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The Nation: Andrew Becroft and Laura Lundy

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft and international children's rights expert Laura Lundy


In 2016 the United Nations slammed New Zealand's child welfare record. The next report is just two years away, so should we be preparing for a similar dressing-down? I spoke to Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft and the Editor of the International Journal of Children's Rights Professor Laura Lundy. I began by asking them how they rate this government's performance so far.

Andrew Becroft: It’s good that it’s cross-party. It’s good that it’s systemic. It’s good that we have measurements, annual reporting and a commitment to halve poverty by 2028.

Simon Shepherd: Okay, but at the moment, the statistics are not great. Like, 23 per cents of children living in poverty after housing costs. I mean, that’s a terrible statistic, isn’t it?

Becroft: Yeah, it’s a shame on our country. It’s utterly unacceptable. Those figures show that transformational change will be required. Incremental, small steps won’t cut it. There’ll need to be some big commitments, and we’ll need to spend as a country, and there’s no way round that.

Professor Lundy, from an outsider’s point of view, the UN sort of slammed New Zealand about five years ago, saying it had a terrible record on child poverty. How is New Zealand regarded in terms of meeting its obligations?

Laura Lundy: I think it’s a mixed picture. I mean, I think at the minute, New Zealand has quite a good reputation in the international world. I mean, your Prime Minister has a very strong, positive reputation, particularly commitments to children and the idea that New Zealand is going to be, like, a great place for children to grow up. To be fair, the United Nations slams everybody; it’s its job, you know. It has to find what you do – Poverty is one of your weaknesses. That’s not to say there aren’t strengths here. There are things that New Zealand is leading on. I mean, it was one of the first countries to ban corporal punishment of children, and that’s a really positive thing. But then you flip that and then you realise that you’ve got one of the highest rates of child homicide. So it’s a really mixed picture in New Zealand. And when I arrived, I thought, ‘It’s going to be great. I’m going to learn so much in terms of positive practice,’ and we have done. But on the other hand, I’m really surprised by the scale of some of the issues that you’re facing at the minute.

So what are you surprised by?

Lundy: Your children who are in detention and in care and the disproportionate number of children from your Maori community, which is just unacceptably high.

Next week, we understand that the child wellbeing strategy is being delivered. What is your hope from that strategy?

Becroft: That things will shift statistically. Overall for New Zealand children, 70 per cent do pretty well – some world-leadingly well. 20 per cent are in and out of disadvantage, and it’s tough for them. 10 per cent, about 100,000 – about two Eden Parks’ full worth of children – are really doing it tough in chronic disadvantage. That’s not an inevitable life script for bad outcomes, but it’s a hugely elevated risk.

This is the revolution that you’ve been calling for? I mean, you’ve used that term – you need a revolution in looking after our children.

Becroft: Yes, I’d like to see some – to use the government’s language – transformational change. Something of a paradox in New Zealand – we do so well for so many of our kids but yet so badly for quite a significant group. Those two things stand, I guess, in stark contrast. Youth suicide, child abuse and neglect, child homicide – that we’ve talked about – bullying; just about lead the world in those areas. And it’s hard to see how in a country we’re all so proud of ¬– where we want better for our children – that that can be the case. But the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, I hope, targets all those areas. We’ll be judged on it. We got a pretty mixed report card from the UN five years ago. I hope in 2020 we can go– or 2021 we can go with our heads held high that we’ve committed to make some significant change. As I say, it can’t be incremental. It’s got to be revolutionary, yes.

One of the areas which the UN convention talks about is stating a child has to be able to express their view freely and that view has to be given due weight. Now, Professor, you’ve developed models about this. They’ve been widely accepted. How do those actually work, though?

Lundy: Well, they should work– I suppose the first thing is that people need to know that this provision exists, and again, quite a lot of people don’t realise that they do exist or they don’t understand what it actually means. So they think that you listen to children but you don’t really have to do anything with what they say, and the crucial thing about the convention is that it wants both. It wants you to actively go after children’s views, and then it wants you to take them seriously, and then it wants you to show children what you have done in relation to what they’ve said. And that’s where most countries – including New Zealand at the minute – seem to fall down.

But, I mean, don’t adults know best?

Lundy: Do you think adults know best? No, adults do not know best. Adults know a lot, so I’m very keen to emphasise in my model that it’s not– Sometimes people say children are the experts in their own lives, and that’s wrong. But children do have expertise in their own lives, and we have to bring that into the picture, along with the perspective of other adult experts.

Right. So how do we break down that notion that–? Adults, you know, think that they know best, but really, they should take on children’s views a bit more. How do we break that down?

Lundy: Well, first thing – you make it law, you know, and it is law in New Zealand. And actually, New Zealand has one of the best forms of that law that I’ve ever seen, going around the world, in relation to actually just repeating the wording of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But law’s not enough. Then you actually have to realise that the people who are implementing the law understand it and are committed to it and have a conception of children and young people that aligns with that. And that’s the tricky bit, and that’s through training, and it’s through practice. And often the adults, then, who do that realise the benefit of talking to children. They realise that when they talk to children, they learn how to make their services more effective – how, basically, they can do their own jobs better. And we need more of that.

Now, you’ve been spending this year listening to tamariki Maori, so what have they been telling you?

Becroft: The new Oranga Tamariki legislation consulted widely with children and young people. The Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy has an obligation to consult with them, listen to children and young people. So that, I hope, will inform the strategy. It’s being released next Thursday. I’m looking forward with anticipation. Maori children in particular told us that they are disadvantaged; they know that. They are judged by the colour of their skin too much. They use the word ‘racist’; we don’t. They say there are stereotypes. In education, there are expectations that they won’t do so well. Speaking to Maori children, particularly those who are marginalised, they definitely feel on the outside, in a way that I think would concern if not shock many New Zealanders – many Pakeha New Zealanders.

We’ve already known for years, so what is it–? How are we actually going to break through this?

Becroft: Honestly, I think for 30 years, well-meaning adults we thought could be trusted to deliver for children in terms of policy, we didn’t. We dropped the ball. Things didn’t trickle down to children. Children weren’t prioritised. The over-65s have a six times’ greater advantage rate in New Zealand than under-18. If that weren’t bad enough, that’s one of the highest ratios of differences in the world. Structurally in our economy, there is something badly wrong in our policy settings. What we did for over-65s, we could do for our children if we had the will and we had the commitment.

Professor Lundy, the convention says that if a child can’t live with their family – so if they’re taken away from the family – the government must provide care that respects the culture, language and religion. So we talk about, you know, New Zealand Maori being over-represented. Is New Zealand not living up to its care of Maori children in this context?

Lundy: Look, I’m nervous to speak without the evidence, but the impression I have in the days that I have here and what I’ve read and what I’ve listened to is that they’re not and that actually much more needs to be done to be sure a) that Maori children are not over-represented and not removed in the first instance, but that when they are, they’re somewhere that’s culturally appropriate and culturally sensitive and doesn’t undermine their sense of self. I mean, that’s a challenge in other parts of the world, but it seems to be a very big challenge here in New Zealand at the minute.

And that’s a review that you’re carrying out at the moment, Commissioner. You’re looking at how Oranga Tamariki takes children under three months old. What have you found so far?

Becroft: Well, we’re talking about the care and protection decision-making when issues are raised. At the moment, we’re beginning to engage directly with Maori families. We want to do that in a way that is respectful. It’s a pretty critical decision, because the new model – only started 1 July – is consistent earlier intervention and prevention and real assistance. And if there is to be removal, it’s in the sense of maintaining whakapapa and cultural links and providing real support for the wider family, hapu and iwi to do that.

But is there a pushback against that particular kind of legislation? Because we have seen an increase in the number of babies under 3 months being taken in the last couple of years.

Becroft: Yeah, as from 1 July, things have at least stabilised. What is good is that nearly 70 per cent of Maori children who are removed are kept within their wider whakapapa, but there are some real questions that have caused and perplexed a nation as to why the number of removals of Maori babies 2016, 2017 went up so much.

There is this Maori movement at the moment. There’s a Maori-led inquiry. Do you actually agree with what they’re proposing? They’re saying that, ‘We should have our own organisation to look after Maori separate from Oranga Tamariki.’

Becroft: Mm, there’s a common cry for ownership by Maori and delivery of services by Maori for Maori. I think the time has come, as a nation, for us to seriously consider that. If you look at education, you see some real changes, and I think that’s probably the big issue for our country.

Where do you stand on that in terms of Oranga Tamariki?

Becroft: Well, the law now requires it. I stand absolutely for it. I think that’s consistent with the Treaty obligations. I think it’s likely to deliver better results, but that’s not actually the reason. The reason is it’s a fundamental obligation utterly consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

So just to be clear, you would be in favour of a separate organisation that dealt with Maori, rather than Oranga Tamariki?

Becroft: Oh, on that point, it may well be that there is a Commissioner for New Zealand Children, Commissioner for Maori Children; maybe the same for children in care. I think there are a variety of ways of doing it structurally to make sure that Maori interests are actually focused on and prioritised as never before.

So on this anniversary of the convention, Professor, what advice would you give to New Zealand based on what you’ve heard and seen about us?

Lundy: Core advice at the minute is – you’re going to be in front of the Committee on the Rights of the Child the year after next, and they’re going to ask some, I think, very definite questions, from what I’ve heard. One of the things is – they’re going to ask about your wellbeing strategy. I’m not sure they’re going to be satisfied with it. I think they’re going to welcome the fact there is a wellbeing strategy, but they’re going to be asked about what you’re actually doing to implement children’s rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and your wellbeing strategy is not the same. It’s a different thing. So their second question they’re going to ask you is what you’re doing to ensure that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is incorporated in law. And that’s coming in at the minute in little piecemeal bits and pieces, and I think they’re going to push New Zealand to have a legislation which incorporates the convention. I think they’re going to push more, certainly, on the circumstances of your most marginalised children. I think that’s going to be very big focus, and I do think they’re going to be emphasising initiatives that are involving children. Perhaps voting age, the things that they’re looking at at the minute; your budget – is there transparency in how much you spend on your children? Are you spending enough on your children compared to other really rich nations like New Zealand? I mean, you’re a tiny population, really, and you’re a rich population. It just feels that they’re going to push you to do a lot better than you’re doing.

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

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