Opposition leader Bill English says the Government is "dripping with good intentions", but is warning that real outcomes will be measured against a set of benchmarks from the previous Government.

English delivered a fiery speech in Parliament this afternoon as he and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern clashed for the first time in the House in their new roles.

"We're not going to hold the Government to account on its intentions," English said. "We share many of them. Which is precisely the danger of relying on intentions."

He outlined a number of benchmarks, including:

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• 2.6 million people in work

• the gender pay gap falling from 12 to 9 per cent

• 31,000 building consents in the past 12 months

• Government debt at $59.5 million.

• reducing the number of children in poverty by 100,000 by 2020

"Can they reduce it by 100,000 from today, because there was a plan in place to do that?

"Good intentions aren't enough. So many vulnerable New Zealanders need us to keep their feet to the fire."

English criticised Labour's tertiary education policy, reinforced by Ardern's recent trip to Australia to meet her counterpart Malcolm Turnbull.

"Let's go to Australia and show them how firm and fresh the new Government is by talking about retaliation for their tertiary fees policy. But Australians found out we're offering them free domestic tertiary education in New Zealand.

"We went to push back, and we got rolled over. So that's the gap between intentions and reality."​

He said Labour's tertiary education policy would see checkout operators subsidising university for accountants and lawyers.

But Ardern hit back in her reply, saying English was lacking ambition for checkout operators.

"At what point did the Leader of the Opposition lose his ambition for New Zealanders, that that checkout operator could not aspire to go on to [tertiary study]?

"And I say to those checkout operators having been one myself - you, too, can be a Minister of Finance, or the Prime Minister of New Zealand."

She understood the Opposition's desire to defend its record, adding that the previous Government had a poor record on homelessness, dirty rivers and lakes, inequality, and child poverty.

"By all means, defend the record of the last nine years while we get on with fixing it."

She said the country had suffered from chronic under-investment for the last nine years.

"It is also clear that it is far worse in some areas than we could have ever imagined. Our hospitals and our schools are growing under the pressure of a growing and ageing population.

"During the campaign, we didn't hear much on the soaring prison population ... It is simply not good enough that the prison population has gone up 28 per cent since 2014, all this at a time when the crime rates were static. This is a waste of lives, a waste of families, a waste of money."

At the current rate, "taxpayers will be forking out $1 billion every few years" for a new prison.

"That previous Government knew it, and what did they do?

"We can be better, we will be better, and this is our chance to prove it."