Cabinet’s decision to change course on how to establish an independent monitor of Oranga Tamariki’s care standards is being criticised by Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, who questions whether the role will be truly independent
The country’s chief children’s advocate has questioned the independence of a new watchdog intended to monitor standards for children in state care, after the Government changed its mind on how the role would be set up.
Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft has also criticised a proposed Māori advisory group as “unfit for purpose, inappropriate, inadequate and wrong in principle”, saying a more meaningful partnership is required.
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As part of Oranga Tamariki’s establishment, the Government was required to create national care standards governing how children in state care should be looked after – along with an independent children’s monitor to keep an eye on the ministry’s compliance with those standards.
The Government had initially planned to place the monitoring role within the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
On Monday, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni revealed a change of heart, saying Cabinet had decided instead to establish the monitor as a departmental agency within the Education Review Office (ERO).
” …It has to be a watchdog, where appropriate and necessary, that can bark.”
The agency would have its own chief executive, also serving as a statutory officer, who would have to “have regard to” the views of a Māori advisory group also being established.
Becroft told Newsroom he was not upset with the Government locating the monitor role away from his office, but instead “disappointed and concerned” about the call to set it up as a departmental agency within the ERO, which raised questions about whether the monitor would be truly independent.
“It seems to me that the work of the Royal Commission looking at abuse while in state care, if nothing else, has shown the need for a strong independent and well-resourced watchdog for children – and it has to be a watchdog, where appropriate and necessary, that can bark.”
Becroft and his office had recommended locating the monitor within an autonomous Crown entity to ensure sufficient independence – advice the Government had not taken.
While Sepuloni raised concerns about the potential for conflict between the monitor’s reporting obligations and the commissioner’s advocacy role, the office had navigated that tension since its establishment in 1989, given its role in monitoring youth justice facilities.
Becroft also had concerns about the Government’s plans for a Māori advisory group, describing the model as “so last century”.
“Surely in 2021, the Treaty demands proper partnership and co-governance involving Māori, and the mechanism of an advisory committee to which the monitor must have regard … must be regarded as unfit for purpose, inappropriate, inadequate and wrong in principle.”
“Surely in 2021, the Treaty demands proper partnership and co-governance involving Māori, and the mechanism of an advisory committee to which the monitor must have regard…must be regarded as unfit for purpose, inappropriate, inadequate and wrong in principle.”
His office would continue to advocate for a stronger, partnership-based role given that almost 70 percent of the children in Oranga Tamariki’s care were Māori.
Becroft said he was making his comments now before the details were finalised and would scrutinise the Government’s work carefully to ensure there was genuine independence, adding: “I’m not out to undermine the government decision, I’m out to improve it.”
Former Oranga Tamariki employee Luke Fitzmaurice, now a PhD candidate studying kaupapa Māori perspectives on child protection and children’s rights, told Newsroom the Government’s decision was a lost opportunity to improve oversight of the state care system and would “hamstring” the talented people currently working for the monitor.
Fitzmaurice said he shared Becroft’s concerns about the Māori advisory group, adding: “Any advisory group that doesn’t have power isn’t reflective of tino rangatiratanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi – that doesn’t mean those people aren’t fantastic and knowledgeable and it doesn’t mean they can’t achieve anything, but if you call that upholding the Treaty or call that recognising rangatiratanga you’ve fallen short.”
Sepuloni told Newsroom the Government had considered establishing an autonomous Crown entity as suggested by Becroft, but ruled it out due to the limitations that would place on ministers’ ability to suggest avenues of inquiry.
“We want the new agency to have independence so we can’t direct them not to look into something, but we also want to be able to direct them to look into something too if we’ve got concerns about something.”
Sepuloni said the Government had consulted a Māori reference group before finalising its proposal. While its initial preference had been for a model similar to the Children’s Commissioner, she understood the members were satisfied with the final outcome.
However, the draft legislation included a provision for a review to take place within five years of the monitor’s establishment, covering how effectively it was working with iwi, Māori and the wider community.
The Government hoped the legislation would go through the select committee process before the end of the year, with the new agency set up in 2022.
Until then, the Ministry of Social Development would continue its interim monitoring role, while the Ombudsman’s Office would have a separate responsibility for investigating complaints about the care of children.