How responsible is the Government for ‘safe’ houses?

Cold damp houses and deaths of people, particularly infants, have caused a lot of consternation. Some go as far as directly blaming the Government for deaths like this.

How responsible is the Government? They can’t be blamed for every death from any cause.

A guest post at The Standard looks at The Responsibilities of Government.

The death of Emma-Lita Bourne is not just a personal tragedy for the family: it is an event that should make New Zealand angry with the powerful people in our society who control the purse strings. They are responsible for condemning thousands of children to life-threatening conditions. And they are doing it in our name.

The reliable public health evidence is clear: poor housing conditions cause premature mortality. Our policy makers know that; those who decide on where public money should be spent know that; and yet too many of us simply shrug, express our heartfelt sympathies, and leave it at that. Well, we should be angry and we should be insistent on speedy change.

Fair enough to debate how much more should be done and how much more should be spent on safer housing. Alongside safer roads, safer workplaces, better medical and hospital care etc etc.

Politicians of the last few decades have presided over a significant increase in the wealth of the nation. As a result we have a very comfortable middle class. But a nation that harps on about its vanguard role in socially progressive developments in legal frameworks and its egalitarian ethos has become very unbalanced in its distribution of this considerable wealth. Those at the poorer ends of society have in fact gone backwards. Result: children die in mouldy and uncarpeted houses owned by us.

Some of this is questionable. For example carpeted houses can be less safe for some people than un-carpeted houses as carpets can harbour allergenic material.

I haven’t seen anyone analyse the state of housing now compared to say fifty years ago, when insulation was rare. Housing must surely be better generally for most people than it was a hundred years ago.

But we need to look at things as they stand now, and how we can do better.

It is time to recall one of the socially progressive developments where we were leaders rather than followers. New Zealand played a major role in ensuring coverage of economic and social rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This totemic document of the United Nations, designed as the blue-print for the rebuilding of societies destroyed by eugenic ideas that some people were of lesser worth, sets out in Article 25 that all people have the right to an adequate standard of living. It’s a right with a purpose: to allow people to provide for the health and well-being of themselves and their family.

It’s all very well saying “an adequate standard of living” is a right but perfect living conditions for everyone cannot be provided, even if it could be defined.

What about the right to let people choose their own standard of living? People can’t be forced to comply with certain living standards.

In fact, it isn’t just a matter of economic rights. It is actually a matter of the right to life.

That’s idealistic. We have certain rights to life but can’t have guarantees, except for the guarantee that we will all end up dying.

The state obligation is to take steps whenever it is aware that death is risked that can be avoided.

That is totally unrealistic. Should we ban anything that risks death? Ban mountaineering? Ban swimming and boating? Ban all sports and recreation? Ban all unsafe workplaces? Sitting in an office all day is supposed to have health risks.

It’s totally unrealistic to expect we can have 100% safe roads.

It’s also unrealistic to expect we can have 100% safe houses.

Even basics like coldness and dampness on houses have significant problems. My house is cold if i don’t heat it enough. It is damp and it gets mouldy if I don’t ventilate it enough.

So our officials cannot just stand by. Safeguarding the many children like Emma-Lita Bourne is not just in the nice to have basket: it’s in the need to have basket. Any avoidable and entirely preventable death is an absolute tragedy. But when it reveals a situation which we have promised will not be allowed, we should damn well be angry about it. So how should we respond? Well how about we insist on being true to our obligations and, given our proud record of being at the forefront of social progress, true to our values.

Kris Gledhill

Our officials haven’t been just standing by. They generally do as much as they can with as much budget as they can get.

Cold and damp houses haven’t just been created in the last few years. Improvements have been happening – insulation has increased significantly over the past decade.

It’s a very complex issue that can’t be quickly and simply solved. For example you can’t force people to heat and ventilate their homes.

We should be looking at what can be done to improve housing safety more. In a reasonable way.

One of the worst ways to encourage the Government and officials to address it better is to blame and shame them.

But that’s what’s happening. The post by Kris Gledhill means well, with some naivety, but some of the follow up comments are negative, unnecessary and counter-productive.

One Anonymous Bloke:

Arrest those responsible and extradite them to Holland to stand trial at The Hague. Send a message to the centre-right that for human rights abusers, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

There is no alternative: until they face personal consequences they will keep on killing children.


Their plan this time appears to be to dump social housing on to charities with insufficient resources, and trust that they will leak into the market that way.

Thus causing the mass exodus of families into their cars and trailer parks to die because of the irresponsibility of ministers with no moral compass.

I don’t think that we need to send Nick Smith to the Hague. I’m pretty sure we could deal with him here. I don’t care if we have to pass laws to deal with such people ignoring their direct responsibilities retroactively

Prentice is suggesting retroactive responsibility – does that go back as far as the Clark Government? The Bolger Government?

The Government cannot be held responsible for every death, and it isn’t fair to blame the Government for individual deaths, as sad as those deaths are.

We have a problem – not a new problem but one with new political focus – and we need to look at how we can deal with it better.

But if we prosecute and imprison all MPs whenever anyone dies it’s hard to see how we will make any progress.

Abusing and blaming is one of the most ineffective ways of getting politicians to listen and to act.

The Government has a responsibility to do as much as it can, but that involves juggling priorities. Those who dump on them don’t have to worry about the realities and real difficulties on getting a reasonable balance.

But no matter what the Government does they cannot ensure everyone heats their house adequately, or ventilates their house adequately, or keeps their carpets and beds relatively free of allergens, or budgets effectively, or the many other things that can contribute to a family’s well-being.