Proposed changes to the role of the Children’s Commissioner and oversight of the state care system are ‘a slap in the face’ rather than an improvement, advocacy groups have claimed
Concern is growing about plans to disestablish the Children’s Commissioner role and other changes to the oversight of the state care system, with children’s charities saying the reforms are being rushed through without sufficient scrutiny.
The Oversight of the Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill, which passed its first reading in November last year, would replace the commissioner’s position with a board made up of three to six people.
The legislation would establish an independent monitor of Oranga Tamariki to scrutinise the ministry’s adherence to national care standards, located within the Education Review Office rather than as a standalone entity – a decision which previously drew criticism from former Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, as reported by Newsroom.
The Government has said the move away from a single commission to a board reflects the growing scope and importance of children’s issues, while it changed its plan to place the monitoring role with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner due to the belief that its advocacy role would come into conflict with its duties as a monitor.
However, several children’s charities have questioned the Government’s plans, saying they could in fact undermine scrutiny of the system.
Save the Children advocacy and research director Jacqui Southey told Newsroom the charity was concerned the move to a board model would dilute the clarity of leadership that New Zealand had seen from a single, named figure.
“The Children’s Commissioner is a designated leader: they are a champion for children, they have a high public profile, and they have the status and mana with that office that encourages trust…
“We can support the development of a board – in fact we do – but we see that in support of the main Children’s Commissioner, rather than instead of.”
“We have a lot of ministers, we have a lot of voices in Parliament, but we always look to that prime minister[ial] leadership when it gets serious, and I think the same sort of almost social mentality prevails when it comes to these leadership-type roles.”
Previous children’s commissioners had shown they could effectively hold the Government to account in a standalone position, Southey said.
She cited the work of paediatrician and inaugural commissioner Ian Hassall, as well as Laurie O’Reilly drawing attention to the treatment of children in police cells and Dame Cindy Kiro’s contribution to the so-called ‘anti-smacking’ law which removed a legal justification for using force against children.
“If we think politically…we have a lot of ministers, we have a lot of voices in Parliament, but we always look to that prime minister[ial] leadership when it gets serious, and I think the same sort of almost social mentality prevails when it comes to these leadership-type roles.”
Southey also had concerns about the decision to take the monitoring role away from the Children’s Commissioner and into a departmental agency, saying she did not accept the argument that the office’s advocacy role would conflict with any monitoring duties.
“It’s kind of a continuous circle, really, and that is what our Children’s Commissioner has been providing: they monitor, they evaluate what is happening, they report on that, and then they advocate for change based on those reports, or that evaluation.
“Our concern is that this legislation separates them quite significantly from that process.”
A decision to carve out communication between government agencies and the Ombudsman from the Official Information Act seemed at odds with the Government’s claims that the legislation was about improving transparency and public confidence in the system, she said.
“We’ve had such staunch advocacy coming out of the Children’s Commissioner that they just don’t want that sort of pressure being applied and this is a method of weakening that, quietening them down – it’s a real slap in the face.”
A petition started by Save the Children to “save the Children’s Commissioner” had been signed by nearly 6000 people since it was created in early January, with many people saying they had been unaware of the proposals.
Southey said there should have been a longer consultation period, with children involved, given it was their rights at stake.
Tupua Urlich, a state care survivor now working as the national care experience lead for children’s advocacy charity VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai, said to Newsroom of the independent children’s monitor role: “The name that it’s been given doesn’t fit what this bill describes”, while also disagreeing with the idea that advocacy and monitoring should be kept separate.
“The Children’s Commissioner has been such a strong advocate for systems change and improving outcomes for young people – why would you not have those that are most informed monitoring the system?…
“I believe that they’re doing this because we’ve had such staunch advocacy coming out of the Children’s Commissioner that they just don’t want that sort of pressure being applied and this is a method of weakening that, quietening them down – it’s a real slap in the face.”
Urlich said the Government should have taken more time to hear from the public, but appeared to be rushing the legislation through instead.
“We need independence because independence has integrity, and especially when it comes to the care and protection of our young people.”
In a statement, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni told Newsroom the Government was “committed to improving the wellbeing of children in Aotearoa New Zealand, and that includes having the appropriate safeguards and oversight for children who come into the care of the state”.
“The bill reflects the Government’s commitment to establish a more comprehensive and more cohesive system of oversight arrangements that will help to improve outcomes for children and young people—tamariki and rangatahi and tai tamariki—across New Zealand.”
Replacing the current commissioner-sole model with a broader commission would enhance its ability to advocate on a range of issues, Sepuloni said.