25 May 2016

Govt failing 'clear obligation' to children

5:06 pm on 25 May 2016
child poverty

Photo: 123RF

The government's being accused of breaching its obligations under the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, on several fronts.

Child advocates and politicians say that's because the government is allowing homeless children to live in cars and garages and their parents to rack up thousands of dollars of debt to Work and Income in emergency housing loans.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is currently reviewing New Zealand's performance in meeting all the obligations it signed up to in 1992.

Article 27 of the Convention guaranteed a child's right to an adequate standard of living, including a house.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills said that was clearly not happening and the government was likely to be in the firing line when it faced the UN committee later this year.

"So it's very clear that children, particularly in South Auckland, are not having that need met," he said.

"I think when we front up to the UN in Geneva they're going to be asking us some very pointed questions about children living in cars, shipping containers and garages and I'm not sure we can look them in the eye and say we're meeting the rights that we agreed our children have," he said.

Child Poverty Action Group justice spokesperson, Michael Timmins, a human rights lawyer, said allowing homeless parents to rack up thousand of dollars of debt to Work and Income to pay for emergency housing costs breached Article 3 of the Convention.

Child Poverty Action Group justice spokesperson Michael Timmins.

Child Poverty Action Group justice spokesperson Michael Timmins. Photo: Supplied

"The debt that homeless parents, and other people in these emergency situations, accrue effectively means that the children will suffer if the parents are placed in a position in which they have to pay it back.

New Zealand was in breach of its obligations to have policy and legislation that was in the best interest of children, he said.

"What we're seeing is a policy that really doesn't take into any account the best interests of the children, leaving them incredibly vulnerable."

Child Poverty Action Group called for all emergency housing debt to be wiped.

In a statement, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said many people are happy to pay back this debt over time at rates they can afford.

"I am glad we are offering this option, rather than families having to go to loan sharks," she said.

"If any family is in this position then they should contact Work and Income as soon as possible, so that emergency accommodation and longer-term options can be arranged.

"As announced by minister [Paula] Bennett recently, this short-term emergency accommodation will soon be non-recoverable by Work and Income, while other options for accommodation can be looked at," she said.

The recent overhaul of child care and protection and a benefits increase last month furthered the government focus on improving the outcomes for children and their families, Mrs Tolley added.

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei disagreed.

"The New Zealand Government makes all sorts of promises on the international stage in relation to children's rights, but when it comes to policy at every stage they fail our kids," she said.

There were more than 30,000 people living in severe housing deprivation, thousands of those were children, she said.

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei Photo: RNZ / Elliot Childs

Labour Party children's spokesperson Jacinda Ardern said the government was not only failing to meet its UN obligations, but it's moral obligations too.

"Regardless of whether the government feels like its able to tick the box in its report to the UN, what they cannot hand on heart say is that we have at the moment a situation where families are being adequately housed," she said.

That was coming in at a huge cost to families, Ms Ardern said.

The only way to get children out of cars and garages and into homes is to build more social housing, says Dr Russell Wills.

And that cost should be viewed as a core infrastructure investment, like roads, because it benefits all of society, he said.

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