State Of It: Will Minister Paula Bennett’s Exclusion Criteria Actually Further Impoverish Our Most Vulnerable Children?
Column – By Selwyn Manning.
Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett has rolled out the National-led Government’s Social Outcomes exclusion policy where she will instruct welfare staff to cut a family’s entitlement to welfare assistance (their benefit) should they fail to enroll their children aged three to five years of age into an Early Childhood Education facility.
She announced this week a list of obligations, that unless they are met a beneficiary family’s entitlement will be cut by 50 percent after three warnings.
Bennett says the social obligation points will affect 125,000 beneficiary parents and 220,000 children. She says the exclusion order is fair: “Social obligations will ensure dependent children of beneficiaries access and benefit from vital education and health services,” says Mrs Bennett.
She adds: “These services are particularly important for vulnerable children as many currently miss out; we have an opportunity to address this through reforms.
“These obligations are reasonable and achievable and they reflect the expectations most New Zealanders have of parents, this is a positive move for vulnerable families,” Paula Bennett says.
The social obligation points are:
Social obligations require all beneficiary parents to ensure their children:
• attend 15 hours a week Early Childhood Education (ECE) from age 3
• attend school from age five or six
• enrol with a General Practitioner
• complete core WellChild/Tamariki Ora checks.
The Government’s plan is clearly to abandon access assistance where traditionally New Zealand considers an individual’s or a family’s application for assistance on the basis of criteria – where an individual meets the criteria then they are legally entitled to assistance.
But what Paula Bennett has initiated here is a secondary tier where once a person demonstrates they are entitled to assistance, then exclusion criteria can and will be used to cut their entitlement should they not meet the Government’s demands on obligation policy.
Many have supported the rise of exclusion criteria on a basis of fairness: i.e.; beneficiaries should not be able to take tax payers for a ride.
The problem is, many of these beneficiaries were in employment until recently and are actually entitled to draw down on assistance from the Government’s taxpayer-funded coffers of which they have contributed to through their own tax contributions. That is a reality, a social contract between tax payers and the state, that the Minister and this Government seem to have forgotten.
Before we look at the consequences of what the Government is doing here, I am reminded of the 1990s when the National Party was last in power.
The then Health Minister Jenny Shipley attempted to exclude people from accessing life saving, but costly, treatments like renal dialysis – should they present with or have a history of:
I know this because I broke the story, it was then raised in Parliament and debated into the night.
The exclusion criteria was believed by the Human Rights Commission to be contrary to the Human Rights Act. After Parliamentary debate, Jenny Shipley backed down. The Core Health Services Committee that drafted the exclusion criteria was disbanded. And, people were once again considered for treatment based on clinical assessment (which the medical fraternity and clinicians fought for on ethical grounds) rather than face an assessment based on a set of exclusion criteria that was founded on how politicians viewed an individual’s value and/or contribution to society.
The return to clinical assessment removed political influence via ‘values’-based exclusion criteria and returned clinical inclusion principles into the consideration-process.
This background leads me to wonder if Paula Bennett’s latest assault against beneficiaries – this time against the parents of children whose families are drawing down on their entitlement – breaches our current Human Rights Act and our commitments to the United Nations rights of the child conventions.
Personally, I feel this Minister of Social Development, this National-led Government, has gone too far. We are left to consider the consequences of this exclusion criteria, left, in the absence of Government departmental costings, to calculate what impact having 220,000 children enroll in early childhood education will have on the already high cost of this service. Simple supply and demand formulae cause concerns that the costs will inevitably increase. Will the Government foot the bill for children forced into 15 hours of education-care per week? The calculations based on the numbers suggest that is unsustainable and will create a fiscal failure – unless of course the parents fail to enroll their children and have their benefits cut by half. If so the Government is calculating sustaining the policy through non-compliance.
Is the Government attempting to force beneficiary parents to return to work? Yes. But in an era where the job market is constraining not growing, with the Government failing to initiate job-creation policies of effect in the provinces, regions and urban centres of New Zealand – then the policy looks like a train-wreck designed by intellectual and fiscal incompetence.
Again, what is the consequence on the families who do not meet the Minister’s criteria?
I would suggest thousands will not be able to afford satisfactory healthcare for their families, will not be able to afford adequate clothes, footwear, satisfactory food and housing. That this will lead to further entrenched norms of overcrowded houses where families double and triple up so as to meet the rent bill. All this impacts on the children in a country that already has the shameful record of accepting over 22 percent of its children living in poverty.
And as we saw the last time the National Party was in power, the fiscal mismanagement led to health sector budget blowouts, higher rates of violence, increased rates of youth suicide, general social decay, and finally communities mobilising politically to rid themselves of the incompetents that had the gaul to assert for themselves the title of Honourable.
Selwyn Manning’s political round-up broadcasts weekly on 95bFM and webcasts on LiveNews.co.nz.