Labour alone on unpopular Oranga Tamariki reforms

Taken By The State

Despite opposition from the overwhelming majority of submitters, the Government looks set to push through changes to watchdogs of care and protection system

The Labor Party is set to overhaul oversight of Oranga Tamariki in the face of opposition from every other party in Parliament and at least 80 percent of submitters on a law change.

The move has been labeled “an absolute insult to all survivors” of abuse in state care, with MPs and children’s charities vowing to fight to the end to fix or kill the bill.

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.

Parliament’s social services and community committee reported back on the bill last week, recommending by majority that it proceed with unanimous agreement on a number of changes.

Those included a named Chief Children’s Commissioner who would chair the commission board, adding a requirement into the legislation for the independent monitor to act independently, and creating a right for the commission to report to the Prime Minister on matters affecting the rights of children.

But many who submitted on the bill remain concerned it will undermine rather than strengthen scrutiny of the system: the Ministry of Social Development’s own analysis of submissions concluded 311 of the 374 received, or 83 percent, were opposed.

There is also concern that the bill will be passed before the findings of the Royal Commission into Abuse in State Care are known.

In dissenting views to the select committee report, National, ACT and the Greens have all called for the bill to be halted, while Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer labeled the bill another example of the Crown failing to engage with those it was supposed to protect in an interview with Stuff.

Changes to the bill could still be made, but if not it may become just the second time this term Labor has used its majority to pass legislation without the support of any other party.

“We’ve seen the Children’s Commissioner go beyond what we’ve ever seen a government ministry or agency ever say, and that has been absolutely vitally important for us as a country to understand the failings of our system.”
– Green MP Jan Logie

In advice to the committee, officials said the policy work had been in progress since 2018 and a pause to work was not the right decision.

“Throughout this period, Oranga Tamariki has continued to operate without sufficient oversight, and ongoing system failures continue to be reported, calling for improvements to be made.”

But Green Party children’s spokeswoman Jan Logie said the changes proposed by the select committee would only improve the bill “at the edges” and were not enough to address either the concerns of submitters or the needs of children.

While the Government said the changes to the independent monitor were about strengthening oversight of Oranga Tamariki, Logie said moving it into a government agency and retaining a requirement that it “support public trust and confidence” in the ministry ran counter to that goal.

“We’ve seen the Children’s Commissioner go beyond what we’ve ever seen a government ministry or agency ever say, and that has been absolutely vitally important for us as a country to understand the failings of our system.”

For the Government to argue community concern was due to confusion about the initial draft legislation, and not the substantive issues, was “just fundamentally misunderstanding the opposition to the bill”.

Save the Children advocacy and research director Jacqui Southey presents a petition to Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson and children’s spokeswoman Jan Logie opposing the Government’s proposed reforms to oversight of Oranga Tamariki. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Save the Children advocacy and research director Jacqui Southey said naming a Chief Children’s Commissioner and retaining the ability to report directly to the Prime Minister were “small wins”, but did not address wider concerns about a fragmented and compromised system.

Southey said changes to describe the monitor’s independence were not the same as actually legislating to make it independent of government, with calls for the watchdog to be a standalone Crown entity ignored.

It did not make sense to rush through a law change in the face of overwhelming opposition on the grounds that reforms were needed now, she said.

“Just because there’s a desire to get the job done doesn’t mean that the job is going to be done well.”

The Government still had the opportunity to make dramatic improvements to the bill, Southey said, and Save the Children would not stop fighting for the rights of children.

Tupua Urlich, a state care survivor now working as the national care experience lead for children’s advocacy charity VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai, said the decision to push ahead was “an absolute insult to all survivors everywhere”.

“They’re saying that we need to do something now, but we can wait five years to figure out if it’s the right thing.”
– Tupua Urlich, state care survivor and children’s charity representative

“We as advocates and people who know what’s going to happen, we’re backed into a corner by a government who wants to do whatever it wants.”

The changes to the independent monitor’s role and location were like “replacing a watchdog with a lapdog”, Urlich said. It did not make sense to argue change was urgently needed while putting a review period severely years into the future.

“They’re saying that we need to do something now, but we can wait five years to figure out if it’s the right thing.”

In a statement, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni said she supported the changes recommended by the select committee, which would assist the original intent of “bolster[ing] the delivery and independence of all three key areas of the Oranga Tamariki oversight system ”.

Sepuloni said the Government could not afford to delay changes to the system, and the requirement for a review of the law within five years would allow more revisions to be made once the Royal Commission had finished its work.

The law change was not about addressing all of the issues pertaining to Oranga Tamariki, but would provide a way of monitoring and holding it to account, Sepuloni said.

“It is a vital part of the overall system and it is imperative we strengthen it as soon as possible. Our tamariki and rangatahi cannot wait. ”

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