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King: Putting Children First

Putting Children First


As New Zealanders we like to think our country is the best place in the world to bring up children; we call it “God’s own”. We say things like the future of New Zealand is with our children; our children are our greatest asset; every child deserves a decent standard of living; every child should have the ability to reach their full potential. We value our children. Children matter.

All those statements are true, but are they true for every child in New Zealand?

That is the question we have asked ourselves during the development of Labour’s social policy for 2011.

For the past 18 months, we in Labour have been thinking and re-examining all our policies. A time in Opposition allows for that !

Social policy has always been important to the Labour Party. We have a proud history of bringing in major social change through bold policy and a strong determination to make our country a better place for all New Zealanders. Our social policy for the next election will be no exception to that. We are committed to implementing policy that is fair, based on what works, provides opportunities and builds on the responsibilities and rights of all New Zealanders.

Over the past 18 months the Social Policy Committee, in conjunction with our party membership and some of the foremost experts in New Zealand, have looked at where our emphasis should be for future investment. We have examined research and evidence both in New Zealand and overseas and we have consulted and listened to the views of community organisations and individuals.

We believe there is a compelling case to ensure that New Zealand is the best place in the world to bring up all children. The case is compelling because the reality for many children their families and whānau does not match the view we have of ourselves as kiwis.

Today I want to give a broad outline of our policy – “Putting Children First”. Detailed announcements, including costings will be made in due course.

New Zealand is not doing as well for children as are other comparable countries. We sit in the bottom third in OECD rankings for most child indicators. Many of our children are left behind. Their early life experiences are harmful and on-going and many Māori and Pacific children have poorer life chances than other children the same age.

While we did make some progress in a number of areas through positive changes like Working for Families, which helped to reduce child poverty, affordable primary health care, a restoration of income-related rents; 20 hours free Early Child Education and reducing unemployment, many of those gains are being eroded by the National Government. Their approach to social policy appears to be based on a collection of slogans, unconnected, uncoordinated political gimmicks or the latest social policy crisis: requiring a response.

In contrast, Labour intends to retain the gains we made in government but to significantly refocus what we do and how we do it.

I recently read Plunket’s Annual Report which said, “…. Children grow up quickly and research shows that it’s the first 3 years that are vital to a child’s development.”

A recent Public Health Advisory Committee Report entitled ‘The Best Start in Life’, published in June this year points out from birth to 6 years of age children are at their most vulnerable. It’s when their physical, cognitive and emotional development has the greatest implications for later life. It is this period, the report states, that needs to be given the highest priority for investment.

In a report from the Children’s Commissioner and Barnardos (August 2008) it is stated that Developmental Science backs up the wisdom of tilting public expenditure towards the early years of life.

The truth is however there has been low investment in early childhood in New Zealand in comparison with similar countries to our own. Countries like the UK, Ireland, Victoria (Australia) and Manitoba (Canada) have made dramatic changes to the way they address child health and wellbeing. They have moved to a long term, whole of government approach to child health and development which appears to be making a positive difference.

In New Zealand our policies and services for children are poorly integrated. While communities, iwi, clinicians, academics and advocacy groups have shown strong leadership, there has been a lack of consistent strategic leadership across government departments and even less political leadership. Children lack a champion at the highest table.

Nothing was more obvious to me than the response I received from the P.M., John Key in November last year. I had been approached by Every Child Counts, an organisation with a membership that includes practically every organisation working with children and their families and whānau in New Zealand. They asked me to help facilitate a cross-party Parliamentary group for children The aim being to get all political parties to work together to tackle the many issues facing children and their families in New Zealand. Labour was keen to make it happen. Mr Key rejected the approach saying he wasn’t interested.

With or without National Party support the next Labour government will put children, their families and whānau at the centre of our social policy.

Labour has developed a new, fresh family and whānau policy narrative, not based on the government bringing up children – families and whānau must be able to do what most families do well. It is families who work through the stresses and challenges of contemporary life. And it’s the family that needs to provide a secure place where children have a reliable rock, basic care and support and where they can learn about relationships and responsibilities.

A government and the community can support the work of families by providing tools and services that build on their strengths and the resilience of parents and caregivers, stepping in when necessary to ensure the safety and protection of children.

While organisations like Plunket and other well-child providers have long advocated for more investment in the early years there have been questions about where best to invest, to yield the greatest benefits.

Recently, however, there have been important advances in understanding how children get the best start in life. The link between the early years and long term development is well evidenced. We know the importance of quality care and close parental contact, especially in the very early years.

Research suggests children growing up in poverty during their first 5 years of life are significantly more likely to leave school without formal qualifications, to lack jobs and to be in contact with the criminal justice system.

We know young women who become parents are an early age are at increased risk of bringing up their own children in poverty. We know the effects that low income levels and poor housing have on the health, educational and wellbeing of children. And we know which interventions make a positive difference in children’s lives.

I have just outlined why Labour is determined to change the way we do things in New Zealand. But how are we going to do it? Today I intend to outline some of the policy initiatives we have developed.

We are proposing a 6 year Agenda for Change because too often policies are dominated by a 3 year election cycle or a raft of pilot programmes, put in place to test yet another idea before it’s discarded. Good policy often fails to flourish through lack of political commitment and continuity.

The agenda for change will have 3 main components:

o legislative and structural change
o Crucial early phases in children’s development 0-2 years and 3-5 years, and thirdly
o Breaking the cycle of socio-economic deprivation
Legislative and structural change

For our policy to make the difference we want in the lives of young children, there needs to be one overall strategic plan which requires a whole-of-government approach and well integrated service delivery. This is important if we are going to get the best value out of the investment we make.

We need to reduce duplication of services, the silo-provision of services and huge gaps in services through which too many children fall. Labour also wants to support programmes built upon cultural strengths, accountable to their communities and achieving strong outcomes. Whānau Ora could be an important development in this area.

Labour proposes overacting legislation which would set out long term commitments to improve the health and wellbeing of children; which outlines the actions and accountabilities of relevant government agencies and provides regular monitoring of child health and wellbeing using an agreed set of indicators.

The legislation would also include targets to eradicate child poverty in New Zealand, something that Labour sees as unfinished business and something a small relatively well-off country like New Zealand must address.

Unfortunately after reducing child poverty through Working for Families, under a Labour Government, changes this government has made is resulting in an acceleration in child poverty once again.

There will also be regular reporting against milestones to ensure the Agenda For Change is being achieved.

Responsibility for leadership of children’s policy would rest with a Minister of Social Policy charged with co-ordination across portfolios: housing, health, education, social development and so on.

Making this work for children will need co-ordination across a number of Government Departments, with and between community groups. Experience shows merely urging different government agencies concerned with children and their wellbeing to work together is not sufficient. It will require strong direction in legislation, well thought through policy and a commitment to make it happen.

Crucial stages of child development 0-2 years : 3-5 years

Labour’s policy refocuses on 2 crucial early phases in children’s development: from birth to 2 years and from 3 – 5 years.

o In the 0 – 2 year period policy will focus on enabling care and children’s early development.
Support will be available to enable parents to have the time to care, and choices around care with resourcing provided to do it. There will be recognition that caring for young children in families is work and is a valuable contribution. Those taking time out to care should not be harshly penalised. Labour also recognises that some parents need, or want, to work. We will be announcing significant policy enabling work and care choices for parents with children between 0 – 2 years of age, in due course.

Labour also proposes that for our youngest children to get the best start in life, all babies at birth would be enrolled with a Well-Child provider. All parents, no matter how experiences they may be, welcome support and guidance, especially in the early months. At-birth enrolments also ensure babies at risk are identified early and support can be provided to the parent or caregiver as long as it’s required.

Another proposal is access to Parenting Programmes for all New Zealand families. Many of these programmes have been developed specifically for New Zealand families, and properly evaluated. More intensive Parenting Programmes aimed at families who need more assistance will be available to those families and whānau who require it. As Dr Johan Morreau, Chair of the College of Paediatricians said, “Let’s spend our money on parenting not prisons”.

o In the 3 – 5 years framework Labour will focus on enabling every child access to good quality, free early childhood education, building up the supply of quality education services in low income areas to meet the needs of Māori and Pacifica children, in particular, which must be a high priority.
For very vulnerable children, ECE needs to start very early, in quality situations. Research shows ECE that targets vulnerable children may result in significant improvement in school readiness at 5 years of age.

The use of Early Childhood Centres and/or schools as community hubs for families and children will also be developed. Schools of the 21st century have been successfully implemented in the USA. Such Centres encourage early intervention and engagement with families and communities.

The third major component of our Putting Children First policy is:

Breaking the cycle of socio-economic deprivation

Labour does not want a New Zealand where large numbers of children are growing up with stigma and poverty. Current benefit arrangements (in particular the DPB) doesn’t do what is needed, it doesn’t provide adequately for the children affected, their needs and development, especially in long term benefit families. It doesn’t provide either an adequate income or a pathway through the transition back to stability, education and good paid work. The costs of this are clear as I set out previously.

Labour does not want a New Zealand where becoming a parent in the teenage years sets young people and their children down a pathway leading to intergenerational cycles of poverty, underachievement at school and work and other poor outcomes.

The evidence around long term reliance on low benefits urges change. But Labour rejects the way this Government is going about it. First they set up a biased Review with narrow parameters and pre-determined conclusions, then they produced spurious estimates of the cost of benefits, which John Armstrong of the NZ Herald said were “meaningless” and “concocted to paint the benefit system as an intolerable burden”. Then they attack and blame people on benefits, particularly those on the DPB for getting themselves in their predicament (with no thought of the impact on either their children or the parent) and finally they cut support that has assisted people into better paid jobs, security and stability for their families (the very help that got Paula Bennett her university degree).

Around 70% of people on the DPB move off the benefit in 4 years, it’s used as a family transition. However those who start very young and are without educational success stay on benefits for much longer periods.

Labour believes there is a need to enable a transition to work for young parents and those with older children. The way to achieve that is by providing training and education to sole parents early, backed up by quality child care.

Forcing parents into unstable, low paid jobs or dependent unstable relationships is a recipe for trouble. Part time work can also assist a sole parent through transition and help reconnect them to the workforce. But there has to be jobs for them.

We will be announcing more comprehensive policy in due course.

Finally delegates,

Labour is convinced that money spent in the early years and early intervention when problems are spotted early means much greater savings later. It also means safer communities and more New Zealanders achieving independence. Failure means higher costs in the criminal justice system, the health system, a less secure environment, a less educated workforce and a never ending cycle of intergenerational deprivation.

To quote Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel –
“We cannot waste our precious children
Not another one
Not another day
It’s long past time for us to act on their behalf.”

Labour proposes an agenda for change. The full details will be there for all New Zealanders to see before the 2011 Election. There will be a clear choice – tinker and talk or bold action that will finally put our children first and make New Zealand the best place in the world to bring up children.


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