Cabinet has agreed to a radical new approach to deal with the  expected dramatic revelations which emerge from the Royal Commission into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-Based Institutions

The Commission, which is chaired by the former Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand will begin early next year hearing evidence from people who have been in the institutions.

However, it is going to be a long process; its final report is not expected until 2023.

But much of the evidence it hears will be repetitive in terms of the overall principles it refers to.

For that reason, the Minister of State Services, Chris Hipkins, is proposing that the Government not wait to 2023 but instead respond to the Commission as concerns become evident.

At the same time, he wants a whole of government approach, and he doesn’t want departments and the bureaucracy to become defensive as they are subjected to criticism from the Commission’s hearings.

“We wanted to make sure that the government departments and agencies didn’t try to adopt a defensive approach when it comes to interactions with the Royal Commission or the response of the Royal Commission, “Hipkins told POLITIK last night.

“The point of doing this is so we can make sure that we are addressing the underlying issues that the people who have been victims are treated with respect and setting out the values and the overall principles about how we want all parts of Government to interact with the Inquiry.

“That’s why I’m doing it as Minister of State Services because this is a  whole of government approach.

“It’s not just about each department and agency during their own time. “


Hipkins is pro-actively releasing his Cabinet paper on the Inquiry, and it makes for sober reading. 

It says  Māori children have consistently been significantly over-represented among children in State

care – to the point where they make up more than half of all children in care. 

A random sample taken by the former Department of Social Welfare found that more than 53% of

children who were the subjects of guardianship orders in 1971 were Māori. 

“Although ethnicity data from the 1950s until the 1980s is not as reliable as now, and likely undercounted both Māori and Pacific people, what we know about the survivor community suggests that at least 50% are Māori,” it says. 

“For example, of the claims received to date by the Historic Claims Unit in the Ministry of Social Development, 55% identify as Māori and 4% as Pacific people.” 

And the figure of Maori children in care appears to be creeping up. 

“Currently 69 % of the children and young people in the care of Oranga Tamariki identify as Māori – up from 59% in 2011,” the paper says. 

As the stories emerge of what at times will appear to be horrors suffered by the children in the past, the pressure on the Government will be for action.

Hipkins says in the Cabinet paper that “I think we need to do more to shift perceptions that are long held. 

“We should take a series of actions over time to actively demonstrate our commitment to the principles, spwBy are genuinely seen, heard and believed. 

“These actions might be a mix of small, large, practical, symbolic, proactive and/or reactive actions. 

“Some of them might be pub|ic and others targeted to specific groups.” 

But what makes his plan for the response different is that it will be contemporaneous with the Commission hearing evidence. In a way, it turns the Commission into a body that is operating in real time. 

“I think in one of our objectives here is not to simply wait until several years down the track and wait until the Commission decides to report back before we actually do something,” he told POLITIK. 

“As issues are identified by the Commission we want to be able to start responding to them and start making changes that are needed now rather than sort of a big bang at the end. 

“Clearly if there are lessons to be learned along the way we want to learn those lessons and one of the lessons clearly is that the Government needs to react and respond in a joined-up way, not every individual department and agency rushing off and doing their own thing. “ 

“Joined up government” is a big theme of Hipkins and the response to the Commission will be one of the first chances he gets to deploy the changes that he will be making to the State Sector Act early next year. 

Hipkins wants the Crown response to be guided by principles  asked for all Crown activity that relates to the Royal Commission and survivors of abuse in care, to be consistent with the principles of “manaakitanga, openness, transparency, learning, being joined up and meeting our obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi.” 

However, the Commission is expected to raise significant legal issues as people who have suffered harm seek damages. 

But Hipkins does not want the Crown response to get bogged down in legalities.

 “Our legal approach is only a small part of the overall Crown response, and it will not drive our engagement or response,” the Cabinet paper says. 

‘I propose that our legal approach to engagement with the Royal Commission and with survivors will be exploratory, seeking to balance the Crown’s legal obligations with the principles, and avoid an overly legalistic approach.” 

The Cabinet paper says that the Crown is not always seen to be acting in alignment with the principles, “so we will need to take a range of actions to actively demonstrate our commitment to them.” 

“I have asked officials to consider what these actions might involve and report back to this Committee.

 This includes examining some aspects of existing government business which may not initially be obvious, but where the implications of the principles need to be considered. 

“The Crown’s current approach to dispute resolution and litigation from people who claim they were abused in state care is one area of work that should be considered in light of the proposed principles.” 

The paper says that cross-agency governance and management arrangements have been established that sit under the Social Wellbeing Board, “and an agile, cross-agency work programme involving nine agencies is underway.” 

The so-called “survivor” accounts will not be heard until early next year which is why Hipkins is beginning the planning now. 

But some idea of the scope of the task ahead is available from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which  listened to thousands of people about the abuse they experienced as children in orphanages, children’s homes, schools, churches and other religious organisations, sports clubs, hospitals, foster care and other institutions. 

The Commission made 409 recommendations when it reported last June, but a key one was the establishment of a  National Redress Scheme which acknowledged that abuse occurred and held institutions accountable for this abuse. 

It helps people who have experienced abuse gain access to counselling and psychological services, a direct personal response, and a redress-payment. 

We might expect something similar to emerge next year as the survivors begin to tell their stories.