimming pools. We are looking at that situation at the moment to see whether we can get some flexibility in the regulations. But I remind the House again that these regulations have been in place since 1989. The National Government in its 9 years in office did not change them. We are looking at whether we can give some flexibility, but, ultimately, we want children to be in a safe environment.

Madam SPEAKER: The level of noise is rising again.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek leave to table a statement from a senior retired official from the Ministry of Education that in administering these regulations from 1989 to 2000 he applied common sense—

Leave granted.

Paula Bennett: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. My question was actually quite specific and quite easy. It asked how many children could gather. It was about the regulations. The Minister did not address that, at all, in his answer.

Madam SPEAKER: I think the Minister addressed it. As the member knows, no member can require a specific yes or no answer.

Hon Marian Hobbs: What steps has the Government taken to lower the cost of quality early childhood education for families?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: Some very significant steps. The Labour-led Government has introduced the historic, visionary, successful, and popular 20 free hours education policy. Just 4 months since it was launched in July, nearly 77,000 3 and 4-year-olds in teacher-led centres are now benefiting from the free hours. That is tens of thousands of New Zealand families who save up to $4,500 a year per child, all of whom will lose those savings if Paula Bennett gets her way and ends this popular and successful policy.

Paula Bennett: Under regulation, how many children can gather in one place under the supervision of an adult before such adults are subject to officials telling them that they have to be fully licensed or close their babysitting service—how many children?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: Since 1989, if people who have children left under their supervision are not the parents or licensed caregivers, they need a licence. We are working through a process to give us a little bit of flexibility for creches at gyms, saunas, and other such places that people go to.

Hon Marian Hobbs: Do I understand from that flexibility that the rules for a creche at a gym might not be identical to those for a full-time creche?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: Currently, they are. We are looking for some flexibility in that.

Paula Bennett: Is it now the law that a Sunday school must register as a fully licensed early childhood education centre or be closed down like the 10 gym creches that have already been closed recently?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: That has certainly been the law since 1989. We are reviewing it.

Paula Bennett: Is not the difference that National did not then go around instructing bureaucrats to shut down babysitting services, and trusted that parents actually knew best; how many more will the Minister close?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: What a curious new policy from National members: to ignore the law because they think it is bad. Well, we actually believe in fixing it up.

Hon Bill English: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. You are about to call my colleague for what I think is the final supplementary question. I draw your attention again to the Government’s habit of avoiding direct questions, so that the Opposition has to use up supplementary questions to try to get an answer. The Minister has already been asked twice how many children trigger the regulations that enable his bureaucrats to shut down Sunday schools, creches, and gym babysitting centres, and he has twice refused to answer that question. Either he does not know, which may be the case because he is a new Minister, or he just does not want to say that it is three—that might be the case. Certainly, it is outside the conventions of the House for him to continue to refuse to answer a direct question, until all the supplementary questions are used up.

Hon CHRIS CARTER: I was avoiding giving a number because I wanted it confirmed. I have just had it confirmed; it is three.

Paula Bennett: Is it not true that Sunday schools are under threat of closure because the Minister is waiting on a review, which started in the year 2003 and has been running for 5 years, when he could simply apply common sense and use his ministerial discretion to exempt under the Education Act—section 316(1)(b) for his information?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: It is curious, is it not, that that question has come from a member whose Government had the ability to do that for 9 years but did not. We have been working through this complex area of early childhood education, and I can assure the member that it will be resolved by next year.

ENDS


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