22 May 2015

Budget 2015: Lukewarm support for child poverty bill

10:01 am on 22 May 2015

Opposition parties have reluctantly agreed to support the first stage of a bill to lift benefit payments, saying something is better than nothing.

Bill English holding the 2015 Budget in Petone, Lower Hutt.

Bill English holding the 2015 Budget in Petone, Lower Hutt. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Yesterday's Budget contained an increase of $25 a week for beneficiary families - the first non-inflation-related rise in more than 40 years.

After Finance Minister Bill English earlier talked down expectations of major new intiatives to address child poverty, the announcement caught opposition MPs by surprise.

Debating the measure under urgency in Parliament yesterday, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said it would help many of the poorest families.

"This will deliver some of the rewards of a strong economy directly into New Zealand's lowest-income households, and the 194,000 children within them."

But Labour's social development spokesperson, Carmel Sepuloni, was not impressed.

"Yes, it's a surprise... but it is not a plan."

The increase will cost about $240 million a year, but came with strings attached.

The bill also incorporated yesterday's Budget announcement about solo parents on a benefit, who will now be required to look for 20 hours of work a week once their youngest child turned three, down from five.

Green MP Jan Logie said, because of abatement rates, that could mean a cut in some families' incomes.

"It will work out to $2.20 an hour extra if they're getting $15 an hour in those jobs... and that's actually probably not going to cover the cost of travel, or childcare, or the clothes that are expected to be worn in that job."

The Greens would send the bill to select committee though, Ms Logie said.

"The Greens will support this bill because it's something - and those children, they need something. But they deserve a whole lot more."

The bill passed its first reading by 109 votes to 12.

New Zealand First was the only party opposed, with MP Darroch Ball accusing the Government of funding what he called "supported poverty".

"The benefit ... should have the ability to not allow people to slip through and live in poverty - and that's what's happening right now, and that's what will happen even after these Budget changes occur."

Parliament will continue to sit under urgency today to debate a range of Budget measures.

The Support For Children in Hardship Bill will be reported back to Parliament by November.