29 May 2013

PM defends record of helping poor families

9:33 pm on 29 May 2013

The Prime Minister has defended his government's record of helping low income families in the face of Opposition criticism.

During Question Time in Parliament on Wednesday, John Key told MPs that the Government has taken a range of initiatives to help New Zealand's poorest families.

John Key says the Government has done much to address child poverty.

John Key says the Government has done much to address child poverty. Photo: RNZ

In December 2012, the Children's Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group on Child Poverty released a report saying that 270,000 children are living below the poverty line.

The report made 78 recommendations, including a government-funded food in schools programme for low-decile schools.

On Tuesday, the Government announced it would give $9.5 million over five years to expand a food in schools scheme - the KickStart breakfast programme run by Fonterra and Sanitarium.

But on Wednesday the Government came under renewed attack from Opposition parties for not doing enough to deal with poverty, saying it has largely ignored the report and its response has been insulting.

John Key told the House the Government is broadly supportive of two-thirds of the child poverty report and it has done a lot - ranging from dealing with rheumatic fever to insulating homes - to help low income families.

"Rheumatic fever, we put $21.3 million in over the last four years and in Budget 2013 we doubled that by another $24 million.

"In home insulation, in Budget 2013 alone we put $100 million in over the next three years and that will be targeting low income families in need. That will add on to the 215,000 homes that we insulated at a cost of over $300 million."

Mr Key says the Government also provides a lot of support to low-income families though the Working for Families tax credits and the accommodation supplement.

But the Green Party said the Government is trivialising child poverty by ignoring most of the recommendations of the expert advisory group.

Mana party leader Hone Harawira says the $9.5 million being spent on food in schools is a joke in light of a billion-dollar cut to the welfare budget.

Mr Harawira told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme on Wednesday he agrees that parents are primarily responsible for feeding their children, but says communities have been ripped apart by the global economic recession, finance company failures and asset sales going back to the 1970s.

Govt 'not going far enough'

The chair of Children's Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group on Child Poverty says the Government is not acknowledging how serious and urgent the situation is.

Professor Jonathan Boston says he welcomes the latest steps to put food into schools. However, he told Morning Report on Wednesday the Government does not go far enough to ensure families can provide for their children.

"It's very clear at the moment that benefit levels are not adequate for tens of thousands of families and that the current Working for Families tax credit scheme is not delivering enough assistance to families with young children and families with significant numbers of children."

Advocacy group Every Child Counts says addressing the underlying causes of poverty is much more complex than providing food and the breakfast programme in schools barely scratches the surface.

Manger Deborah Morris-Travers although the breakfast scheme is a good move, it won't make a dent in the hardship some families are facing on their own.

She believes wages need to be higher and there needs to be more services to upskill low income parents so they can find gainful employment to support their families.

Ms Morris-Travers says the Government should also adopt more of poverty report's recommendations.

Design of breakfast programme key - commissioner

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills says the way in which the expanded breakfast in schools scheme is implemented will be crucial to its success.

Dr Wills says one study found low numbers of children having breakfast at school or not attending often, so the system must be designed effectively ensure this does not recur.

He says when food programmes have large numbers of children going regularly, they do not see them as stigmatising and this can lead to more involvement with their families, and better attendance and even better exam results.

The commissioner says he will be working closely with experts involved in the expanded scheme to make sure it is designed well.