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Herald on Sunday editorial: Christmas tidings of little joy

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Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The coloured tinsel is up around Parliament. The Yule tree stands in the MPs' cafe. Social development minister Paula Bennett has decked out her office in a Wild West festive theme, hay bales and all.

But if this season is about the children, there was little Christmas hope to be found in Parliament's debating chamber this week.

Answering opposition questions, Bennett reiterated her refusal to make targeting child poverty a priority. Indeed, she said, the latest Ministry of Social Development household incomes report showed child poverty rates had not got any worse since 2009.

"I do not think that anyone denies that there are children living in this country at a standard that we do not find acceptable," she told the House.

"We are warming up their homes, we are getting them immunised, we are getting them into early childhood education, and we are making sure that we wrap support around those children who are most vulnerable, and that is making a difference."

The child poverty problem was not getting any worse, she insisted, and so there was no need to focus more attention on it.

Her confidence in relying on her ministry's statistics was, to say the least, surprising. Just the day before, MSD had corrected all its child abuse statistics - it had been under-reporting them for three years. Where it said the numbers of children physically abused had dropped over the past couple of years, the numbers had in fact increased. So too, the numbers of children emotionally abused. As the Herald on Sunday revealed last month, Bennett's flagship White Paper on Vulnerable Children was compromised by the botched data.

Similarly on child poverty, where the Government has ignored advice from its health officials to measure the number of children living in serious hardship, in the hope of improving their health. "There is no one measure of poverty," Bennett says.

A cynic might suggest it sometimes suits the Government to have no reliable measure of the problems facing the nation. If ministers can't quantify a problem, then neither can their opponents.

Dr Russell Wills, Bennett's appointment as Children's Commissioner, was refused permission to measure and monitor child poverty and its impact on health and social wellbeing. So, displaying admirable enterprise for someone on the public payroll, he bypassed the Government and went to the charitable JR McKenzie Trust for $525,000 funding for the project.

The result, to be published tomorrow, is a truly independent measure of this blight on New Zealand society.

The first Child Poverty Monitor will graphically illustrate how children are spending longer periods in severe deprivation than previously recognised. The outcomes include a 12 per cent upturn in hospital admissions for children's illnesses that are associated with poverty and over-crowding.

An experts group, convened by the Commissioner, proposes we measure poverty by asking how many staples of life a child lacks - do they have a warm jacket, a pair of shoes, a separate bed, a heated house? Can they have friends around for a birthday party?

Child poverty should not exist in this country. Blaming parents is pointless. No child should be left under-nourished or shivering in an uninsulated house. No child should suffer the preventable diseases of poverty. New Zealand can afford to rescue its most vulnerable citizens from neglect and abuse.

The Children's Commissioner is right to give us this reality check for Christmas.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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