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The Nation: Judge Andrew Becroft

Press Release – The Nation

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Judge Andrew Becroft Headlines: The Childrens Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says hes recommended to the new government that they index benefits to average wages or inflation for any household including children. …On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Judge Andrew Becroft
The Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says he’s recommended to the new government that they index benefits to average wages or inflation for any household including children. He says that’s the single most useful thing the government could do to help the poorest children in the country.
Judge Becroft says he’s also discussed a universal basic income with the government, as well as giving money collected in child support directly to the parent looking after the child.
Judge Becroft says the new government, and future governments, should be required to set and publish child poverty reduction targets and report on them every 1-3 years.

Lisa Owen: A report out this week says the number of kiwi kids living in poverty has dropped. But the picture is complicated, and the drop was not big. I spoke to the Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft and asked him what the report tells us.
Andrew Becroft: Well, I think it is good news. For the first time, the stats are coming down slightly. It is a good basis for future work, but it’s too early to say if there’s a trend.
Mm. In terms of that, when you look at the people surviving on a low income, if you look at the long-term figures, over about a decade, they have only oscillated about 1% up, 1% down in terms of decrease or increase. We are not making a big dent in this. So why hasn’t anyone been able to make a significant dent in those figures?
Yeah, I mean, you’re quite correct. The big increase was late-‘80’s, early ‘90s, then it has remained, as you say, with oscillations, fairly stable. I mean, I guess the answer is no one has actively and purposefully targeted the issue. I mean, we do well for the senior group in New Zealand, the over 65s. We do really well, world-leadingly well. Why don’t we for our children? In the end, I think it has been a failure to prioritise and to lead. And perhaps it has been slightly bedevilled by political point-scoring at times. I think we have got a memorable opportunity now that we will never get again to do something quite different. And that is the challenge, I think. And in the lead-up to the election, there was almost, as I said, not quite tongue-in-cheek, the danger of consensus breaking out between the parties. I mean, it was being prioritised, agreed upon. Now is the time for action, and I look forward to that.
So basically, we haven’t taken it seriously enough?
You’d have to say that on the stats, yes.
So there are some gains in this report; what do you put it down to?
Well, the first thing to say is frustratingly, this report concludes at the 30th of June 2016 period; such a time lag to get the figures out. The $25 a week increase for child benefits that the previous government put in place hadn’t really kicked in. The increase in Working For Families package hadn’t even started. I think you would say a stronger economy obviously always has some effect and lifts the bottom up slightly. I think we have seen a real rise in the commitment by charities and NGOs and community groups. I think that is one of the untold stories; New Zealand, I think, understands the situation. There is much more of a humanitarian response. Communities are behind what is going on. Charities are doing good work. I think that is underestimated in all of this in terms of providing shoes, clothing, lunches, breakfast. I think the country as a whole is becoming much more involved, and I am encouraged by that.
Well, that is kind of interesting, isn’t it, because if you look at the two different measures, material deprivation is the one. So that is where kids are missing out on having a raincoat or a pair of shoes, these essential items. That is the one where you have actually seen a reasonably significant decrease in the number of kids who are deprived. So that is charities. That is philanthropy. In terms of income poverty: barely a change. Charities can only give so much, though, can’t they?
Yeah, that is true. I think the government has got the ultimate responsibility to put in a strong safety net, but it can’t just be the government. It has got to be a sense of all of us involved. And charities have clearly made a significant contribution over recent years in particular. That’s encouraging. It is, as I’ve said, an untold story. The other thing to say is the material disadvantage measurement is based on household surveys. So you have got to be in a house to be part of a household, so it may not be covering those in the most extreme situations. And it’s an art and not a science, and not every household survey; I mean, they don’t survey the same households each year.
It depends on their being, for instance, the same numbers of beneficiaries, of sole parents and that sort of thing. It may not have been quite the same for this year’s survey. So it just shows you it is the trend we need to see, a one-off reduction, is hugely encouraging, but it is not necessarily a trend.
Yeah. Well, you have previously stated, and on this show, you said you wanted a 10% year-on-year reduction in the number of children in poverty. So you were meaning both material hardship and income deprivation with that measure?
In fact, when on this programme, I made that very comment, I was primarily talking about the material deprivation. I think I said the list of 17 items and enforced hardship when children live in families without seven of them. And I said it would be good to see a 10% drop. On these figures, that has happened.
Yes. But the income figures, the drop in numbers of kids in those households is only about 1%. 1.7%, it is around about that. So what do you think the goal should be for reducing income poverty? Should that be around 10% year on year too?
Just before I answer that, let us remember there is two or three measurements for income poverty. The measurement in our annual review is the after housing costs, 60% less than the median income. You could take 50%, you could take 40%; all those are measurements that no doubt this government and previous governments will consider. But the after housing costs, 60% below median income is the hardest to shift. That is the one that is on our monitor.
If you took the 50% or the 40%, certainly you would be looking at 10%. But the after housing 60% is a harder group to shift.
Okay. So what do you think it should be? What should the decrease be in that group, then, if we are going to use that measure?
I would like to think at least 5% per year. And I hope that in the new legislation, that is foreshadowed as being part of the hundred-days package. I hope there will be an obligation on all governments to publish targets. Maybe every year or two or three, there is a report on them. It would be great, in fact, if this child-poverty monitor was not required every year, that there was government transparent reporting. That is what I look forward to.
So on those two targets that you have said there, the 10% and the 5%, if the government set targets that do not equal that, would you be disappointed if they are less ambitious than that?
Yeah, I think it is crucial that we set targets. I mean, this is a marathon and not a sprint. I am not going to die in a ditch over exact numbers. I have probably made that mistake with you before about 18 months ago. But, I mean, I want to see targets that are clear. And do not forget, we are heading towards 2030. 2030 is a Sustainable Development Goal time frame, which we have talked about, halving child poverty by 2030. Now, we need targets that are going to get us there.
Yes. And the thing is, though, if you look at those ones that you have just talked about, if you set targets that are any less than that, we will struggle to halve poverty by 2030, won’t we, if we do not set the ones that you’ve just mentioned: 10% and 5%.
Absolutely. Yeah. In fact, we could get there quicker if we set them slightly higher, which would be exciting too. But I agree: substantially, what you are saying is correct. All I want to avoid is saying it has got to be exactly this percentage figure.
So you have kind of touched on this. Those people who are hovering just below the poverty line, the so-called low-hanging fruit, it is easier to help them get over that line. The people who are way below the poverty line, what is the single biggest thing we could do, the most significant thing we could do to help them?
Single biggest thing?
Very tempting, and I mean, it is a seductively easy question, but I would say this in answer to your question: I would love to see child benefits linked to wages and prices. So we avoid the occasional increase, and then a gradual decrease. But we have a continual linking to economic growth. And I think that is the single best thing that we could do.
So just to be clear, judge, you are saying that in households where there are children that the benefit should be indexed to the average wage in exactly the same way as Super is?
I mean, it would probably be harder, because there is complicated factors in terms of number of children, that sort of thing. But yes, in principle, that is right. We have to get off the system we have used at the moment of one-off single initiatives every six or seven years, where we see an uptake, then a spike down, and then up again. We have got to have parity, I think, and relativity. We can’t leave benefits just to one side.
Have you talked to the government about that? Will you talk to the government about it?
Yes and yes.
And what has been the response?
Well, I mean, it is early days, isn’t it? I think we are seeing a package released next week. We will see, I hope, draft legislation as part of the hundred-day package within the second of February, is it? So all will be revealed.
But you don’t think that is an unrealistic goal? Are you hopeful that you might make some headway with this government around that indexing issue?
Yeah, I am hopeful. I don’t think that would be, for any government, top of their list. But if you asked me what I thought would make the biggest difference, that would be it. I hope we can make headway on that. What I would like to see in the meantime: increases in the benefit in the Working For Families package and to see legislation that commits us to targets. Because we have to put behind us the three yearly election promises and then nothing. We need sustained continual committed effort. And nothing less than that will do now.
Okay. Well, let’s talk about a couple of other potential options. Do you think that money collected, so this is child support collected from estranged parents or wayward parents: that goes to the state at the moment; should that be filtered back to the household with the child in it?
Yeah, that was the recommendation of the Expert Group on poverty. I think yes. I think men in particular would be much more willing and a much greater stake of what’s collected. They know it is going back to their child. Yes is the answer to that.
So you would be encouraging this government to make that change.
Have done.
And what was the response?
Well, we will see, won’t we?
But were you hopeful about that as well?
Yes. I mean, I am hopeful.
The door was left open?
Yeah. I mean, we have put what we think are doable policies on the table for the previous government and this government. I mean, it is clear where we stand. And the Expert Advisory Group on poverty, that way predates me. In a sense, I am just a custodian for this. It was started by the previous Children’s Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills. It is his legacy, really, that we are talking about now.
Yeah. And the point is that you do have a new government, so you can try again with these things. So you have obviously been through the list of most of those prime recommendations with this new government.
Well, we have talked.
Yeah. Okay. So the other thing is this government had said that it is not keen to keep the previous government’s Social Investment policy. Are you concerned a little bit that ideology might get in the way of some good ideas?
I mean, Social Investment is a buzzword that is so value laded now that it turns people off, but I think it should mean two things. It must mean helping those most need assistance. But it can’t just be an individualised approach, because we have got to be turning the tap off to the process that causes individuals to be disadvantaged too. So a much wider conception of Social Investment is to look at those factors that mean too many New Zealand children are disadvantaged. So I don’t see it as an either/or; I see it as a both/and, and I think we need to keep that clearly in mind.
Benefit cuts, other than the benefit cuts in the ‘90s, the other sort of seemingly single biggest factor in all of this is the cost of housing, right? That has gone up exponentially. Is it the biggest hurdle that we face in terms of making real progress with this issue?
Yeah, I think that is a fair thing to say. That is the crucial issue. As is well known, for the 20% most disadvantaged families in the late ‘80s, about a quarter of their income was spent on accommodation; now for those same families, it’s 52%, 53% of their income. So it is the single biggest driver, as it were, I think, that creates disadvantage, and that is where we should focus. I agree.
And so where is the policy out for that, then? What can we do?
Well, we have got the part of the hundred days. I mean, we were strong in the EAG report, the Expert report. We said it in recent months that the accommodation supplement, for instance, which is quite a complex benefit to understand, could be rationalised and simplified. It could also be linked to the costs relative to the different regions. And that could be made clearer. And what would be word? It could be more sophisticated in terms of relating to where people live. So I think there is work to be done there in particular.
And are you confident that this government is going to do that work?
Well, you ask me lots of things, am I confident? I mean, I am not a politician.
What we have seen on the whiteboard looks encouraging, but this government, like any government has got to walk the talk. And that is what we are waiting to see.
Judge Becroft, always a pleasure to talk to you.
Thank you.
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