You know it's election time when a government which a few short years ago made a virtue of its "nil budgets" and general miserliness starts chucking money around like it grows on trees.

Having waved a $300 million interest-free loan under Auckland mayor Phil Goff's nose early last week, the Government in the form of Prime Minister Bill English visited Hawke's Bay to announce an investment package of $50m to help at-risk young people into employment in Hawke's Bay, Northland, Eastern Bay of Plenty, and the East Coast.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little rightly reminded us that not long ago the same Bill English had apparently given up on the same group, bemoaning idleness and drug abuse.

But better late than never, and although the amount when spread over such wide areas is not a lot, it's better than nothing.


The Howard League interfaces in two ways with these at-risk young people on a daily basis.

We have unlicenced-driver programmes running in Hawke's Bay, West Auckland and Northland for offenders who are on the way to jail but have not got there yet, and for those who sadly end up in jail, we teach reading and writing.

These at-risk young people on whom the new money will be spent, are known by the acronym Neets, which means Not in Education, Employment or Training.

There are approximately 90,000 of them.

Many come to the attention of the Justice system, very often through driving offences, and far too many fetch up in jail.

A grossly disproportionate number of these are young Maori. We should note that the places nominated by the PM are areas with high Maori populations.

Mr English's reason for this expenditure was that of "social investment", meaning if money was spent now, the Government would save even larger sums that would be spent in the future.

Despite this seemingly clinical justification, the man does have a heart and it's worth quoting him: "When we look at the future cost of welfare . . . shifting one young person off that track is worth it just for the Government's books, let alone for the impact on their whole lifetime."

The Howard League has long taken a strong interest in this group of young people because, as Bill English's social investment data will be telling him, these people will inevitably make up the majority of the prison population of tomorrow.

Spent wisely, this money will pay dividends for the taxpayer but it will take goodwill and, most of all, co-ordination from a range of services, to create "wrap-around" support.

The following is an email (with names changed) I received from one of the senior probation officers who refer offenders to us for our drivers' licence programme in West Auckland: "Here is a great story about one of our youth offenders who this week gained full-time employment with (an Auckland construction company)!

"Rangi is a 19-year-old Maori youth who was sentenced to Intensive Supervision, community detention and community work for serious drug offences. He was referred to the employment team by his probation officer for support in May of this year.

"It was quickly identified during the interview that Rangi was dependent on cannabis and freely disclosed he has tried on several occasions to give up but suffered from withdrawal whenever he tried.

"Rangi was the first to admit he was not ready for fulltime employment and needed to address his drug dependency first.

"Together, the CEEO (Corrections Education and Employment Office) and Probation Office conceived an employment pathway to assist Rangi. Firstly he was offered the incentive that he would be placed with Howard League to gain his learner driver licence if he reduced his cannabis use.

"This wero (challenge) was assisted by his probation officer using the alcohol and drug Te Ao Marama booklet supplied by the Drug and Alcohol Council. This is a great tool to use one on one with the right client.

"It takes an individual on a journey of self discovery using a CD that recounts the struggle four individuals had addressing their own issues with drugs and alcohol. The booklet then has the client recount his upbringing and the reasons why he uses substances.

"The booklet can be used over a number of weeks or months as homework, depending on the client. The probation officer has, and continues to, work one on one with Rangi using this tool and has made astonishing progress. Rangi has now been drug-free for the past month".

Please note how many people, resources and agencies were involved in this story.
If the new money means we can get this kind of outcome again and again, it will be money very well spent.

* Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.