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Bennett: ‘I’m an advocate’ for WOF on private rental housing

Sunday 3 November, 2013
Bennett: ‘I’m an advocate’ for Warrant of Fitness on private rental housing.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has told TV ONE’s Q+A programme that she supports the introduction of Warrant of Fitness on private rentals requiring them to be warm, dry and safe in an effort to reduce the effects of child poverty.
She told host Susan Wood that she sees the benefits of such a system but says it’s not up to her but up to Cabinet and in particular Housing Minister Nick Smith about whether to introduce that. Earlier this year, Mr Smith introduced a base standard for state house rentals.
“I see absolute merits in there being a base standard for homes,” Ms Bennett says. “But I think we need to be careful in how we implement something like that.  It’s the same with the accommodation supplement.  If we look at increases there, often the effect is it’s not going into the individual’s pocket or that vulnerable family; it’s going into the pockets of the landlord.”
She estimates there are between 150,000 and 270,000 children living in poverty in New Zealand but says New Zealand has “one of the most generous welfare systems in the world”.
But Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills says a WOF for all housing rentals is essential.
“The patients that I see typically have cold, damp houses, they can’t afford to go to the GP, they often can’t afford to do the basics that our kids would take for granted, like to go on school trips and have stationery and a uniform, shoes that fit.  You know, their houses really are in a shocking state.  Most kids who are living in poverty live in private rentals, not state rentals but private rentals, and those houses are in appalling state.  So having a warrant of fitness again is one of those very practical recommendations that the Expert Advisory Group recommended.  We’re going to see that in state housing first, and then we need to see it in private rentals too.  We know that will make a big difference,” he says.
Mr Wills says he doesn’t think New Zealand can end child poverty, “but we can bring it back to the kind of levels that were there when you and I were kids,” he told Ms Wood.
Conservative Party CEO and former head of Work and Income NZ Christine Rankin says it is dysfunction not poverty that creates problems and that more money is not the answer.
“Where there is poverty, it’s because people cannot cope, they don't have life skills, they don't have the day-to-day skills that most of us have to survive through the difficult times, and that's what we've got to invest our money in,” Ms Rankin says.
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SUSAN          Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills says a plan to tackle poverty should be enshrined in law. So will this government do it?  I asked Social Development Minister Paula Bennett.
PAULA BENNETT – Social Development Minister
Well, I think we do have a plan.   
SUSAN          But not enshrined in law.
PAULA          I heard you say that, but we have got the Children’s Action Plan, which is for those more vulnerable children, which is a 10-year plan that is working its way out.  The better public service targets – I would argue that pretty much all of them are going to positively affect children’s lives when we get that stuff right.  So I could wrap it all up and give you, you know, a nice title to it or call it a strategy and everyone might feel better, but I think there is a comprehensive work plan that Government is initiating.
SUSAN          But it doesn’t tie you to it, and it doesn’t tie future governments to it, and you can pick and mix – you can take the bits that you want to do and do things with them and ignore the rest.  It doesn’t tie you to it as it would if it was enshrined. 
PAULA          Yeah, that’s absolutely true.
SUSAN          So have you thought about enshrining something in law that really does tie you to it?
PAULA          Yes, we’ve thought about it, and I think it’s the wrong approach.  I think it—
SUSAN          Why?
PAULA          Because times are changing.  We need more flexibility.  It’s what happens on the ground that matters most.  What sort of flavour this year will be different next year?  We’ve just seen it with the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and what happened there as far as the effects that it had on people’s incomes and homes.  We need to be able to work quickly.  We didn’t need a piece of law, if you like, that crossed over a whole range of portfolios that meant we couldn’t actually take those blinkers off and do what needed to be done at the time.
SUSAN          The Children’s Commissioner would say it’s worked in the UK.
PAULA          Has it?
SUSAN          That’s what he would say.
PAULA          Well, that’s his opinion, and that’s great.  I did think listening to his clip, I thought, ‘Well, really, is the UK the utopia for children that he makes it sound to be?’  You know, I’m not— I’m not a big fan.  I don’t think it is the sort of way to go.
SUSAN          What about getting multi-party support?  What about crossing the floor and trying to get something that everybody agrees with?
PAULA          At the end of the day, what is going to make the biggest difference for child poverty, in my opinion and this government’s opinion, and it is tackling the tough stuff.  That is long-term welfare dependence.  It’s actually more jobs, yeah, so that’s business growth.  It feels like to me that Labour’s more interested in welfare growth and not business growth, and as a consequence, are we ever going to agree on that?  Probably not.
SUSAN          They’re talking about the trickle down and the trickle down taking a long time to trickle down, if it’s trickling down at all.
PAULA          Yeah, the biggest effect for those families is seeing their parents in jobs, seeing those kids well educated so they have better futures.  We fundamentally don’t agree with how you do that with Labour, and unless you’re tackling that stuff, it’s just going to look good.  You’ll get your photo shot, and everyone will feel better that we’re doing cross-party, but it won’t have the substance behind it that genuinely means a change for those children.
SUSAN          How long’s it going to take before we do start to see some changes?
PAULA          Well, we are seeing changes, so 3000 sole parents off benefit last month— last quarter alone, you know, fewer on benefit.  You know, that just means they’re getting into jobs.  We are seeing their incomes rise.  We’re seeing business confidence come in.  We’re seeing those homes being warmed up.  We’re seeing rheumatic fever being tackled.  We are seeing results. 
SUSAN          You are quoting numbers to me; you’re quoting measurements, which is great.  You’re saying you’ll give me an absolute number.  Dr Wills has had to go out and get funding from a charity to actually measure childhood poverty.  Shouldn’t you be doing that so you can measure your success or otherwise?
PAULA          Well, he’s independent, and he’s perfectly entitled to do that.
SUSAN          Yeah, but why aren’t you doing this?  You’ve just thrown a whole lot of numbers at me as a measurement.  Shouldn’t you be measuring childhood poverty so you know how you’re doing with it?
PAULA          Because my priority is action, and I think that we can—         
SUSAN          But how can you act if you don’t know what you’re dealing with?
PAULA          Well, we do, though.
SUSAN          You don’t have a baseline.
PAULA          I think we do know.  There’s plenty of measures of poverty, and he quoted them himself, and, in fact, my own department do one that I certainly take notice of and take stock of.
SUSAN          So what is your measure of poverty?
PAULA          So why do an official measure that then by very definition still has, quite frankly, you know, it’s, sort of, wherever you put the measure, you’re always going to have people in poverty, because you’re taking a median income, taking housing prices off it, so there’s always going to be people—
SUSAN          So what is your measure, though?  What is the measure you are working to in terms of that picture?
PAULA          Well, I actually base most of mine at the moment on our BPS (Better Public Services) targets, so I am looking at fewer assaults on children, fewer of those mothers and families on benefit and long-term welfare dependence.  I base it on those children that are in ECE and actually getting ahead, so actual real stuff that makes a difference to them in their homes.
SUSAN          Is Dr Wills wasting his time and money doing this?
PAULA          No, I don’t think so.  I think he’s passionate about it.  I think, as he says, it gets the conversation going, which is really important.  I think we’ll continue to debate the measure, and that’s fine.
SUSAN          It does look like your government doesn’t want to be tied to it, that you don’t want to be tied to this number so we can go, ‘Yes, you’ve done well,’ or, ‘You’ve done not so well.’
PAULA          Well, I haven’t got enough money to spend, which I know people will argue with, but I’ve decided to spend it on actions that are on the ground and making a difference.  If there are others that want to put money towards measuring poverty, well, good on them.  I’m certainly not anti—
SUSAN          It’s $100,000 a year.  It’s not a lot of money to collate it.
PAULA          So what’s the harm in someone else doing that, then?
SUSAN          Do you accept the number of 265,000 children in poverty that the Children’s Commissioner does accept?
PAULA          I think it’s anywhere between about 150,000 and 270,000.
SUSAN          That’s a big range.
PAULA          Yeah, it is, isn’t it, because it’s relative.  Actually, we have one of the most generous welfare systems in the world.  You know, we dish out $266 million just in hardship assistance on top of the base benefit.  We have accommodation supplement – $1.2 billion.
SUSAN          So is Christine Rankin right, then?  Is it a matter of dysfunction rather than poverty?
PAULA          I think we have long-term dependency problems.  I think— I agree with Dr Wills that we see people now that perhaps they were poor 25, 35 years ago, but now we’re talking generations coming through, and that gets— you lose your aspiration, you lose your hope, and that gets hard.
SUSAN          And this lower social mobility is a real issue too, isn’t it?
PAULA          Social mobility is absolutely the issue, you know, that long-term poverty.  You can see the effects it has.  That’s why we are tackling right at that end with long-term welfare dependency, education, getting those kids so that they’re able to get the better jobs when they’re older.
SUSAN          Substandard housing – a really big issue for health, certainly, and many other things.  Are you going to—?  When are you going to bring the warrant of fitness scheme and extend it out for all private landlords?
PAULA          Yeah, look, I’m an advocate for it, yeah, so that leads to very interesting conversations within my party and around the Cabinet table, and I think that’s healthy.
SUSAN          So you’d like to bring it in tomorrow?
PAULA          It’s a healthy debate to have, but we have to be really careful of the consequences of that, so the—
SUSAN          What?  Warm and dry houses?  What are the consequences?
PAULA          Rents going up because landlords have to pay more to make sure they’re at a standard.  That is a genuine concern of the National Party, and I think it’s really genuine to be looking at that and making sure we’re not putting increased costs on landlords that they then just directly pass on to tenants.
SUSAN          But shouldn’t there be a baseline in terms of what a house— it should be warm and dry and insulated.  I mean, they can get the insulation probably at a discount via the government anyway.
PAULA          Absolutely, and that’s why we’ve made things like Warm Up New Zealand and put another $300 million into it in the last Budget, so I can’t disagree with you, but I think we need to be careful in how we implement something like that.  It’s the same with the accommodation supplement.  If we look at increases there, often the effect is it’s not going into the individual’s pocket or that vulnerable family; it’s going into the pockets of the landlord.
SUSAN          I don’t get that, you know.  You don’t use that argument around cars.  We have to warrant cars, and yet we don’t warrant homes that people live in, that we get all sorts of diseases through living in those unhealthy homes.
PAULA          Yeah, look, I don’t disagree with you.  I see absolute merits in there being a base standard for homes, and I can’t—
SUSAN          So do you think you’ll win that argument?
PAULA          Look, West Auckland’s my home, and I see far too many there that are—
SUSAN          So do you think you will win that argument and we will see that extended in the near future, or is that something you’re just going to keep on debating?
PAULA          I think Government has already made substantial steps in saying that they are looking at it.  They will start with state houses, and that’s a step for us, and I do believe there will be future steps.
SUSAN          In what timeframe?
PAULA          Oh, I can’t give you a timeframe.  That’s not my decision to make.  That’s a Cabinet decision, and at the end of the day, Nick Smith is the Housing Minister.
SUSAN          You care, I care, and I suspect all of our viewers very much care about children in poverty.  It just doesn’t sit well with being a New Zealander, I don’t think.  But there is a perception, an impression, if you like, that your government is business-focused, happy to hand out the money to businesses, perhaps, but uncharitable.
PAULA          Yeah.
SUSAN          What’s your response to that?
PAULA          Well, that’s unfair.  You know, at the end of the day, we are spending more on vulnerable families in New Zealand than in any previous government that I’ve, kind of, known of.  When I look at the hundreds of millions that we’re putting into supporting people into work and warming up those homes, into rheumatic fever, into all of those massive— teen parents, which is a particular one for me.  You want to know who’s most vulnerable?  It’s those young mums with those babies that feel isolated, uneducated and don’t have hope.  We have pumped literally millions into them.  I’m going to keep doing that, and I’m seeing results for it.  There’s nothing quite like a young woman coming in with that nomination, you know, that form to fill in for university and you just know that her life is going to change and so is that baby’s.
SUSAN          So should the Government be doing poverty research?  I asked Dr Russell Wills that earlier.
DR RUSSELL WILLS – Children’s Commissioner
Well, what I’d like to see from our politicians is a plan, and measuring should be part of that.  In the UK, they’ve done that, and what’s special about that is they’ve got cross-party support, and that makes it sustainable. The plan in the UK for child poverty is embedded in legislation. There are targets and milestones for ministers and for chief executives, and that’s what I think we need to have in New Zealand – that kind of leadership.
SUSAN          The minister, Paula Bennett, would say there is a plan and we’re too busy addressing it to actually bother measuring it.  What’s your response to that?
RUSSELL     Well, I think if we really care about anything, we have a plan and then we measure progress against that. The Government’s done some really good things.  So in the May Budget, we saw 3.2 billion for things that will make a difference to children, like social housing, insulation, early childhood education, parenting programmes, rheumatic fever.  Those are all good things, and the Expert Advisory Group and I are really proud of those gains.  More importantly, we changed the conversation so we now have programmes like this talking about child poverty.  That’s a huge achievement and one that I’m really proud of, and, actually, I think Government’s proud of those changes too.
SUSAN          What is your definition of poverty?
RUSSELL     We’ve got five definitions for poverty, and we’re going to measure it in all those different ways to give the whole picture.  So what matters is, firstly, who’s poor, because it’s the youngest children who are most affected by poverty.  Severe poverty really matters, so being on less than half the median income, missing out on the things that—
SUSAN          But what is that in a dollar value?  What is that in a dollar value?
RUSSELL     Dollar value?           
SUSAN          Yeah.  What are you living on a year if you’re living on that?
RUSSELL      So when you— Yeah, so when you— MSD look at that, they take 50 per cent of— after housing costs are taken out – so that’s about 13k (thousand) for an earner.  But remember the graph is very steep south of that, so most people on less that 50 per cent are on a lot less than that.
SUSAN          Less than $13,000 a year?
RUSSELL     Yeah, after housing costs and a lot less than that.  And then you can also look at the things that kids miss out on, like being able to afford to be able to go to the GP, shoes that fit, a raincoat, their own bed, those kinds of things. And that material deprivation really matters.  That’s what makes a big difference to education and health and social justice outcomes.
SUSAN          Finance Minister Bill English ruled out actually measuring poverty because he said it makes no sense – relative poverty doesn’t make sense because there’s no absolute measure.  Are you going to come up with some sort of absolute measure of poverty that says if you’re on less than, you are in poverty?
RUSSELL     Yeah, we’re going to do both.  So you have both what I call relative measures and also absolute measures.   They need to be kept up to date with inflation, so you take a baseline.  It’s called a fixed line measure, and we have both of those.  We look at severe poverty.  We look at the ability of families to get out of poverty.  One of the unique things about New Zealand is our social mobility is really low.  So if you’re born into a low-income family, the likelihood of getting out of that is lower than in many countries.  We need to track that as well.   
SUSAN          Do you know why that is – why we can’t move up?
RUSSELL     There’s lots of structural barriers in there that make that harder. Government’s trying to do something about that.  Getting people back into work is an important thing.  That improves social mobility.  That’s a good thing that Government’s doing.
SUSAN          Do you think we can end childhood poverty?
RUSSELL     No, but I think we can bring it back to the kind of levels that were there when you and I were kids.  You know, when I was 12 and delivering Dad’s scripts around Maraenui, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be safe.  Now, Maraenui, Flaxmere, poor suburbs like that are much poorer now, and they’re just different.  You wouldn’t send a 12-year-old to deliver scripts and the pharmacist junk mail around the streets of a place like Maraenui anymore.  It’s different.  So and we know, for example, 1991 – child poverty almost trebled with the Budget changes.  It can be different.  Other countries with similar GDP to us have lower rates of child poverty.  We’ve been lower in the past.  We can do it again.
SUSAN          The numbers would indicate 265,000 New Zealand children living in poverty.  Would you accept that number?
RUSSELL     Yes, I do.  We use that – that’s a particular definition.  It’s less than 60 per cent of median household income after housing costs.  It’s the internationally accepted definition, so that’s the one that we used.
SUSAN          And tell me what life is like for these 265,000 children.  They probably can’t go to the doctor.  I mean, have they got shoes to go to school?  Do they get school lunches regularly?  What is life like for them?
RUSSELL     These are the kids that paediatricians seen on children’s wards and in outpatients every day, so the patients that I see typically have cold, damp houses, they can’t afford to go to the GP, they often can’t afford to do the basics that our kids would take for granted, like to go on school trips and have stationery and a uniform, shoes that fit.  You know, their houses really are in a shocking state.  Most kids who are living in poverty live in private rentals, not state rentals but private rentals, and those houses are in appalling state.  So having a warrant of fitness again is one of those very practical recommendations that the Expert Advisory Group recommended.  We’re going to see that in state housing first, and then we need to see it in private rentals too.  We know that will make a big difference.
SUSAN          Do you think you’ll be able to convince this government and maybe future governments, maybe get some sort of cross-party support for that plan we have talked about?
RUSSELL     Yeah, this is too important for party politics, Susan, and I think New Zealanders expect more from their leaders.  In the UK, they managed to get cross-party support and agreement to have a plan, to have targets and to make ministers and chief executives accountable.  I cannot see why we can’t do that here.  And for it to be sustainable going forward, we have to get cross-party support.  I think, actually, that our political leaders do care about child poverty.  No matter what hue they are, I think they do care, and I think that it’s in them to have a joined-up plan for this.


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