An advocate for children in care says changes to a government agency before a law has passed show the government is “bulldozing” through a law regarding oversight of Oranga Tamariki.

Two government agencies will be directly affected by a proposed law on oversight of Oranga Tamariki.

If the bill passes it will create new roles for the Education Review Office (ERO) and the Ombudsman’s office.  However, the two agencies are responding in different ways to the proposed law – the Ombudsman’s office is restructuring and recruiting new staff while ERO is waiting until the proposed legislation is passed before it makes any changes. 

In response to emailed questions about his response to the bill the Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier said his office was expanding its current role in reviewing complaints about government to include a specific role regarding Oranga Tamariki. 

In a written statement he said: “This is a significant new function for the Ombudsman, and will capitalise on the broad lens that I already have over all of government. I started planning for this enhanced role some time ago. In 2019/20, with funding approved by Parliament, I created a dedicated Children in Care Complaints Team, to help me deal with complaints made against Oranga Tamariki. The eight-strong team provides early assistance advice, resolves complaints, and undertakes investigations. It is well-led by a manager who has extensive experience in children’s care and protection and Te Ao Māori.”

The Ombudsman’s budget for its work investigating issues around children in care is now $8 million. The Children’s Commission currently has a budget of $5 million to conduct advocacy, monitoring and investigate complaints, which included Oranga Tamariki but wasn’t limited to this.

However, ERO was asked the same questions about its response to the bill and gave a different response.

In a written statement ERO said: “The Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill is continuing through the legislative process. The mandate of the Education Review Office Te Tari Arotake Mātauranga (ERO) would only be amended if this legislation is to pass. As a result, no changes can or have been put in place until the legislative process concludes.”

Tracie Shipton, chief executive of advocacy group VOYCE-Whakarongo Mai that represents children in care, says the expansion of the Ombudsman’s role before the law has changed shows the government has “bulldozed” the legislation through before consultation.

“The timing of the Ombudsman’s children in care team being established shows the predetermined nature of this Bill. To form this team before public consultation emphasises the government’s bulldozer approach to this bill, and disingenuous community consultation. The state does not know best, and the institutional hearings that started this week will no doubt provide a timely warning to this bulldozer approach,” she says. 

All parties apart from Labour are opposed to the bill, which may have its third and final reading as soon as Tuesday August 23. A select committee received more than 400 submissions over the bill, with the overwhelming majority of submitters – at least 80 percent – opposed.

The Government’s plans to replace the Children’s Commissioner with a board of representatives, and to place an independent monitor of Oranga Tamariki within the Education Review Office rather than as a standalone entity, have attracted criticism since they were first mooted in mid-2021.

 *Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund *

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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