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Q+A: Families Commissioner Dr Jan Pryor

Sunday 6th September 2009: Q+A’s Paul Holmes interviews Families Commissioner, Dr Jan Pryor.

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A can be seen on tvnz.co.nz at,


PAUL Now the Families Commission has been in the news this week after the primary teachers told them to butt out of school business. The number of suspensions and expulsions of students from primary schools are on the rise and the Commission told schools to rethink how they deal with badly behave students. Then of course there's this anti smacking stance and the lead up the recent referendum. Well good morning to the Chief Commissioner Dr Jan Pryor. So what is the role of the Families Commission as you see it?

DR JAN PRYOR – Families Commissioner
The Families Commission first and foremost is an independent organisation, it's an autonomous crown entity. Now what that means is that we are not lobbyists, we don’t buy services for families and neither do we provide them, but we fit into a niche which enables us to be able to give contestable advice to government, and it enables us to talk to families openly.

PAUL But you don’t have any power to tell any group what to do do you?

JAN No we don’t.

PAUL I mean you criticised the teachers this week, you said expelling and suspending kids too easily because of what they're doing. What else are they supposed to do?

JAN Well I think it's a little bit strong to say we criticised teachers, what we did was to publish a report where we had talked to families where children had been expelled, there wasn’t any strong criticism of teachers, what we were arguing really was that there needs to be a much closer connection between schools and families if we're going to be able to cut this back.

PAUL And do we need a Families Commission for us to realise that?

JAN I think we do Paul, I know that often enough the Commission is criticised for stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious has to be stated and restated. We also give the evidence that supports what we say, so we're not just voicing any old opinion.

PAUL You’ve been going five years now, what have you actually achieved, I know you published some pamphlets, what else have you achieved? What concrete achievements are there?

JAN Well let me start with what's concrete, but I'd like to go back on that a little bit, we have had a direct impact for example on parental leave, we've had a direct impact on the elder abuse, we're working very closely…

PAUL How do you measure direct impacts?

JAN it's very difficult to measure some of these things, but we measure that by looking at whether people pick up the information that we provide and use it, so for example budgeting services are using the work that we've done around families in debt in order to help families to get out of debt/

PAUL Before the election National was worried and expressed some concerns that the Families Commission had become too political, do you agree?

JAN There's no doubt that it was set up under a kind of political context, I would like to see the Commission becoming more and more apolitical, because the fact is that we are independent, and although we were established under a Labour government, we're now working very closely and well with the national government.

PAUL Well there are some things happened lately though that make one wonder if you are becoming less political. At the end of June of this year, you made a submission to the Auckland Governance Select Committee insisting on Maori seats. What on earth have the Maori seats go to do with the Families Commission? What's the governance of Auckland got to do with the Families Commission?

JAN The governance of Auckland has a lot to do with families and that’s what we're there for, and we wanted to argue that whanau needed strong representation just the same as any other families.

PAUL They can vote like everybody else can't they?

JAN Well yes they can.

PAUL Right. You said in your submission how Auckland is governed affects families, do you think? Isn't that obvious? Do we have to have it in a submission, everybody knows that.

JAN Well, that’s a fairly minor aspect of the work we do, making submissions.

PAUL But you see making a submission on the Maori seats for the Auckland Super City, is political, isn't it?

JAN It's a contestable view that we tend to base on evidence, but for example we made submissions to the bill around changing the Care of Children Act, and also the more recent one around setting up …

PAUL What are you doing making a submission advocating Maori seats on the Auckland City Council? What is the Families Commission doing?

JAN Well let me say again that was a very minor piece of our work, it was simply that we wanted to remind the people who are organising that, that they need to keep in mind families, including Maori families.

PAUL You are taxpayer funded of course, and yet you find yourself opposed to the 88% of people who want to smack not to be illegal. Now that is a political stance from a body paid for by the taxpayer, that is very political.

JAN What we did, and this is before my time I might add, is to support the repeal of Section 59 on the grounds that we didn’t think that reasonable force should be a defence in terms of hitting children.

PAUL It's a political stance.

JAN It was based on evidence, first and foremost the Commission bases its lobbying if you like, or its views on evidence, and we looked at the evidence about how effective smacking is, which it's not, but more particularly we want to encourage parents to parent positively and not have to resort to smacking their children.

PAUL No but I'm talking about the political ramifications of taking that stance.

JAN When it came to the recent referendum we took no stance whatsoever, we made it very clear that we were not encourage people to vote either way on that referendum.

PAUL Families First says the Families Commission is not listening to families.

JAN I know Families First says that, I would argue that first of all those were not families that were voting, they were individuals, secondly I don’t think that New Zealanders were voting to have children hit and hurt, but they were voting about whether a light smack should be an offence.

PAUL Either way the Families Commission was at odds with 88% of those who voted. Let's move on to what you cost us a year, you dispute nine million, I think we mentioned nine million, you're eight million a year.

JAN We are.

PAUL You spent $311,000 on travel last year, not you but the Families Commission. For what?

JAN Well some of our commissioners don’t live in Wellington so there's quite a lot for that.

PAUL $311,000?

JAN I don’t have the breakdown of those figures with me and as you say it was before I was here, but commissioners travel to advocate, to talk, and so it would be mostly that I would imagine.

PAUL How long have you been the Chief Commissioner?

JAN One year.

PAUL Right, how much have you spent yourself on travel in the past year?

JAN I can't tell you, but I haven't been overseas, I've done about two or three trips around New Zealand, so what would that be – two thousand dollars?

PAUL Dr Pryor, isn't the fact true that you exist simply because Labour needed to buy Peter Dunne's cooperation to form a government years back, purely political invention is what you are, you can do nothing and you can make nothing happen, and it costs us eight million dollars?

JAN That’s a view that I hope is changing Paul. The Commission before I came spent about four years clarifying and focusing on what its role should be, because you're right, it was established as a political agreement. I would argue very strongly now that the Commission has earned its stripes. What we do we have three functions, we listen to families…

PAUL All bureaucracies believe in the right to exist and justify that don’t they?

JAN Well let me give you a personal account here, I until a year ago was a full time academic and researcher in a university, I was leading a research centre that was doing research on families, when I was asked if I would do this position I had to think very hard about it. I believed then and I believe even more strongly now that I can do more for New Zealand families in this position of independence, of giving contestable advice to government, to NGOs, to communities and work alongside families and communities, than I could do from the university.

PAUL Alright but certainly in its five years of existence the Families Commission has certainly not affected the child abuse stats, 12,100 kids were listed as abused or neglected by Child Youth and Family last year, 12,100, and that was two and a half thousand more than the previous year. You don’t seem to be achieving much there.

JAN Well do you know – well let me tell you what the Commission does around family violence generally, and remember there is a Children's Commissioner who focuses particularly on children,

PAUL And then there's a department of Social Development as well.

JAN Social Development doesn’t have the independence we have, but let me tell you, I as Chief Commissioner am on the Family Violence Child Support which is a very powerful body of people from everywhere, Police, government…

PAUL Who are obviously really effective in stopping family violence.

JAN Who are trying very hard to deal with a very very complex problem. The Commission in particular has led and mostly funded the It's Not Okay campaign, now we know that that campaign and I don’t think a campaign by itself is enough, but we know that that is reaching the people it needs to reach, for example we get far more response from Maori and Pacific than we do from anyone else, in terms of saying they know about it, they want to make a difference, they're doing things to make a difference around family violence.

PAUL Well let's look at the stat again for child abuse, 12,100 kids listed as abused and neglected last year, that’s two and a half thousand more than the previous year. Look at family violence in New Zealand domestic violence. Domestic violence rose from 12,400 incidents in 2000 to 18,500 in 2006. No I'm not blaming the Families Commission for that of course, but why do we have these hideous increases in family violence and child neglect and abuse, and what should we do about it?

JAN Okay, there's two very big questions in there, I may not be able to answer either of them properly. First, yes it's gone up and we are terribly concerned about that, and I'm talking about family violence generally, we have elder abuse gone up as well. It's a very complex complicated problem that call for a complex complicated response. So for example we've don’t the It's Not Okay campaign, we support community intervention to try and work with things. I think until we get a societal change in attitude to tolerating abuse we're not going to get very far. The Commission takes a particular role in trying to promote what we call positive parenting. When a parent hits a child they do that usually but not always, from a position of frustration, anger, impulsiveness. What we need parents to have are tools in their kit if you like that they can use, that doesn’t involve hitting their child. The other thing to remember is that since the Police have changed the way that they report family violence statistics, the reporting has gone up enormously, and we've talked a lot to the Police about this, and they would say I think, that most of that increase I increase in reporting, and when they look back over the years they don’t see a huge increase. So statistics are damn lies if you like.

PAUL You mentioned the Children's Commission of course, we also have Children's Commission, we have the Ministry of Social Development's Family and Community Services. Now we have a Families Commission, it seems to be endless duplication, why not combine it all.

JAN Good question. Well the first thing is don’t combine ministries with autonomous crown entities and independent crown entities which is what the Children's Commission and the Families Commission are, because immediately independence is lost, we do have that huge advantage of being independent of government. Second, as you know the Office of Commission for Children is co-locating with us, now that’s not that we're joining up we're most certainly staying independent because we have different statutory requirements.

PAUL Finally, do you expect to have a limited life as Chief Commissioner of a limited life Families Commission?

JAN Absolutely not, absolutely not.

PAUL Dr Jan Pryor thank you for your time.


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