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The Nation: Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft

On Newshub Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft

Lisa Owen: When Judge Andrew Becroft first stepped into the role of children's commissioner in 2016, he admitted he was shocked at the level of child poverty in New Zealand. So with a couple of years under his belt, does he see things improving? And how does he rate this government's first budget. Judge Becroft joins me now. Good morning.
Judge Andrew Becroft: Ata marie. Good morning.
So, on a scale of one to 10, in terms of being child-friendly, how would you rate the budget that has just been delivered? 10 being stellar.
Sure, eight plus.
Excited, yeah. I think this is a good first step, and to have a government who's prioritising child poverty reduction, has set targets, has a bill before the house to oblige targets, to have a long-term plan to halve poverty in 10 years for children. I mean, that's massive. Fantastic news.
So, aside from the family package and those targets, there was no more specific funding necessarily to address child poverty. Why does it get such a high score?
Two reasons. It's the first concentrated budget, I think, that's really addressed the issue of the family’s package. There's a best start payment for new children, doctors' visits for 14, more commitment to social housing. But I'd rather not obsess about analysing in detail one particular budget. That's what we've done in the past, Lisa. I think we're now need to say, 'We need a concentrated, systematic commitment to addressing child poverty and child well-being.' So I'm looking, really, at this is the first step. If this was all there was, it would be about a three or a four or less, but I'm seeing it in the context of an ongoing commitment. We need to be more and more of these budgets every year. We can't just say 'this has done it. This is a seven or an eight' — and I said eight. There's got to be eight after eight after eight. I want to see scorecards like in the diving competitions — eight, eight, eight, eight, eight for the next 10 years. That's what we need.
So sustained increases and sustained commitment.
Absolutely, yes.
Well, in saying that, you had a wish list, and there were a couple of things on it. One was ending sanctions, was one of the things that you wanted. And indexing benefits to the median wage was one of the things top of your list. You didn't get either of those. So, we've got a $3 billion surplus. You know, that is a lot of money. Is that good-enough not to get those things?
What we have got is a commitment to a review of the benefit system. So I haven't given up on that, and if we don't get that, I think it will be a very retrograde step. We need to have benefits for children indexed to wages. If you look at the graph, early '80s they're together. And then gradually wages go up and benefits stay pretty flat. The gap is now massive. We dropped the ball on policy for children. I think one of the big, I guess, platforms of our office, the one thing I have to say clearly, is we need to have a community-wide consensus on policy for children. We haven't had that. We could do it. Other countries leave us behind. Scandinavian countries have parental leave for 16 months. They have free school lunches for preschool and school children for the whole community, free doctor and dental visits, good social housing, free early childhood education. That's what we need. We've never had the systemic commitment to a good policy for children.
There's a couple things in there. If this review happens— Well, the review is happening. But if you don't get indexing, would you see that as a fail?
Absolutely. E minus. It's crucial.
Government on notice, then, Judge Becroft?
Absolutely. That's been clear. I'm not shrinking from that. Everybody in the sector has said we've got to link benefits for children to wages. And we've got to get rid of some of the huge inconsistencies. I mean, why is that children from mothers who won't disclose their father, who are on the DPB, why is it that those children — and there are 13,000 mothers involved, nearly 18% of solo mothers — why do those children lose $22 a week? That is not a child-friendly policy. That's got to change.
Okay, so you have regular conversations with people in government. What's— Are you going to get that, do you think? Are you going to get indexing?
I genuinely hope so, you know, because unless we do, we're going to continue these year-by-year analysis of 'have budgets delivered?'
Have you heard anything from them that specifically gives you that hope?
But I remain an optimist, and I'm an advocate.
Okay, so you— But if they don't do it, that would be a complete fail, you believe?
Yep, and I think that's one of the key reasons that we've got so— the children have got so out of kilter with the economic growth that the country's experienced, and they've missed out on it. And look, Lisa, I was recently in Mangere. I met a mum who lived on the back of her father's section in a portable constructed unit with her two kids — poorly insulated, cold, wet, mould on the inside. The 5-year-old boy going each week to the doctor for a chest issue. She's in tears. The children go to school with wet clothes. She's struggling to move them around with a beaten-up car. We cannot have that. I mean, when I got the job, I said I was shocked at how profound some of the issues are. I still am. In the context of 70% of our kids doing pretty well. In fact, world-leadingly well. But we've got a group of 20% and 10% at the core, 80,000 to 100,000, who really do it tough, and that's got to be our focus.
Okay, so you have applauded the government for the targets that they do have, but I know you think there should be more measures around children and poverty. So what kind of things? Should they measure educational achievement, disease — what?
Well, we start with child poverty. I utterly applaud that approach, because that's what's required. You might say the tentacles of child poverty reach out everywhere, so it's necessary to start there, but it won't be sufficient. And you're right. The theory is that when child poverty's addressed, all the other, like I call, social gradients, where poor families experience worse outcomes for children, those all start to flatten off. So, yes, in health, we'd expect to see less abuse and neglect. We'd expect to see less rheumatic fever, less hospitalisation for accidental injury and illness. We'd expect to see educational achievement improve significantly. I'd like to think that youth suicide, which really perplexes our country, starts to come down. So I'd hope to see a huge comprehensive suite of measurements that tells us — is the theory actually coming right in practice. Actually, we'd like to see reduced prison. It's going to flow on throughout the whole economy.
So how many measures? You're talking, what, 10, 20, 30 additional measures in there?
Absolutely. We had a first crack at this on Thursday, where we had a national discussion with about 100 experts in the field, and those who experienced poverty, the Prime Minister chaired a session on exactly what her well-being strategy looks like. And you know, you start off by saying, 'We need to measure children who are without, abuse and neglect, bad housing and the like, then we look more aspirationally,' but if you ask children, they talk a lot about values. They want a loving, safe home with good play facilities, good friends, secure in their own identity and connections to culture. We're not good at measuring those, so when you ask me for my wish list of what could be measured, we've got to find a way of measuring those important values for children as well, and we've got no system for that at the moment.
So, given that you want a continuation of emphasis on this, should those measures be entrenched in legislation as targets?
No, I think the obligation to set measures for child poverty, and then what's not known is the children poverty reduction bill includes the obligation to set a child well-being strategy. Now, that's potentially game changing. That obliges the government not only to set a strategy, but say where it will be focusing on and what are the measures that will show improvement, so I don't want to get bogged down with a legislative number enshrined forever. I want government of the day to own an obligation to set their own targets and make progress.
The— I want to talk about the justice system. So youth court, the age is now— You can go to the youth court up to the age of 18.
We've done the right thing, yes.
Have we gone far enough?
You know, I was really, I guess, perplexed and distressed during my time as principal youth court judge that we didn't include 17-year-olds. I couldn't say that publically. I now can. I'm an advocate. And one of the big things that our office campaigned for was to include 17-year-olds. So many people did. We've done the right thing. But you know, Lisa, I think I've probably lacked courage. I think we should now have the ability to move some 18- and 19-year-olds who are facing developmental issues or other neurodevelopmental difficulties, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, learning difficulties. There should be a discretion in the adult courts to move 18- and 19-year-olds into the youth court. They'll get a much better wrap-around youth-focused service. Just as, in fact, we have the ability now to move some 14-, 15- and 16-year olds out of the youth court and into the adult court. We've got a very arbitrary age cut-off. We need flexibility each way, so that's something that we'll be advocating for.
So you'd want it in law that judges have discretion?
Absolutely, and the adult courts to consider moving 18- and 19-year-olds in to the youth court. Perhaps I'm even then lacking vision. Perhaps I should be going further, but I think bit by bit, we can establish that what we do works and is the right thing, we'll make progress.
So, when you look at youth court stats, the latest ones show us that appearances have dropped about 12% for the general population, but Maori youth appearances are up 23%. We know there is a problem with disparity, so why does the gap persist?
Yeah, you ask a good question. I'm not principal youth court judge any more. We've got a good new principal youth court judge. I don't want to tread on his toes, but we can say a few things. Numbers are coming down for Maori, but not as quickly as for Europeans, so the over-representation continues. Secondly, it's quite a small group numerically, and it's troubling if we label all Maori being a Maori problem. Most Maori children thrive and do well. I guess the main thing to say, Lisa, it's not a youth-justice issue; it's an issue in every system of government, health or education. We see that over-representation, and you know, I think we have to own this. Is there any country in the world where the colonisation process has been other than bad for children? I mean, that's the reality.
So no—
Bad for indigenous children. So, and there's a combination now of systemic discrimination, unconscious bias. I mean, they are the big issues, and the stats you quote are replicated in all other areas. The challenge for our country is to look at it system wide. How can we do better for our indigenous children?
In saying that, seeing as it's your job to advocate for children, and these children have worse outcomes. Do we need to bring back targeted funding for Maori?
Well, we certainly need to begin with child poverty, and we also need to reflect the legislative intent, which is in the bill before the house, which is to look at children with particular need and from particular groups. And the bill also provides an obligation to consult with Maori and to consult with children. So in the well-being strategy, there's a crystal-clear obligation to set targets, which will include targets for Maori in Oranga Tamariki Act. The new chief executive has got a whole suite of new and quite powerful obligations to set targets for how Maori over-representation is going to be brought down. So in fact, what you are asking for is there in the legislation, and I think it's exciting. It could be a game changer.
Before we go, because we're almost out of time — police chases, these have been in the news media quite a bit lately. Three teenagers have been killed in the last 10 months during fleeing driver incidents, and I know a report in 2009 showed that 40% of people who were chased by the police were under 20, so they're part of your domain as the children's commissioner. Do you think the police should pursue?
Actually, under 18 – my domain.
Yeah, exactly.
But first of all, it is a tragedy whenever a child in New Zealand is lost in these circumstances. I'm glad that there is a review that is being carried out by our very trusted independent Police Conduct Authority. It's required, because I don't think we've got the settings right, and from my point of view as Children's Commissioner, I hope we bear in mind that the cohort we're talking about with the frontal lobe of the brain that's still developing, is that group that can make the most reckless and irresponsible and foolhardy decisions under pressure, and I think that's got to be factored into any review, but I'm not going to prejudge that, but we'll certainly be, I hope, involved from the perspective of children in New Zealand, because that's got to be a front-and-centre consideration, and we can't afford to lose children in this way any more.
Always interesting to talk to you, Judge Becroft.
Thank you.
Thanks for joining us this morning.

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

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