Key dismisses proposal as 'dopey'

By Kate Shuttleworth

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Jane Ussher
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Jane Ussher

Prime Minister John Key has dismissed as "dopey" a recommendation from a panel of experts that a universal child payment should be reintroduced as a way of reducing child poverty.

The expert advisory group brought together by Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills to find solutions to child poverty released its recommendations today.

Its members include AUT accounting expert James Prescott, Major Campbell Roberts of the Salvation Army, Professor Ritchie Poulton of the Dunedin School of Medicine and Philippa Howden-Chapman, a public health expert.

Among its recommendations for the longer term was a universal child payment for under sixes.

The payment would be highest while the child was a baby, when costs were high, and would decline through childhood.

Co-chair Dr Tracey McIntosh said the payment was about ensuring children had the best start in life. "Investment in the early years has a particularly strong link to better outcomes for disadvantaged children".

Mr Key said today he welcomed the report but ruled out reinstating universal child payments, which were ended in the 1990s, or tax breaks for parents, another recommendation.

He called a return to a universal child payment a "dopey" idea.

"We went away from that some years ago in New Zealand - we have a very targeted system through Working for Families -it's highly proportional to your income; so we make much larger payments to lower income families."

The advisory panel also proposed ensuring children lived in warm, dry homes by requiring a 'WOF' for rental properties, a wider food in schools programme and significant changes to health, education and employment policies.

"The proposed solutions to child poverty are comprehensive, practical, cost-effective and fiscally responsible, covering both short-term actions and longer-term reforms," the group said in a statement.

Dr McIntosh, who is head of sociology at the University of Auckland, said New Zealanders were intolerant of elderly suffering but seemed to have a high tolerance for children living in poverty.

She said it was unacceptable for 270,000 children be living in poverty and it was a cost that all New Zealanders had to bear.

Co-chair Professor Jonathan Boston, of the University of Victoria's School of Government, also proposed setting up a Child Poverty Act to establish specific measures of child poverty and require specific targets to reduce child poverty.

"We owe it to our children to do much better. Poverty harms children in multiple and significant ways, often for life. It also costs the country billions of dollars in reduced productivity and increased health care costs. We spend lots of money trying to fix the damage done instead of investing adequately up-front and avoiding those costs," he said.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said she welcomed the report but did not say what recommendation would be adopted.

Unicef NZ executive director Dennis McKinlay said he was encouraged that the paper proposed short term strategies that could reasonably quickly show results.

Longer term solutions such as a universal benefit and improving the quality and variety of health care were also viable proposals.

"We have one chance to get it right for every child. If we fail the 25 per cent of children who live in poverty now, we are storing up intractable problems for the future which will have far-reaching consequences for our country's future health and prosperity," he said.

The public will have six weeks to give feedback on the report before it goes back to the Children's' Commissioner for consideration.

He will then present his recommendations to the Government in December.

- APNZ

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