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Parliament: Questions and Answers December 1, 2020

ORAL QUESTIONS

QUESTIONS TO MINISTERS

Question No. 1—Finance

1. Dr DUNCAN WEBB (Labour—Christchurch Central) to the Minister of Finance: What recent reports has he seen on the New Zealand economy?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON (Minister of Finance): I have received many positive reports on the New Zealand economy since my last answer on this subject in the House. Just yesterday, we received very positive business confidence data from ANZ, showing business confidence had improved significantly, and that, as the ANZ put it, indicators relating to investment, employment, and profit were also higher. Evidence of this is seen in recent data on retail, with sales values recording their largest September quarter rise since the series began in 1995—up 7.4 percent.

The latest Statistics New Zealand labour force survey data shows unemployment at 5.3 percent. While we will never be satisfied with this, it is worth noting that this is nearly half the rate of unemployment that had been anticipated at Budget 2020, and it means that 117,000 fewer people are unemployed than expected by Treasury just seven months ago. Even more pleasingly is the very latest data from Statistics New Zealand showing that this strength is continuing with a monthly filled jobs data showing an increase of 27,667 jobs in October.

Dr Duncan Webb: What do the reports on jobs data show?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: Well, manufacturing saw 2,713 new filled jobs; retail was up 2,188 jobs; accommodation and food services rose by 2,019 jobs; and 5,048 jobs went to those aged 15 to 19 years, together with another 3,123 jobs in the next age group, 20 to 24 years. All regions in New Zealand had increases in the number of filled jobs compared with September. Auckland recorded the largest rise of 8,104 for jobs, followed by Wellington with 3,329, and Canterbury with 3,301. We do need to acknowledge that many people have lost their jobs, and some regions are still struggling with the effects of COVID-19, but the New Zealand economy is recovering.

Dr Duncan Webb: What recent reports has he seen on export performance?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: Well, I've seen recent data on trade from Statistics New Zealand which showed our annual goods trade surplus reached a 28-year high. Goods exports rose $734 million to $60.1 billion in the year to October 2020, despite COVID-19 reducing global economic activity. The annual value of our exports goods rose to countries such as China, the United States, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. Overall, the value of our goods exports rose 1.2 percent, showing the continued strength, hard work, and resilience of those in our economy.

Question No. 2—Prime Minister

2. Hon JUDITH COLLINS (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Does she stand by her statement in relation to accepting policy recommendations on housing, "The appetite for some of these policies also needs to come from the public"?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): I stand by the full quote—which specifically, at that time, I interpreted to be regarding measures like capital gains tax—where I stated, "Well, look, I would say that actually the appetite for some of these policies also needs to come from the public. We've tried three times now to do things that specifically sit in that taxation category, and there hasn't been wide support for that. But I would point out, again, that actually that is not the only lever that exists."

Hon Judith Collins: Does she believe voters have given her a mandate to implement her housing agenda, which specifically excluded a capital gains tax?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I do believe that we have been given a mandate from the public to roll out the manifesto commitments that we presented. Of course, some of those we're seeing in the House today, because we've moved very, very quickly on those that matter most to the public in the middle of a pandemic—including, for instance, sick leave provisions; including those income tax increases so we can continue the provision of decent housing, health, and education services. We know, though, in a very short space of time we have seen extraordinary house price increases. We are not the only country experiencing that, and that is why, with the mandate we have, we are responding to concerns that have been raised by the public around that, and we're waiting for advice that we will consider in the new year.

Hon Judith Collins: Will she rule out extending the brightline test beyond five years?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Mr Speaker, you'll have seen during the course of the election that we were very clear that, obviously, a capital gains tax was not in our consideration. We equally ruled out any measures around a wealth tax. These are purely hypothetical questions beyond any of those taxes. However, I note the brightline test policy—introduced by National, extended by Labour—is something we've asked for some analysis on over the impact it's having in the market, and in this current environment that is absolutely the right thing to do. We need to know what levers are and aren't making a difference to house price increases.

Hon Judith Collins: Does she agree that more taxes will not build more houses?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I note that the member was actually in the Government that introduced the brightline test. My only assumption would be that there was some expectation from the Government of the day that it would have some impact on what were incredible house price increases under that Government. The big difference between that member and this side of the House is that we do not accept that those house price increases are OK. We do not believe that there is no lever that can be pulled to continue to stabilise what we're seeing in the market, and we also don't believe that the answer is selling housing stock, as that last member did.

David Seymour: Can the Prime Minister explain how—

SPEAKER: Sorry. A point of order—the Hon Judith Collins.

Hon Judith Collins: Point of order, Mr Speaker. My question was, "Does she agree that more taxes will not build more houses?" I did not hear anything relating to whether or not more taxes would build more houses in the Prime Minister's answer.

SPEAKER: Well, I certainly thought that the general area was addressed. I thought the member was going to raise a point of order about the length of the reply. She might have been on sounder grounds there.

David Seymour: Can the Prime Minister explain to the public how extending the brightline test to 10 years would be different from introducing a capital gains tax?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Obviously, at the time when ACT supported, as I understand, the brightline test, there was a very clear view put forward by the Government of the day—that was, I believe, supported by the likes of Andrew Bayly quotes in this House—claiming that it was income, not capital gains, tax. That was certainly the argument made by Chris Bishop. But, of course, what I only assume that side of the House intended to do was to deal with speculators. Of course, at that time there was a view that there were a number of people in the market who were purchasing homes and flicking them within a very short period of time in order to benefit from quick gains. We are seeking advice on what impact it has had on the market, and that may go to answer the member's question.

David Seymour: Point of order. Mr Speaker, the question was very clearly about the difference between two policies. We've heard an awful lot about who had supported a brightline test and speculation about the reasons they might have supported them but no attempt to explain to the public what the difference between the policies is. She didn't address the question at all.

SPEAKER: Well, the Prime Minister certainly did address the question—she addressed it by contrast and, from memory, she quoted someone.

Hon Judith Collins: Who was to blame for house prices rising 37 percent in her first term of Government?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Perhaps the member would like to tell us who's to blame for the 65 percent increase we had under National. The difference is I do not accept that it is acceptable to continue to see house price rises that lift housing out of reach of first-home buyers. There are a range of issues contributing to this environment, and what I will not do is apportion blame to anyone. However, undoubtedly, what is happening in the market right now is there is an impact from low interest rates; there is an impact from the fact that we haven't had the supply over consecutive decades that we have needed in this country. We have not had, for instance, the rating base in local government to provide for the infrastructure that is needed. We haven't, for instance, had support for residential housing during economic downturns, like the GFC, where we did not see the development that we needed under that last Government. I'd say a big issue here is whether you take political ownership for trying to fix the problem: National never did.

SPEAKER: Order! I've alluded to it previously, but I'm now going to be clear to the Prime Minister: her answer was far too long.

Hon Judith Collins: Why have house prices risen faster in the last month than any time since 2004, according to CoreLogic?

SPEAKER: Order! That's actually not an area that the Prime Minister has responsibility for.

Hon Gerry Brownlee: Oh hold on, what'd she answer the other questions for?

SPEAKER: Well, that's a good question. I've been going over that in my head for the last three or four supplementaries.

Hon Judith Collins: When the Prime Minister alluded to house price rises under a previous National Government, what's her answer to why house prices have increased more in the last month than they did since 2004?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: This is actually a very good question. If you look back at the annualised increases under this Government in the last term, according to CoreLogic, they sat at 4 percent. You compare that, for instance, to the previous Government, where annualised figures sat at nine. In the last month we have seen extraordinary growth. Now, part of the issue is not just domestic. If you look overseas, nine out of 10 democracies that we compare ourselves to, and economies we compare ourselves to, are having exactly the same issue. Low interest rates are being used globally to simulate growth in hard-hit economies through COVID, and members of the public—even in jurisdictions where they have things like capital gains taxes or their equivalent—are investing in property. And so that is part of the issue, but low interest rates are also benefiting first-home buyers. That is not to say there aren't other levers, and we are investigating all of those to try and get it under control.

Hon Judith Collins: If the Prime Minister is correct, then why has Australia only seen a 6 percent increase in the last 12 months, and the UK a 5 percent increase if it's "low interest rates".

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Actually, I recommend to the member some analysis in The Economist just recently around, actually, what—in a very short space of time, even through lockdown—we are seeing from house price increases in the likes of the UK. I haven't looked on the month-by-month analysis for those jurisdictions so I'm not sure that that's their analysis, but we are not alone in this problem.

Question No. 3—Education

3. JO LUXTON (Labour—Rangitata) to the Minister of Education: What response has he seen to Government initiatives to support training and apprenticeships?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister of Education): I'm pleased to report that the number of New Zealanders enrolling in apprenticeships has increased by approximately 85 percent and that the number of women signing up for apprentices has more than doubled. Since we made all apprenticeships free in July this year, there have been almost 14,000 new apprentices signing up nationwide, which is an increase from about 7,500 in the same period last year. In particular I want to acknowledge that we have had 1,785 women signing up for apprenticeships compared to 845 in the same period last year. It's good to see women signing up for these roles. We're making progress, but of course we still do have a way to go.

Jo Luxton: Have numbers also increased in other forms of training and, if so, why?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Yes, the Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund doesn't just make all apprenticeships free. It also makes certificates, diplomas, and programmes in targeted industries free until the end of next year, and people have certainly responded warmly to that. Since July more than 17,000 learners have started a programme that is covered by this in industries that are critical to our economic recovery. That's an increase of around a third compared to the same time last year.

Jo Luxton: What else is the Government doing to encourage people into vocational education and training?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: We know that one of the things we have to do is turn around the profile of trades and vocational education. We need to make sure that young people see these as the incredibly desirable careers that they are. So we have begun a substantial campaign to change public perception. It starts with a primarily social media campaign, moving into a more traditional media campaign as well, targeting a variety of different audiences to ensure that people understand the roles that are available and how many opportunities there are in those fields. That builds on the work that we've done over the last year to get around the country with trades expos and so on to ensure that young people know about the jobs that they could aspire to.

Question No. 4—Minister of Finance

4. ANDREW BAYLY (National—Port Waikato) to the Minister of Finance: Is he considering further extending the bright-line test to have an effect upon house prices?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON (Minister of Finance): As I noted last week, I've asked officials for advice on the existing settings and on measures to address the demand side of housing. We are yet to receive that advice and no decisions have been made, so it is premature to say we are considering any particular response. However, I would like to thank the National and ACT parties for passing the brightline test into law in 2015.

Andrew Bayly: Does he agree with the Labour finance spokesperson Grant Robertson's comment on Newstalk ZB on 9 September that there will be no extension to the brightline test?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I find the Labour finance spokesperson Grant Robertson to be a man of immense wisdom, kindness, and compassion. I refer the member to the Labour Party's policy on taxation that was released on 9 September. I note that, as I've said, we are looking to Treasury for some advice on the current settings in the housing market in response to the rapid escalation in house prices.

Andrew Bayly: Will he rule out an extension to the brightline test?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: We have asked Treasury officials for advice; it would be premature at this stage to say anything about that. But I would note that some learned commentators have spoken about the importance of the brightline test, including one who said, "It's important that everyone is paying their fair share of tax, particularly property investors are also paying their fair share of tax." That was one Andrew Bayly.

Andrew Bayly: Why was extending the brightline test off the table two months ago and now back on the table?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The member is getting ahead of himself. We are still to receive advice from officials.

Andrew Bayly: Would he consider it to be a broken promise to extend the brightline test, considering the Government's position has been that there will be no other changes to tax beyond the new 39 percent income tax change?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: As is consistent with the member's portfolio title, he's jumping at shadows.

Question No. 5—Finance

5. Hon JULIE ANNE GENTER (Green) to the Minister of Finance: Does he stand by his statement about the Government's economic response to the COVID-19 shock that "we must also not allow inequality to take hold in our recovery"?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON (Minister of Finance): Yes, I do. I stand by the full quote which is underpinning all of this, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, "we must not allow inequality to take hold in our recovery. In fact we need to take this opportunity to improve the prospects of all New Zealanders and tackle those long-standing divisions".

Hon Julie Anne Genter: Are rapidly increasing house prices in New Zealand almost unprecedented during a time of recession and growing unemployment causing wealth inequality to get worse?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: Well, the very reason why we have asked officials to do work for us on what other options exist in terms of demand in housing is because we are concerned about those rapidly escalating prices. Equally, Minister Woods, as the Minister of Housing, is leading a work programme on how to further address the supply side.

Hon Julie Anne Genter: Does he agree with Governor of the Reserve Bank Adrian Orr who last week said in relation to controlling house prices that "monetary policy is a blunt tool" and that the Government needs to consider its fiscal levers, including tax?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I certainly agree with the fact that monetary and fiscal policy both have a role to play when it comes to the housing market.

Hon Julie Anne Genter: Will introducing a new top income tax rate without an accompanying tax on capital gains or property wealth help or hurt attempts to get the housing market under control?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I think that the increase in the top tax rate is something that has been welcomed by a lot of New Zealanders because it will mean those on the highest incomes are paying a little more to help with the COVID recovery and make sure that we do continue to get debt under control. In terms of its overall relationship to the housing market, there are many, many factors at play there. I wouldn't pick that one out.

Hon Julie Anne Genter: Why is his Government focusing on taxing income and not asset values when the ratio of house values to income has risen from 6.2 to 6.8 in the last year?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: What we believe is that we need to take a range of measures. There is no one silver bullet here when it comes to housing and how we manage house prices. It is a matter of increasing supply. We have been doing that. It is a matter of controlling demand. We have been doing that with the likes of the brightline extension that we did. The ban on foreign buyers—

Chris Bishop: How's that going?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The ban on foreign buyers is going well, Mr Bishop. It's a very popular policy and also the ring-fencing of rental losses. The reason we have asked officials for more advice is so we can see what other levers exist.

Hon Julie Anne Genter: Does he acknowledge that there is significant risk that inequality will continue to worsen if the Government only focuses on taxing work and not taxing property wealth?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: We have a range of measures to help lift incomes that revolves around both our social development policy, our housing policy, the work we're doing to improve productivity in the wider economy. What I would say to the member is that this has to be a comprehensive package of initiatives that deals right across the board. We are taking further advice on those matters at the moment.

Question No. 6—Prime Minister

6. DAVID SEYMOUR (Leader—ACT) to the Prime Minister: Does she stand by her statement in relation to a COVID-19 vaccine that "At this point, our expectation that we've been running to is more around the March date"?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): Yes.

David Seymour: Why is her expectation for a vaccine roll-out in New Zealand as late as March 2021 when hospitals in countries such as the UK have been told to prepare for a roll-out as soon as next week?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Look, over the past couple of weeks even, I've had conversations with leaders in other countries that, like us, have entered into advance purchase arrangements. We do not yet, as nations, have exact clarity on delivery dates for vaccines. Some—in fact, the vast majority—are still in clinical trials. So that's the first thing. The second issue is that each country will take their own perspective, or at least sequencing around the regulatory approvals. Some countries, because they are experiencing a large-scale loss of life, may choose to accept higher risk in their regulatory process. Thirdly, there will not necessarily be the same delivery date for all countries, and I do, again, just reference the fact that some countries are experiencing large-scale loss of life.

David Seymour: When will the Prime Minister be able to lay out a time line for applying or making available the vaccine, given that it's become available, given New Zealand's perspective?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Well, firstly, as I say, the majority of vaccines are still in some form of clinical trial. So it is highly speculative as to when different countries will expect arrival dates, and, as I say, other leaders I've spoken to are speculating themselves. In terms of New Zealand's time lines, we are still negotiating. We have already announced advance purchase arrangements with two companies—with two pharmaceutical companies. We are in commercially sensitive negotiations with others. As they are announced, we of course share those details. What I'm looking to do is, before Christmas, try and give a bit more certainty around what our current expectations are. But, as I've already said, they're not all arriving at the same time. We expect smaller amounts of doses in the first instance, and we will need to sequence, then, vaccination across the country over the course of the year.

SPEAKER: Just before the member goes for his next question—and it's an advisory thing, and I let that one run because everyone was interested in the answer—one's not meant to use a "given" in a question. It actually added nothing.

David Seymour: Thank you for the reminder, Mr Speaker. Supplementary: wouldn't it be smart to start planning the roll-out of a vaccine before it arrives?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Absolutely. The suggestion we're not is incorrect. Of course we have already put in place—for instance, for some of the vaccines they have different requirements around storage. We've put in place the purchasing arrangements to be able to assure that. The work will need, even on micro-credentialing, to have the staff across the country for a large-scale vaccination programme when it becomes available. We already have Medsafe working on approvals with the clinical data that's being provided by pharmaceutical companies, even though the vaccination is not in-country. So it is all under way, as you would expect.

David Seymour: What percentage of vaccine uptake would be required before vaccination allowed New Zealand to change its policies at the border, opening up to more countries?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: A good question. One of the issues is that with the trials we have at the moment, there is not sufficient data to tell us whether or not the prevention of the onset of disease is going to have an effect on transmission—so being vaccinated does not mean that you will not still pass on COVID-19 to others. It may well mean that, but we don't have enough data yet to tell us. What we do know is that there has been an observed reduction in asymptomatic infections, and so you can assume that it will have an impact. To answer your question, though, around what scale of immunisation, of course we want herd immunity—that's the best way that we can protect our population.

David Seymour: What exactly, then, was the Prime Minister referring to when she said that her expectation she'd been running to was more around the March date?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Of course you'll know, as I've said, we have advance purchase agreements with two companies at this stage. The first, early expectation around delivery around one of those: the suggestion has been that it could be March. Again, there is still some uncertainty there. I will caution: we're not talking enough doses to vaccinate the whole country, which is why I've talked about the need for a rolling regime.

David Seymour: Can the Prime Minister tell New Zealanders anything concrete today about what to expect from the arrival of a COVID vaccine and its effects on the Government's COVID response next year?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Firstly, that New Zealand will not have just one vaccine. There will be many. Some will be more appropriate for different parts of the population than others. That the first arrivals are likely to be smaller numbers of doses, and that we'll need to sequence the distribution of those for those who are in higher-risk areas of work. Secondly, that as data across the globe is provided, we'll be able to see whether or not the vaccine also reduces the amount of transmission. That will help us know whether or not, for instance, a vaccinated traveller bears risk to New Zealand or not. And, thirdly, that we are doing everything we can to make sure that we can provide a safe vaccine, when it's available, to all New Zealanders for free.

David Seymour: Can the Prime Minister tell the House and the public on what date she expects to be able to give a more specific time line for the roll-out of vaccination against COVID in New Zealand?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: My expectation is that I'll give an update before Christmas. But, again, there will be a certain degree of speaking in terms of quarters because we simply do not have firm arrival dates for some vaccines that, as I've said, are still in clinical trials, let alone large-scale production.

Question No. 7—Social Development and Employment

7. ANGIE WARREN-CLARK (Labour) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: What announcements has she recently made about support for New Zealanders to take up seasonal work?

Hon CARMEL SEPULONI (Minister for Social Development and Employment): Last Friday, I was pleased to announce that the Government has introduced new incentives to encourage out-of-work New Zealanders into seasonal work like summer fruit-picking. These new incentives include up to $200 per week for accommodation costs if people are paying housing costs back home and at their seasonal job, for up to 13 weeks; and a $1,000 incentive payment for people who complete contracts of six weeks or longer—this will be paid in two $500 instalments halfway through and at the completion of the contract. We have also increased the wet-weather payment and the Seasonal Work Assistance Programme. This means that people who have left a benefit to do seasonal work will now receive minimum wage for every hour that they are unable to work due to bad weather, for up to 40 hours per week. This payment was previously capped at $940; however, we have lifted this to $2,149 over 26 weeks.

Angie Warren-Clark: What further support is available to help unemployed people in seasonal work?

Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: Getting New Zealanders into work is our top priority. The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) is working closely with the horticulture and viticulture sectors to ensure that Kiwis make up the majority of the seasonal workforce this season and beyond. We recently expanded the 3K to Work programme, which now allows MSD clients who relocate for a job that's longer than 91 days to get up to $5,000. This has resulted in twice as many grants given in October and November this year compared to 2019 and covers things like moving costs, furniture, and the bond on a new rental. We're working hard to provide the right incentives for unemployed New Zealanders to get into this work.

Angie Warren-Clark: Why are these incentives important?

Hon CARMEL SEPULONI: The Government is acutely aware of the impact that COVID-19 is having on employment globally; New Zealand is not immune. We are also acutely aware of the labour shortages that exist in the horticulture and viticulture sectors every year but exacerbated this year by COVID-19. Even with the border exception of 2,000 Recognised Seasonal Employer workers that Minister Faafoi announced last Friday and the 6,000 who have remained in New Zealand over the winter, we acknowledge that there is still a gap. My announcement is part of a cohesive plan to address unemployment and workforce shortages and sits alongside the work being led by the Minister of Immigration and the Minister of Agriculture. We recognise the immense value of our horticulture and viticulture industries and will continue to work with them to ensure the terms and conditions of employment are favourable to New Zealanders taking up these opportunities.

SPEAKER: Order! I think members are aware, with the change in balance in numbers of the House, that numbers of questions and numbers of supplementaries have changed, and it means that the member's party has significantly more than previously. I don't expect the lengths of answers to go up in the same proportion.

Question No. 8—COVID-19 Response

8. CHRIS BISHOP (National) to the Minister for COVID-19 Response: Does he agree with the statement from Professor Nick Wilson of Otago University's Department of Public Health on 25 November 2020, "Well, I am concerned that unless we rapidly improve things, we are going to have more border failures because the system has just got too many persisting weaknesses"; if not, why not?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): I disagree with the assertion in that statement that every recent case of COVID-19 we've dealt with is a sign of border failure. Our protective measures at the border continue to strengthen rapidly every day. Every incident or event is carefully reviewed to identify where further improvements could be made. It's worth recalling that since March, 79,000 people have come through the border, 920 have tested positive for COVID-19, and in all but a handful of cases, that is where the matter has ended. Only a handful of close contacts have ended up being infected, and in every one of those cases, we've looked to identify where further improvements can be made. The one outlier was the August Auckland cluster, where we've still been unable to identify the source.

Chris Bishop: Will he introduce mandatory pre-flight COVID-19 testing as a further tool for all those coming to New Zealand from high-risk countries, as recommended by public health experts; if not, why not?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: That's not recommended by all public health experts, and I'd point out that some of the highest concentrations of positive COVID-19 cases that we have dealt with in our managed isolation facilities are amongst people who were tested before they departed and came to New Zealand.

Chris Bishop: Do all staff working in managed isolation and quarantine facilities have access to an N95 mask if they wish to wear one?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: The Ministry of Health has just issued new guidance on this, which will ensure that those who need N95 masks, because the environment that they are working in justifies it, will have access to it.

Chris Bishop: Will there be a Bluetooth option for contact tracing in place before the busy summer holiday period when Kiwis will be moving around the country?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: I'll have more to say around Bluetooth very shortly. We have not made any announcements on that yet.

Chris Bishop: Has the COVID-19 Surveillance and Testing Strategy Group, led by Sir Brian Roche and Heather Simpson, reported back to him, and, if so, when will that report be made public?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Yes, and once the recommendations have been considered by Cabinet.

Question No. 9—Immigration

9. JAMIE STRANGE (Labour—Hamilton East) to the Minister of Immigration: What recent announcements has he made to set out how the Government is supporting New Zealand businesses?

Hon KRIS FAAFOI (Minister of Immigration): Last week, the Hon Damien O'Connor and I announced that the Government has approved 2,000 experienced seasonal workers from the Pacific to travel to New Zealand to address labour shortages in the horticulture and wine-growing sectors during the peak season. They will begin arriving in January, following the Christmas rush of Kiwis returning home, and we expect these Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers will be fully onshore in time for the next year's harvest season. The Government has already announced measures to attract New Zealand job seekers, as the Hon Carmel Sepuloni has outlined. The Government has listened to the concerns raised by the sector and understands the importance of their sector for the COVID economic recovery. These changes will help support their ongoing success.

Jamie Strange: What were the considerations in coming to this decision?

Hon KRIS FAAFOI: The Government has been clear that its priority is protecting New Zealanders from COVID-19 while supporting New Zealand's economic recovery. This is why we have such a stringent quarantine system and control the numbers of people coming across the border. The intake of RSE workers is the largest group of economic exceptions to our closed border, which recognises the unique challenges that the horticulture and wine-growing sectors are facing in order to harvest what is expected to be a bumper crop. These will be experienced workers and as such they will be paid at least $22.10 per hour. This is also important for helping New Zealand's Pacific Island neighbours, whose economies have been hit hard by COVID-19, as their seasonal workers provide important remittances back to their homelands.

Jamie Strange: How is the Government responding to calls from business for more economic border exceptions?

Hon KRIS FAAFOI: Businesses have been very clear with the Government that they are facing difficulties in attracting workers. Where appropriate, we are prepared to listen to these calls and have granted exceptions for the likes of veterinarians, deep water fishing crews, agricultural mobile plant operators, and shearers. We've also approved over 5,000 individual essential worker applications where these workers have a skill set that is not readily obtainable in New Zealand. These are difficult times and we are willing to be pragmatic, but the border is our critical defence in keeping COVID out of New Zealand.

David Seymour: Why did the Government wait until crops such as strawberries and courgettes had rotted on the ground before letting these 2,000 RSE workers in?

Hon KRIS FAAFOI: I disagree with the premise of the member's question. From the outset of our closure of our borders, we have been telling sectors that have traditionally relied on migrant labour that they have to come up with a different plan to meet the labour shortages that they are facing. We will continue to work with sectors like the horticulture and viticulture sector to make sure that their harvest grows. It might come as a surprise to the member, but the border is closed for a very good reason.

Question 10—Public Housing

10. Hon LOUISE UPSTON (National—Taupō) to the Associate Minister of Housing (Public Housing): What is the total number of applicants on the Social Housing Register and how does this compare to September 2017?

Hon POTO WILLIAMS (Associate Minister of Housing): Housing is and has been a top priority for the Labour Government. That's why Labour has pledged to build 18,000 public and transitional houses, and over the last three years we've already delivered 6,000 public homes. The Government wants to make sure people in need get access to warm, safe accommodation and we've encouraged people to come forward and ask for help. As of August 2020, there were 20,385 people on the housing register. In September 2017, there were 5,844.

Hon Louise Upston: What does the Minister consider to be an acceptable number of people on the social housing register by September 2022?

Hon POTO WILLIAMS: While I can't speak forward to those numbers, what I can say is that we want to make sure we get people in need into safe accommodation, and we will help and encourage people to come forward when they ask for help. This is one of the reasons—one of the motivating factors—behind the register increase.

Hon Louise Upston: Does the Minister accept, if the number goes up, that it's a failure of this Government to support those who need housing?

Hon POTO WILLIAMS: No, I do not accept that. What I do accept is that if the National Party in Government were to have built the numbers of houses that we are currently building—6,000 houses we have built already in the previous term—then our housing register waiting list would not be as high as it is.

Hon Louise Upston: What is the Minister's response to Bernie Smith, who is the chief executive of the Monte Cecilia Housing Trust, who says if the waitlist continues to grow by over 6,000 per year, the Government "aren't even meeting the growth in demand"?

Hon POTO WILLIAMS: The increase in the public housing waitlist shows that there is a community expectation on us to deliver—and we are—but the reality is that we are playing catch-up. Where National sold off State houses for nine long years, we are building them, and building them at pace.

Hon Louise Upston: What is the current median wait time for the over 20,000 people on the social housing register, and does she consider this acceptable?

Hon POTO WILLIAMS: What I can tell the member is that the average time spent on the social housing register before someone is homed is 241 days.

Question No. 11—Workplace Relations and Safety

11. MARJA LUBECK (Labour) to the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety: How is the Government delivering on its commitment to increase minimum sick leave entitlements to 10 days a year?

Hon MICHAEL WOOD (Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety): We're delivering on our commitment by introducing a bill to increase minimum sick leave entitlements to 10 days a year to the House today. As promised, we've introduced the bill before Christmas. It will go through a full select committee process. This will ensure that everyone can have their say on how we implement this important change.

Marja Lubeck: Why is increasing sick leave to 10 days important?

Hon MICHAEL WOOD: COVID-19 has shown it is important for people who are sick to stay at home. Increasing the statutory minimum will mean that more people who are sick have access to paid sick leave. We also know that businesses benefit. When their staff stay home when they're sick, it means that bugs don't spread, leading to fewer absences and increased productivity. [Interruption] They could do with some more productivity over there. We need to move past the "tough-it-out" culture that risks infecting others.

Marja Lubeck: Is the Minister considering any further changes to sick leave beyond those in the bill?

Hon MICHAEL WOOD: The Government has introduced and will refer to select committee a bill that adopts a straightforward approach to increasing sick leave entitlements from five days to 10 days per annum. We are open to considering further changes, and I intend to write to the select committee to request they consider issues that may be wider than the immediate scope of the bill, such as prorating the additional sick leave entitlement for part-time employees, providing some sick leave entitlement from the first day of employment for employees with an expectation of continuous employment, and changing the hours test for employees who do not initially have an expectation of continuous employment. We're looking forward to striking a good balance, and I also look forward to engaging with the committee and key stakeholders on this important bill.

Marja Lubeck: What reports has he seen on this announcement?

Hon MICHAEL WOOD: Some very good reports. Richard Wagstaff from the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions has said that "Working people are welcoming [this] announcement." Kirk Hope from Business New Zealand said, "it's pretty difficult to disagree with the sentiment … if people"— [Interruption]

SPEAKER: Order! Order! Hang on. There's a certain predictable reaction from the first name. I would have thought the second might have got a bit more respect from my left.

Chris Bishop: Didn't hear it.

SPEAKER: Well, that's because you were yelling.

Hon MICHAEL WOOD: Mr Speaker, would you like me to begin again?

SPEAKER: No, I think you can just start from Kirk Hope.

Hon MICHAEL WOOD: Kirk Hope from Business New Zealand said, "it's pretty difficult to disagree with the sentiment … if people are sick, they should stay at home", and "This will impact [half of] businesses not at all." Michael Barnett from the Auckland chamber of commerce said, "It's about wellbeing … [and] doing the right thing", and "If you manage [your sick leave] well, [that's] a positive for you."

Question No. 12—Housing

12. NICOLA WILLIS (National) to the Minister of Housing: Has the Government done enough to increase housing supply, and which new measures, if any, for boosting housing supply will she have up and running in the next six months?

Hon Dr MEGAN WOODS (Minister of Housing): In answer to the first part of the question, we have started work to boost housing supply, which has been an issue in the making for decades, but we are the first to acknowledge that the job is far from complete. So far, we have started work on the largest Government build programme since the 1970s, which will deliver more than 18,000 public and transitional houses by 2024. We've passed the Urban Development Act and introduced the National Policy Statement on Urban Development. We've boosted funding for housing infrastructure via the New Zealand Upgrade Programme and the COVID Response Fund, along with many other initiatives. In the coming months, I expect to announce further initiatives in the Government's progressive homeownership scheme, a public housing plan setting out locations for the additional 8,000 public and transitional houses funded through Budget 2020, and the roll-out of a $350 million fund to support the residential construction sector. I'm also continuing to work with officials and colleagues on other matters relating to housing supply, and we'll have more to say in due course.

Nicola Willis: When will the Government deliver on the commitment to increase housing supply by removing the Auckland urban growth boundary?

Hon Dr MEGAN WOODS: As the member well knows, there is a comprehensive body of work being carried out around issues around land supply. We have the work that is being led by my colleague, the Hon David Parker, around the repeal of the Resource Management Act. Added to that we also have the fast-track consenting process of the COVID fast-track consenting processes; added to that, the National Policy Statement on Urban Development. There are a number of measures under way to make sure that we are freeing up land for development.

Nicola Willis: Well, will the Minister consider boosting housing development in our major cities by bringing forward the deadlines in the National Policy Statement on Urban Development?

Hon Dr MEGAN WOODS: As a Government, we are examining a range of measures that can boost supply. But I would point to the fact that the COVID fast-track consenting process is providing a way through for a number of housing developments, many of them in Auckland.

Nicola Willis: Is it correct that only 652 new KiwiBuild houses have been built, 4 percent, of the 16,000 target, and how many KiwiBuild houses will be built next year?

Hon Dr MEGAN WOODS: I think the number of KiwiBuild houses built has been a very well-traversed number, and I can confirm from the latest dashboard that is available on the ministry's website that, indeed, 652 have been built. There are a further 916 under construction and the KiwiBuild and Kāinga Ora developments have resulted in 1,573 market houses being enabled with another 438 houses being announced. I will put those numbers against the 100 affordable homes delivered by the National Party when last in Government, through the special housing areas, over a period of nine years.

Nicola Willis: What additional measures will the Minister consider to help community housing providers get the finance they need to start shovel-ready plans for new housing development?

Hon Dr MEGAN WOODS: One of the initiatives that we have started with the community housing providers is entering into long-term contracts with them so they can have the certainty around finance raising. We now have the ability to contract up to 25 years and many of our community housing providers are taking this up. This is an innovative way that we are supporting the community housing sector. I do note that when something is measured as a proportion of a number, the bigger the number of the commitment and that is funded through the income-related rental subsidy, the more community houses that can be built.

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