Families package starts: A first step only


Yesterday the Government’s families package was made live, fulfilling a significant promise made to support families by Labour.

Whilst I welcome this package, it is only a a start and there are several more things that need to be done for the Government to be able to say this is meaningful progress. They are:

  1. Making housing affordable
  2. Sorting out the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies
  3. Overhauling M.S.D. services
  4. Making schooling affordable
  5. Enabling grandparents who are caregivers/custodians to get better social support
  6. Looking for and removing invisible barriers to paternity for men

Housing

This is the obvious one. Without affordable housing the rest of the families programme will have superficial benefits to those who are eligible. The answers are not all in increasing allowances. The houses that are no longer considered to be meth contaminated need to be made usable again as fast as possible. The tenancy legislation needs to be reviewed since recent cases involving both tenants and landlords show its judicial provisions are in need of an overhaul.

Sorting out the Ministry of Social Development

I have mentioned the need to sort out the M.S.D. elsewhere. It has a major trust issue with clients that is as damaging to it as it is to the clients, but also there is a significant amount of internal waste in M.S.D. that suggests internal processes need an overhaul.

The M.S.D. financial services such as their benefits and allowances need to be appended to a market indicator such as the consumer price index instead of being allowed to slowly wither away.

Schooling

Whilst we live in a digital age there is a real need for a back to basics approach in initial schooling. I have long had a problem with the fact that a lot of students cannot read words on a page, but also there is a need to teach mathematics on paper first – all students should know how to show the working for an equation on paper before they do it on computer. Reading, writing and counting on paper first will help to cut costs to the parents and their school. It will also enable more targetted extra assistance for special needs students to be made available.

Grandparents who are caregivers/custodians

The number of grandparents who find themselves in this role is climbing. Given this is the time when many of them will have reached retirement age and one assumes be enjoying the fruits of their working career, the complete absence of assistance to them is not so much wrong as it is criminal.  Whatever financial assistance is offered to low income parents for the purpose of raising their children should be available dollar for dollar to grandparents who find themselves taking on the role of the mother and the father.

Invisible barriers to paternity

One might think I am being sexist here. No I am not. Men trying to be responsible solo parents do find themselves coming up against barriers unforeseen, thrown up by poorly worded social legislation, unthinking public servants and Government agencies. Much of it is unintended, but just as a few sexist attitudes about women still being in the home exist, so to do the attitudes that men should leave the child raising to the womenfolk. This can range from difficulty accessing child support payments, to mental health support among other needs.

New Zealand has work to do with both genders in addressing gender equality. We pay lip service only in some respects to addressing this.

The New Zealand social emergency created by National


As we move further into the first term of the new Government, it is starting to become clear that there is a significant crisis in New Zealand society. The issues fuelling this crisis are numerous and varied, and none started on the watch of the recently ousted National-led Government. But in nine years in office these symptoms advanced far enough that combined they now pose an immediate and direct threat to New Zealand society.

National has in effect created a social emergency. The failure to address despite repeated warnings that there were problem emerging with housing, health, social welfare and justice have combined to create conditions where the so called market has left behind sections of New Zealand society whose deprivation is feeding social decay.

The conditions created consist of a combination of contributing factors. They include but are not limited to:

  • Drug addled neighbourhoods with police struggling to contain the epidemic of methamphetamine, synthetic cannabis and other harmful substances
  • Absentee parents/caregivers and a break down of parental/caregiver responsibility
  • Rampant truancy and young people leaving school with no qualifications, and no jobs or training to go to
  • School children living in inadequate housing, constantly having to move and living in conditions that are not compliant with basic human rights or housing law
  • Housing rents eating up money for food, clothes, medical expense – children go to school hungry and/or distracted

The problems start in the home or at school, but often end in a police cell. The following is a brief synopsis of how a person might go downhill. I am not suggesting that all people in such circumstances will experience this – indeed there are many fantastic parents who care very much, who go without themselves and try to be a positive influence in their child’s life, but in socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods, this is a real issue.

In the first instance at home or school, they have no food and often start the day on an empty stomach, are irritable or distracted. A failure to be settled in one spot for any length of time will mean the child has trouble settling in at school, distracted by problems at home. Over time this may fuel other problems, because the student will start getting into trouble, picking fights, associating with the wrong crowd. At home the parent/caregiver might be working long hours to make sure there is enough money to pay rent and will not be at home at critical times such as when they have homework or need underage supervision, so the children start misbehaving. At school the teachers realize that the person or people in question have a discipline problem. Homework is not being done, and the student is disruptive, argumentative. It begins to escalate with children missing school and truancy officers picking them up. At this point, the child is at an intersection in their life. At this stage the choice is stark. The child unless there is substantial intervention by the parent, the school and potentially social social workers will either leave or wind up being expelled from school with poor prospects for the future.

It never needed to be like this. And the long term cost to society, the economy and the people who know the child are substantial. If s/he devolves into drugs, then a life of crime and prison awaits. If s/he tries to turn themselves around their past – especially if a criminal history is involved – may catch up with them and hinder their future development.

This is why there is a significant and dangerous poverty issue in New Zealand. It has the potential to fuel illegal substances, crime, violence and gangs, none of which are welcome or wanted. All of which are horrendously destructive and all of which we need to shut down.

Make addressing violent crime a priority


So, another dairy has been robbed. An occurrence happening all too frequently the length and breadth of New Zealand with the perpetrators getting away just as frequently.

But the worst part of this horror show is the courts. Soft as butter judges playing namby pamby games with peoples lives and livelihoods. The conservative parts of society might call for a return to the gravel pits for such offenders, but this fails to address the core societal issues that are leading to these horrendous crimes in the first place. By this I am talking about the lack of role models in their lives and the presence of drugs; their failure in the school system and a lack of a job.

But at the same time the courts have a job to do and they are failing at it in an abject way. It is almost like in some cases the judges do not care any more. I find it hard to believe that human rights laws for children have advanced to the degree that some say they have and that as a result the judges somehow have their hands tied.

I wonder if part of the justice process, a judge has ever asked an offender what their ambitions in life are. I am certainly not suggesting showing sympathy, but almost none of these offenders have probably thought about where they want to go in life. Maybe – I could be totally wrong, but just assume for a moment I am not – they simply need someone in a position of authority to show them right from wrong. If they don’t care, then that is a different story.

So, what are some of the steps that need to be taken? Several steps:

  • For starters I think Civics/Legal Studies needs to be compulsory in Year 12. Students need to know how the law works because at some point they are going to have to deal with it, so they better learn.
  • A youth policing section needs to be established so that young people learn to work with the police and see that they will only be in their lives if they commit crime or are the victims of crime
  • Synthetic cannabis needs to be banned immediately and all shops given one weeks grace to hand over their stock – all in possession of it should be given an equally short grace period to hand over their private stock
  • Small amounts of cannabis should be decriminalized – police are wasting their time and resources dealing with anything under say 5 grams
  • Importers/dealers and manufacturers of illegal substances should have a 10 year starting jail sentence plus anything purchased using the profits of their criminal activity should be seized and sold – money raised goes to funding drug treatment; non New Zealanders should be deported and permanently barred from reentering

But none of this will work if there is not a co-ordinated approach involving the co-operation of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Education.

If a rise in tax is necessary to fund this, do it. Done properly, it will pay for itself in time.

National’s M.S.D. failure


Every election we hear about the need to address social welfare in New Zealand. We hear the Greens and Labour going on about the need for compassion and making sure that people on the benefits are reasonably able to afford basics. We hear about the need to reform social welfare to stop it being a hand out as opposed to a hand up from National and A.C.T. After nine years of National and A.C.T. being in office, I get the distinct impression that they have lost sight of their message.

Or that the message they are putting out is perhaps not the message that the centre-right should be putting out about social welfare. I mean, the supporter base of both parties are the ones talking up employers – and there are many great employers, don’t get me wrong – and talking down the beneficiaries whom they claim are druggies, fraudsters and so forth. The same also generally go for bureaucrats as being financial wastage costing hard earned income. Which brings me nicely to my next point.

A good example of bureaucratic mismanagement is the Ministry of Social Development. I have heard stories of time, money and resource wastage by staff from others who have dealt with the M.S.D. and its umbrella agencies such as Work and Income New Zealand, Child Youth and Family Services, as well as Studylink. I have also seen inept practices with my own eyes.

To some extent I believe the Social Welfare Act is to blame. It is a rigid piece of legislation that is not fit for 2017 and its application forces staff to straight jacket cases that simply cannot be. The result is a misguided attempt to help clients that just as regularly damages individuals and their trust in the very agencies that are supposed to be assisting them, as it actually helps anyone.

But also there is a need to have a sea change from the Minister down in terms of how the Ministry operates. The culture of the management does as much to fuel the wastage as the Act. When one has staff treating completely innocent clients as if they are criminals, with an air of suspicion and a complete lack of empathy, of course one should expect them to treat one with contempt. It is not to say the staff member/s in question are necessarily bad people and it might be their training, or lack of that is to blame.

An average request in my experience at W.I.N.Z. took two meetings to do what generally could have been done in one. For the most part the second meeting was simply an exercise in time wastage, as were subsequent meetings. When across five separate meetings you find yourself telling staff the same data each time and no tangible changes being given effect to, I think the client has a good reason to ask what is going on. When a staff member who has never had your case before tells you what he thinks of you after just five minutes, is he not jumping to conclusions – or off a proverbial cliff? Especially when it happens without even looking at your case notes or even realistically giving you a chance to explain your situation.

And the paperwork. I understand the need to leave a paper trail to cover ones legal behind, but sometimes the sheer pedanticism of the letters that get sent out makes one wonder if paper wasting is not part of their brief. An example that I remember clearly was being told in one letter that I was over paid by $0.65c or similar in a weekly benefit payment and that W.I.N.Z. would correct this over the next two weeks – yes such pedantic nonsense actually does happen.

Given this wastage and ineptness costs hard earned income by requiring more tax and more money to be borrowed – which has to be paid back at some point (but that is another story) – the silence from National and A.C.T. about one of the biggest waste machines in Government is quite extraordinary.

Social Welfare: My view


Every election New Zealand has a debate about the social ills being inflicted on the country. Every election promises are made to get tough on crime, to put the unemployed into work and get truants back into school. And every following election we realize how much talk there was (and how little of it turned into demonstrable actions).

And so we are staring down the barrel of another election. Leader of the Opposition Jacinda Ardern and Prime Minister Bill English are going at it on national debates about how they plan to address these issues. But really are we not just reciting an old New Zealand-specific definition of insanity once more?

It is an issue that I have blogged on several times before. However it is important that if we are going to address the violent crime being committed by youths, the numbers of people being forced into work in social situations where they are out of their depth that this issue be subject to a comprehensive overhaul. I am not just talking about a Ministerial review or even an inquiry. I am talking about enacting a sea change, because without this, the statistics that earn us condemnation at the United Nations and which are an embarrassment to look at, are only going to worsen – the suicide rate; the unemployed; youth offending rates; child abuse and so forth.

I want to acknowledge that there have been earnest attempts at addressing the issue, by New Zealand First list Member of Parliament Darroch Ball. Mr Ball, formerly ex-N.Z. Army and teacher drafted a Bill of Parliament that sought to put youth in a military run training programme where they could stay on if they wished afterwards. Mr Ball’s work unfortunately was defeated at its first reading in Parliament.

It is also just part of a much bigger and more complex set of interconnecting issues. Some of the kids that would have benefitted from Mr Ball’s work come from broken families where the parents are in absentia. Some have never been taught and struggle with basic writing, reading and mathematics. Some come from families where they never had breakfast in the mornings and went to school with no lunch, thus were disruptive or inattentive simply because they were hungry. Others have come from families where they were loved, but might have mental health issues, such as those in Canterbury dealing with earthquake related issues, or those vulnerable teenagers subject to peer abuse because they are perceived to be somehow different.

And then there is the Ministry of Social Development itself. A large Ministry, with multiple umbrella agencies constrained by a constrictive piece of legislation. It can be a thankless task working at any one of them as the legislation often forces employees to make decisions that negatively impact their clients, arousing the fury and frustration of the latter.

What I propose:

  • Rolling out breakfast in schools nation-wide between 0800 and 0830 daily for children who have not been able to get breakfast
  • A Commission of Inquiry into the Social Welfare Act with recommendations implemented within a year, and a second inquiry into how staff and clients can work together better (for lack of better phrasing)
  • Appending benefits to the Consumer Price Index or other suitable economic indicator
  • A working group establish how grand parents who are care givers/legal guardians of minors and solo Dads can be better supported
  • A job programme specific to disabled people who have been recommended as capable of working limited hours with buy in from employers