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The Nation: Judge Andrew Becroft

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Judge Andrew Becroft

Youtube clips from the show are available here.

Headlines:

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft calls on National and Labour to work together to cut child poverty rates by 10% by the end of next year. He says the measure that should be used is one of material deprivation, which includes 149,000 children. “We need to have a cross-party debate about what we can do at a basic level to turn the figures around.

Judge Becroft says the $2.2million a year his office gets in funding is not enough to help all vulnerable children and he’s in talks with the Minister and the Ministry of Social development about getting more.

Judge Becroft says he’s speaking to the Indian Association at a meeting today to allay their fears about 17-year-olds being moved from the adult courts to the Youth Court.

Ever since the 2014 election, Prime Minister John Key has named child poverty as a top priority, but has the Government’s strategy of increasing benefits and creating more jobs worked? Critics say the problem is only getting worse, and the Government is failing New Zealand Children. Well, joining me now is Children’s Commissioner and former principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft. Thanks for joining me this morning. Now, you support raising the Youth Court age so teenagers up to the age of 18 can go through that system. One case that’s got a lot of attention this week is Losi Filipo. He was 17 at the time of his offending. Would you want him to go through the Youth Court?

Including 17-year-olds in the youth justice system is the right thing to do. It’s what the rest of the world does. It’s consistent with the brain science and, you know, the public could be reassured. All the most serious offenders now who get prison would get it if they came into the Youth Court. Youth Court’s flexible. It’s a way of investing in, I think, our most crucial age – that 16, 17-year-old age. If we get it right there, we’ve got a great chance to get people out of the criminal justice pipeline. Yes, Losi Filipo would have been in the youth justice system. He was at school at the time. He would have had a number of interventions. He’s exactly the sort of person that you would want in the youth justice system, because I think we could do a very good job with him in addressing the underlying causes, the reasons for his offending. He may have got 12 or 18 months’ worth of programmes, interventions, counselling, expectations that he had to fulfil.

But you would have seen the public backlash around that, so I’m wondering if there’s a political will to push forward with a change like that, because the Government report into the UN committee on the rights of the child said they have no plans to change that age, and the meeting was only a month ago.

In fact, at that meeting, it was announced by Minister Tolley that there is support for it. There’s a paper going before Cabinet. It will be decided in the next month. I hope we grasp the opportunity. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – at least in my lifetime – to do the right thing and to provide real hope, I think, for the New Zealand youth justice and criminal justice system. The whole of the rest of the world does it. We will get severe international criticism if we don’t. We lead the world in so many areas, but if we don’t include 17-year-olds, it will be an enduring stain on our otherwise good record, for which there would be no excuse.

How confident are you that it’ll happen?

Oh, I’m optimistic. I think it’s the right thing to do. I think most politicians now, when they understand it, know that it’s the right thing, but the real issue will be public perception. When the public’s properly informed that there’s no need to fear, that the most violent offenders would be dealt with appropriately, then I think the public would say, ‘Ah.’ And then, for the moderate to minor offenders, we could really do something different, and I think the public ought to be reassured. I’m confident.

Even the people who support this, though, they are worried that it won’t be properly resourced. I mean, we had the Police Association here last week. They said overnight, they would probably need about 75 more Youth Aid officers around the country. Do you share concerns about whether we will put the money into supporting a chance like that if it happens?

First thing to say is numbers in the youth justice system have halved in the last five years. If we include 17-year-olds, we wouldn’t even get the numbers that we had five years ago. We coped then. We haven’t lost resources. So we just need to take a deep breath and say of course there’ll be anxiety about adding another year cohort into the system, but we’ve got the resources. We coped five years ago with the same numbers. I accept—

So you don’t think we need any more resources?

Oh, 17-year-olds may be more demanding. They may present more of a challenge. Of course, we may need some more, but we just have to stop and just be a bit realistic and not get into a doom-and-gloom mentality. We did cope five years ago. We ought to be able to cope with slight adjustments now, but of course, there will need to be some new resources, but to talk about doubling resources and those sorts of things will be, I think, needlessly panicky at this stage.

Well, you talk about the public being fully informed, that you can talk them around to it if you’ve got all the information. The thing is one of the Indian Associations is strongly opposed to any move to change the age. They feel that small retailers are being targeted by young people who know that they’ll go through the Youth Court, and they don’t think the Youth Court is a deterrent. How are you going to win that community over?

As it happens, in an hour’s time, I’m going to the Indian Association to talk about that very issue, to try and explain that those young people who are involved in deliberate armed group aggravated robberies will be imprisoned, can expect to be imprisoned, and are imprisoned now. I’m not proud of the fact, but we have about 20 to 30 under-17-year-olds in New Zealand in prison now. A 14-year-old received seven years imprisonment for rape. A 15-year-old for violent assault. The system can deliver. I’ll be telling the Indian Association that of course I understand their concern. No one wants corner diaries targeted. No one wants violent young people. But if there are violent incidents like that, the public needs to know when a line’s crossed, there will be consequences.

Do you just think they’re misinformed? Is that what you’re saying?

Essentially, I do. I think there’s a misapprehension, that somehow we’ve got a soft, kumbaya-singing, Milo-drinking Youth Court that won’t hold kids to account. The law requires that we do it. I didn’t spend 15 years as Principal Youth Court Judge for a soft, ineffectual system.

But people who look at the Losi Filipo case will think it was Milo-drinking kumbaya. You would have seen that in the public.

Yeah, but he wasn’t in the Youth Court.

No.

We don’t know what would have happened had he been in the Youth Court. But, yes, someone like that, age 17, at school, would have been dealt with at the Youth Court. I like to think it would have been dealt with effectively. And it’s a totally different paradigm – far more resources available with an idea to turning a young person’s life around, and accountability, and there’ll be aspects of consequential punishment. Can’t escape that.

OK. I want to move on to child poverty. It’s a big issue for this country, and the Child Poverty Monitor says there’s still, like, 305,000 children living in poverty. Now, the Government would dispute that, and I’m wondering if that’s part of your problem. There are no definitions, no targets. We don’t even know what we’re aiming for, do we?

Absolutely agree. The debate is bedevilled by cross-talking talking and no agreement on a suite of appropriate measurements. My plea would be that the Government and the community cross-party agree on a series of basic measurements. The 305,000 young people is income-related relative poverty.

So we set a firm target?

That’s one measurement. That’s one measurement. We’ve got one of about 149,000 material deprivation. Another measurement – 99,000 serious genuine lasting—

What do you think the measures should be that the Government should sign up to?

Well, I heard Minister Tolley say the material-deprivation rate, 149,000; serious poverty, 99,000. If only we could agree on a rate, then we could set a target. I mean, it’s disingenuous to say, ‘Well, we don’t want any child poverty.’ The question is how we’re going to get there. Next year we need a target – 3% reduction, 5% reduction. We need some doable, agreed policies. I’m concerned that the child-poverty debate becomes politicised. It’s more important than that. Old people in New Zealand, 65-plus, have six times better security and relative advantage than young people. We’ve got 1.2 million under-18-year-olds in New Zealand. We need to have a cross-party debate about what we can do at a basic level to turn the figures around. In fact, the-

But Judge Becroft, sorry to interrupt you, but I’m just interested there. You mentioned two things – reduction – 3% and 5%. So tell me what your agreed- what you think the measure is and how much that we should be aiming to lower it by realistically.

I think the measure should be the material-deprivation rate. There are 17 criteria. If children are in families with more than six of those, they’re said to be materially deprived – that’s 149,000. I’d like to see a 5% to 10% reduction by the end of next year. Both parties prior to the election could agree to do that.

That is an ambitious target, so how do you get there? Because the Government would say it’s doing its bit. It’s raised benefits by $25 a week. But your predecessor said on the show, actually, that it’s not just about families being able to feed their kids and just survive; it’s about being able to participate in society. So how much is enough income to participate in society? Do we need to look at tagging benefits to wages?

There will be a number of, I think, issues that will need to be discussed. We do know that simply raising benefits, while it’s a start, it will need billions of dollars to bring massive changes. And I quite agree that that material-deprivation rate will include things like access to computers, access to health, access to good schools. If only we could just click our fingers. But we know that in the early ‘80s it was about 6%, and we know now that it’s risen to unacceptable levels – either 15% if you take the material-rate; 30% if you take the income-related poverty debate.

Well, one thing that the Government’s doing is revamping Child, Youth & Family into what it’s calling the Vulnerable Children’s Ministry,…

Dash – Oranga Tamariki. That’s the full name, Lisa. Better get that right.

…Oranga Tamariki. Yeah. Well, the UN has expressed concerns that the focuses may be too narrow. Do you share those concerns?

Actually, I was there in Geneva, a very reassuring process. First of all, they said the name seems strangely inappropriate and stigmatising. Well, we’ve had that debate. It seems to have been lost. To be fair to the Minister and the Ministry, the aim was always to replace the Child, Youth & Family focus on abuse and neglect and youth offending with the new agency. I think the choice of the name has inadvertently widened the scope, and the committee asked, understandably, ‘What are we doing for disabled young people, refugee and migrant young people, otherwise marginalised young people? What’s the definition of vulnerability?’ Minister Tolley reflected on that and said, ‘Well, maybe we have widened the scope in the public mind. The focus of the new ministry is only going to be those at risk of abuse, neglect and youth offending,’ and the committee in Geneva fairly asked, ‘Well, what’s then the overarching comprehensive policy for all under-18-year-olds, for all disadvantaged?’ Now, that’s still not addressed.

Well, the Government is focusing, as you’d know, on social-investment policy, which is ultra-targeting by another name, so you put all your resources into children who you identify as being the most needy. But aren’t you worried about the kids who are just above that cut-off? Is that a policy that you buy into?

I mean, two things you can say about that. It is right, I think, to target those who early on seem to be most at risk. We should be putting emphasis there. Yes, there’ll be some false positives – not everyone in that group will turn out to have adverse life outcomes – but I think most of the community would agree, let’s start by targeting our most disadvantaged. But the bigger question is – what are we doing in terms of all disadvantaged, vulnerable young people wider than the current definition that is being used? And the United Nations asked very clearly, ‘Where is the sense of an overarching, joined up, comprehensive policy for all disadvantaged?’ And that is a fair question, and the answer is at this stage, we don’t have it yet.

That ministry is getting funding that’s being, in part, taken off other ministries.

Education and health.

Yeah, and taken from Corrections and Work and Income. 100 million reappropriated in the first year and 400 million from over about four years.

Still to be agreed by Cabinet, I might say.

Are you worried it’s under-resourced? It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul right from the get-go?

Too early to say. I’m worried at this stage that some of the wide vision might be being constricted by what you might call pragmatic realities. Decisions haven’t been made on what other government departments are going to contribute to the system. That’ll be the big battle, I’m sure, in Cabinet. But unless this agency is resourced properly upfront, unless it’s working well with other departments, we’re just setting ourselves up for another review in five-to-10 years’ time. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.

So you’re sceptical about whether it’s going to be resourced-?

No, I won’t go that far, but part of my independent role is to look at it and challenge. We don’t know the answer to that question about resourcing yet, but you can be sure that my office and other NGOs will be absolutely adamant to see that the proper resourcing is put in place, because without it, we’ll have another agency following on from CYFs that can’t quite deliver as it should. We’ve got to get it right this time, Lisa.

We’re running out of time, but I want to- You talk about resourcing. I want to ask you about your own resourcing. Your office hasn’t had an increase in baseline funding I think it’s from 2008.

2009, I think. You’re well researched, Lisa.

So you can’t meet your target of annual inspections of youth residential facilities. Is that putting vulnerable children at risk?

We’ve got a staff of 12, nine of whom are active in the field. We’ve got a wide range of statutory imperatives. It does a fantastic job, that office, and it boxes above its weight. But the question you’re asking is – in my view, we are not sufficiently resourced. I’ve had some discussions with the Minister, with the chief executive of MSD. I’m optimistic that we’ll be heard and that we’ll be listened to. I don’t think I can say more than that without having a debate on that.

Without that extra money, though, are vulnerable children at risk because you can’t carry out your duties of monitoring properly?

Those in residences in particular we should be doing better for, but I’m not going to have the debate, as much as I’d like to, with the Minister through you, Lisa, on national TV. I’m optimistic that she’ll hear what I’m saying and she’ll respond, but, yes, we need extra money, and there’s no getting around that.

All right. Judge Brecroft, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Thank you very much.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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