Sometimes the Government must think it simply cannot win. Take the action plan outlined in the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children. If Social Development Minister Paula Bennett failed to pay particular attention to this group, she would be accused of being negligent and uncaring. But her formulation of proposals to overcome shortcomings in the identification and tackling of child abuse has led only to criticism on another count. According to a joint statement issued by 72 non-government agencies, the funding of services for better-off children must be sacrosanct in this drive to help the neediest.

The agencies' statement is, in effect, a plea for the retention of universal social spending, no matter the fact that many parents could afford to pay more if they had to. An example of this type of benefit is the previous Government's early childhood education policy, under which 20 hours of free education were guaranteed for 3- and 4-year-olds. Subsequently, this has been only slightly diluted by funding cuts for qualified teachers and a funding freeze.

In an ideal world, such universal benefits would be retained. But the present situation is far from that.

It is imperative that any fiscally responsible Government adjusts both its spending and its priorities. Those most in need of temporary help should be targeted.


In the context of children, that means concentrating funding where it is most needed and most cost-effective. It makes no sense to provide welfare for the comfortably off as well as the most vulnerable if the burden on the budget cripples the economy on which all New Zealanders depend.

The United Nations children's fund Unicef, which drafted the agencies' statement, also said that Ms Bennett's proposals risk "stigmatising" the 15 per cent of children defined as vulnerable. That, again, is a skew-whiff view of the Government's intent.

The plan is to help these children by identifying them early, devoting extra funding to them, and providing a safe and nurturing environment. It is misguided to confuse this focus with stigmatisation.

If the non-government agencies wish to criticise the Government's proposals, there are fertile enough grounds. These include a lack of urgency that belies Ms Bennett's talk on a subject rendered vitally important by the country's appalling child abuse statistics.

Almost a year on from the release of the green paper, little has happened, even though that document traverses well-trodden territory, and early intervention and effective parental support have long been identified as the keys to tackling abuse. On that basis, the agencies' opposition to the mandatory reporting of suspected abuse by professionals is also somewhat puzzling.

Of course, there will be casualties in the Government's concentration on the most vulnerable children. Aside from some universal services, this might mean, for example, a cut in funding for some programmes for vulnerable teenagers. These would lose out because they do not fit with the focus on stopping abuse when children are young and their problems are just starting to surface.

Such cuts will undoubtedly be strongly criticised. But some sacrifice must be made given the strength of the research backing the planned approach to vulnerable children and the fiscal strictures under which Ms Bennett is operating.

Her proposal and the thrust of the green paper should have earned the support of the non-government agencies, rather than ill-directed criticism. Railing against the logic of directing money where it is most needed is hardly tenable. They would be better served to advise where services might most sensibly be cut in the interests of the country's most at-risk citizens.