As public health experts, Māori organisations and Labour’s own supporters criticise its plans to shake up the role of the Children’s Commissioner, the Government says it’s open to change ‘where there is strong evidence to do so’

The public has won more time to have their say on controversial reforms to oversight of Oranga Tamariki after MPs were deluged with criticism of the proposals – including from the Labour Party’s own youth wing.

The Government’s plans to replace the Children’s Commissioner with a board of representatives and place an independent monitor of Oranga Tamariki within the Education Review Office, rather than as a standalone entity, have attracted criticism from both former and current commissioners.

Parliament’s social services and community committee has also taken flack over what critics have labelled an insufficiently long consultation period for such significant changes – but within the truncated timeframe it has still received a swathe of critiques from submitters.

The Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission, which opened its doors last year as an independent Crown entity, said that while it supported the overall aim of the legislation, the bill “relegates Te Tiriti o Waitangi obligations to a few specific clauses, rather than an overarching responsibility”.

The commission said children and young people needed a greater say in the shape and function of the oversight services, expressing concern that the select committee timeframes had been too short to include the voices of young people in its design.

It also believed the placement of the independent children’s monitor within ERO would not provide “meaningful independence”, and it should instead be part of a fully independent body, such as an independent Crown entity.

While the Government had referred to the “inherent tension in one organisation being both advocate and monitor”, there were multiple examples of independent Crown entities which held both functions (including the mental health commission itself).

“This will not only stagnate any attempts to pursue better outcomes for tamariki and whānau engaged with Oranga Tamariki but may even perpetuate the harms and dysfunction of the current Oranga Tamariki system at disproportionate and irreparable rates.”
– Hāpai Te Hauora

Hāpai Te Hauora, the largest Māori public health organisation in Aotearoa, offered scathing criticism of the bill, saying it “lacks any rigour which may protect our most vulnerable tamariki, and instead seeks form and function which ensures theoretical compliance”.

“This will not only stagnate any attempts to pursue better outcomes for tamariki and whānau engaged with Oranga Tamariki but may even perpetuate the harms and dysfunction of the current Oranga Tamariki system at disproportionate and irreparable rates.”

Rather than moving to a board model, the organisation said the Government should create a Māori co-commissioner to support the commissioner’s work and give them both the investigatory functions needed to do the job properly.

“Separation of these functions will disperse relevant information and processes and will create more layers of bureaucracy, delaying outcomes for tamariki and rangatahi.”

Hāpai Te Hauora also believed the independent children’s monitor needed to be “truly independent” and objectively assess the use of coercive powers by Oranga Tamariki, something not achieved in the legislation as it stood.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians also indicated its opposition, saying the current oversight model allowed the Children’s Commissioner to act as an investigator, monitor and advocate at the same time and had won the trust of NGOs, healthcare workers and tamariki.

“The bill purports to amplify the role and give greater scope to the range of issues facing children and young people, but in reality will cloak critical issues, policy and decision making in additional layers of bureaucracy.”

Clauses related to the Treaty of Waitangi had to be significantly strengthened as well, the college said.

“The confidence that our tamariki need to have isn’t there… if they’re not sold on this, then it’s a dud.”
– Jan Logie

In its own submission on the bill, New Zealand Young Labour said it shared current Children’s Commissioner Frances Eivers’ concern that the move to a board of commissioners would “dilute” the office’s role as an advocate.

“Being the children’s commissioner both takes and carries a great deal of mana. When they talk, people listen; the Government listens. We fear the new proposed board simply will not have the mana that the outstanding individuals who have held this role have had.”

While there was some merit in appointing more commissioners to cover a broader range of issues, there still had to be “a symbolic and independent figure that carries the torch for the rights of children and young people”.

“Children and young people deserve a standard bearer for their rights and an accountability system that works. So, let’s build one.”

Amnesty International, the New Zealand College of Midwives, Family Violence Clearinghouse, Plunket and Mental Health Foundation are among just some of the organisations to have indicated their opposition to parts or all of the reforms.

Save the Children advocacy and research director Jacqui Southey, who on Wednesday presented a 10,000-strong petition to Parliament urging the Government to “save the Children’s Commissioner” and halt the bill’s progress, told Newsroom the proposals represented “a step back for our children” whose voices had not been properly heard.

Accepting the petition from Southey, Green Party children’s spokeswoman Jan Logie said the “overwhelming message” from public submissions was that the changes were seen as neither in the best interests of children nor consistent with Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“The confidence that our tamariki need to have isn’t there … if they’re not sold on this, then it’s a dud.”

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni says the Government will consider making changes to its Oranga Tamariki oversight reforms – “where there is strong evidence to do so”. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni told Newsroom the changes were intended to strengthen the system and provide more resources to advocacy, monitoring, and the investigation of complaints.

Sepuloni said the Government was open to making changes to the reforms “where there is strong evidence to do so”, and had also built in a five-year review period to consider any recommendations from the ongoing inquiry into abuse in state care.

The move to a board would allow for greater diversity and did not prevent the members from choosing a spokesperson with a title like ‘Chief Children’s Commissioner’, while she argued the legislation included strong requirements for the independent monitor to not only collaborate with a Māori advisory group but have regard to its views and report annually on how it had done so.

Sepuloni maintained that the advocacy and monitoring roles needed to be kept separate, saying while some organisations did both, “these are not on the scale of what is proposed in this bill”.

Regarding claims of insufficient consultation with children, she understood that the select committee had sought and received an extension to hear submissions and present its final report.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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