Parties from across the political divide came together last week to initiate a bill that will regulate a minimum standard of pastoral care for students in residential accommodation such as halls of residence.
The bill arises from the tragic death of Canterbury University student Mason Pendrous, whose death remained undetected for many weeks.
His parents were in the gallery on Thursday afternoon and while they were clearly still grieving, they were happy to talk to me and reiterate the importance of doing a better job with student accommodation and getting this right. I agree.
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Over the past 20 years there have been several opportunities to improve student accommodation. In 2005 the Residential Tenancies Act specifically exempted university student accommodation under advice from universities that a voluntary code would suffice.
In 2016 the National government passed a pastoral care bill focused solely on international students. This recognised the sometimes appalling situations that vulnerable international students could find themselves in. The bill created a code of practice that providers needed to sign up to. It is not clear to me why it wasn't made a general code for all students at this time.
This brings us to today where the proposed bill contains a copy paste of the 2016 code of practice for international students but this time it is for domestic students. What is new is that the bill does add new student accommodation clauses that allow the code administrator (NZQA at the present) to examine residential accommodation facilities and to take statements from students. Failure to comply with the code now has potential fines of up to $100,000 for death or serious harm of a student.
Cabinet considered the bill last Monday and Minister Chris Hipkins made public statements after cabinet that afternoon. I was at Auckland airport at around 6pm and on my way to Wellington when the announcement came out and soon enough media were contacting me as the Opposition Tertiary Education spokesman for a response.
I made the call there and then on the merits of the bill as I understood them. That call was to be supportive of the intentions of the bill and media carried this response during the evening.
On Tuesday morning Minister Hipkins called and thanked me for my support of the bill the previous day and asked where our caucus might land. I indicated that I had concerns with the very short select committee consultation period of three weeks and that we should speak after I had made recommendations to caucus later in the morning.
The Minister called back later that day and I conveyed our concerns around the short timeframe which in turn linked to many of the concerns Treasury had put in the cabinet paper.
I explained that it would be easier for us to collaborate if the select committee process could be more thorough and be doubled from three weeks to six weeks. After a very short negotiation the minister agreed to my request.
This then gave rise to the situation on Thursday where this very important bill was passed at 1st reading with support from every party in parliament. This is one of those moments where we all came together under some urgency and sought to do the right thing.
My hope is that we can give parents and families some assurance that we will do our best to look after their sons and daughters while they are away at university.
• Dr Shane Reti is MP for Whangārei.