Opposition Leader Bill English may have had a point when he put out a statement yesterday afternoon describing Labour’s much-vaunted Child Poverty Reduction Bill as “all intention and no substance.”
Simply the Bill requires a Government to set out child poverty reduction targets based on formulae to define poverty which are in the Bill.
But Labour won’t be in a position to unveil those final targets till 2019 and won’t be able to set out any alleviation measures till Budget 2019.
Ardern yesterday would not even say which preliminary targets she proposed to publish this week.
Pressed by Sky News James O’Doherty as to why information as basic as this would not be made public till later this week she simply said, “I like surprises.”
And it is clear from reading between the lines at her press conference yesterday that the alleviation measures will mostly be specific payments or subsidies on things like medical care or housing.
That may make sense.
One child health expert in Auckland spoken to by POLITIK said housing and access to medical care were two of the key things in reducing hospital admissions.
But Ardern said she was still committed to Labour’s traditional belief that social benefits should be universal.
However it is universalism with a slight twist.
“We reduce the risk of leaving children behind if we continue to use universalism,” she said
“But we scale it up where appropriate.
“The idea of proportionate universalism in this area is something I feel quite strongly about.”
The British National Health system defines “proportionate universalism” as he resourcing and delivering of universal services at a scale and intensity proportionate to the degree of need.
“Services are therefore universally available, not only for the most disadvantaged, and can respond to the level of presenting need,” it says.
Perhaps what was most interesting is what will not be in the programme — any changes to Working for Families payments or, it would seem , any continuation of the Social Investment programme developed by the last Government.
The Child Poverty Action Group in its “Briefing to the Incoming Government” said inadequate family income was a strong contributor to children’s poor health.
“ Income poverty and material hardship arise from multiple sources, including: very low main benefits; low wages; high taxes; eroding tax credits for families; lack of proper indexation; and punitive interactions of different targeted measures,” it said.
The Action Group opposed a raft of changes to Working for Families to deal with those issues.
But the Briefing also recommended many of the steps the Government is taking, in particular the development of the new measures of child poverty and the development of targets to set against those measures.
Ardern said that the Bill she launched yesterday did not have the targets included because she wanted bipartisan support for the idea of a poverty measure.
The Bill requires Stats NZ to produce independent reports on all ten of the proposed primary and supplementary measures of child poverty.
In addition, each Budget Day, the Government will be required to publish a report that shows the progress made towards meeting the Government’s targets, explains how the Budget will reduce child poverty and assesses the impact of the Budget on the primary measures of child poverty.
The Bill also requires the Government to develop a comprehensive strategy that will set actions across Government that enhance and promote the wellbeing of children in New Zealand and deliver the outcomes required to meet the child poverty targets.
“The Bill is about holding us to account, and future Governments,” Ardern said.
“Really the thing that will make a big difference will be the policies that we put in place.
“That goes well beyond this Bill.”
Ardern has in many ways pinned her political career to the child poverty issue.
So how much will the Bill actually be holding her to account?
“Absolutely it will,” she said.
“And rightly so.
“What this Bill is saying is that we are not afraid to be held to account.
“We should set high standards particularly when it comes to children and child well being.”
The response from Bill English was to argue that the public service was already doing much of what the Bill proposed.
“National shares the Government’s goal of reducing child poverty,” he said.
“But you don’t need new legislation for any of this.
“In fact, the public service is already reporting publicly on the exact measures the Government is proposing.
“But what is much harder is changing the lives of our most vulnerable families trapped in deprivation by long-term benefit dependence, low educational achievement and recidivist crime.
“Poverty isn’t just about lifting incomes.”
Ultimately this debate will reflect a substantial philosophic divide between Labour and National; between Ardern’s “proportionate universalism” broad brush approach and National’s much more targeted “social investment” approach to dealing with child poverty.