Yesterday Bill English faced his first Question Time in Parliament as Prime Minister, facing Andrew Little first up on questions on child poverty, with housing added to the mix – possibly the defining issues of next year’s election campaign.
David Seymour, Winston Peters and Metiria Turei joined in.
Prime Minister—Child Poverty
1. ANDREW LITTLE (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Does he agree with Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft that the level of child poverty means “this is not the New Zealand I grew up in nor is it the New Zealand most of us want”; if so, what responsibility does he take as Prime Minister for his Government’s record?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH (Prime Minister): We do not want children growing up in persistent deprivation. I am proud of the steps the Government has already taken, including raising benefits by $25 per week for the first time in 40 years—something not done by the previous Labour Government. Alongside raising incomes, we are focusing on dealing with the complex dysfunction that traps families in long-term low incomes.
Andrew Little: Why are there more children living in poverty today than 8 years ago, when National took office?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: I do not agree with the member’s assertion.
Hon Members: Oh!
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: Well, the New Zealand Government publishes the most comprehensive measures of income of all developed countries in the world. The most recent information is up to 2014, which is prior to changes in free doctors visits for under-13s, the hardship package that was introduced under this Government, and other measures that we are taking for smarter support for vulnerable families.
Andrew Little: Why, after 8 years, has his Government not set targets to reduce income poverty and material deprivation amongst New Zealand children?
Hon Paula Bennett: Well, we have.
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: We have. We have set quite specific targets in respect of all those factors that create the circumstances of persistent deprivation—that is, reduction in recidivism rates, reduction in long-term welfare dependency, and reductions in rheumatic fever. We have insulated 300,000 homes to improve the standard of housing and reduce poor housing, and, as I have said, we have increased incomes for families on benefits for the first time in 40 years.
Andrew Little: Is it acceptable to him that, according to the Child Poverty Monitor report, 110,000 Kiwi kids live in houses with severe damp or mould problems?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: Of course that is not acceptable; the question is what steps should be taken to deal with it. This Government has insulated 300,000 such houses, and now runs much more focused systems for dealing with those children who show signs of ill health because of the quality their housing.
Andrew Little: How much money over the last 8 years has his Government taken out of Housing New Zealand in dividends, while Emma-Lita Bourne got sick and died in a cold, mouldy State house?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: I think the member misunderstands exactly how Housing New Zealand’s finances work, but when tenants are experiencing ill health because of the standard of those State houses, money is not a barrier to fixing them. All such incidents are meant to be dealt with by Housing New Zealand within a short amount of time precisely because of the ill effects on the tenants.
David Seymour: Is not the real problem with housing and poverty the fact that New Zealanders produce half as many homes per capita as we did in the 1970s?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: The member puts his finger on the nub of the issue. Misguided planning laws over the last 10 or 20 years have meant that our cities have not been allowed to grow, and that has helped to push up the price of housing and has made it less likely that good-quality, lower-cost housing is built in our cities.
Andrew Little: Will he back my bill to make it illegal to rent out damp, mouldy, unhealthy homes, or does he think it is OK for slum landlords to exploit poor families and make kids sick?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: It is already the law, in fact, that you cannot rent out a home that is going to be bad for someone’s health.
Rt Hon Winston Peters: To the Minister, is it not a fact that our parliamentary colleague from Epsom has stumbled on it—that we are not building nearly enough houses as we were in the 1970s and that we got mass immigration, which he has allowed in, in the 1990s and the 2000s?
Hon Members: Who’s the question to?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: Who was the question to?
Mr SPEAKER: Did the Prime Minister not hear the question? I can have it repeated.
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: No, I think I did. It is the case that there have been fewer houses built per 100,000 people in New Zealand in the last 10 or 15 years, because the planning laws have been designed to stop that happening. As for immigration, the National-led Government stands proudly open to trade, investment, and migration.
Andrew Little: After 8 years of rising child poverty on his watch, will he sign up to Andrew Becroft’s target of reducing child poverty by 10 percent in the next year and take immediate steps to get there, or are we going to continue to hear empty words, just like we did from his predecessor?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: Since 2012 we have published a set of quite focused targets aimed at dealing with the social dysfunction that traps families in the combination of welfare dependency, criminal recidivism, low education levels, and child abuse. The data about that is more detailed and more transparent than in pretty much any other developed country, and the Government is acting on that information—in many cases, family by family, because that is the only way to change their lives. Signing up to a target does not change their lives.
Metiria Turei: Does he accept the finding of the Children’s Commissioner’s report that on average 28 New Zealand children die each year of a poverty-related condition—each of those years being when National has been in Government?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: Well, I have not seen the detail of that. The Child Poverty Monitor takes information from the Government’s annual report on the state of incomes and households across New Zealand. But I think both the Labour and Green parties grossly oversimplify this issue. If it was just a matter of income, there would be no child poverty, because incomes are higher than they were. The hard bit we are dealing with in child poverty is the social dysfunction that has been there for 20 or 30 years, and this Government is addressing that in a more focused, thorough, and transparent way than any previous Government.
David Seymour: Is it not also related that one in five of the 60,000 children born in New Zealand every year are born into a family dependent on benefits?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: I think that is roughly the case. Of more concern is that about one in 100 of these children are born into households where there is criminal offending, child abuse, violence, and long-term welfare dependency. We are closely focused on working with those families to break what are long-term cycles of deprivation.
Metiria Turei: What is the point of his Government’s interventions if not one of them has saved a single one of those children’s lives?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: I just do not agree with the member. I mean, there have been quite sophisticated advances in, for instance, interventions around rheumatic fever, where the rate of diagnosis of rheumatic fever has halved in the last 3 years, precisely because of excellent work done by the Minister of Health and the Minister for Social Development. The rate of substantiated child abuse, which was rising, has flattened out. Those measures, among many others, may well have saved lives.
Metiria Turei: So how many families in 2017 does he expect will have to bury their children who have died because of poverty-related illness?
Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH: I would hope none. I would hope none because it would be a tragedy for any family to bury their child. But what I do know is that billions of dollars have been spent ineffectively in the last 20 to 30 years because of following the recipe that that member would advocate, which is to throw money at the problem. This Government is doing a much smarter job of supporting our vulnerable families, and, of course, we have a long way to go.