Children need changes now - commissioner

Last updated 12:11 12/01/2013

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Last year saw a flurry of reports, public discussion and political rhetoric about how the lives of New Zealand's vulnerable children could be improved. The man charged with ensuring Kiwi kids have a voice says it's time for the Government to act. Kate Chapman reports.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills recalls delivering prescriptions for his pharmacist dad in impoverished Napier suburbs as a young lad.

He drove through the same area with his own children recently and said it had become poorer - and worse than that, people had lost hope.

"There's car wrecks and beer bottles and the houses had deteriorated ... you just wouldn't send a kid to deliver scripts around those streets now, which I think is really sad."

But rather than dissuade him, it is such sights that motivate Dr Wills.

The Hawke's Bay-based paediatrician knows first hand how bad things have become.

British health professionals he works with have never seen some of the Third World diseases which have become an everyday occurrence here.

"A year in acute paediatrics in New Zealand is like their whole training."

New Zealand's child poverty rate began to spiral out of control after government budget cuts in 1991 and within three or four years had tripled, he said.

Dr Wills is incredulous as he explains that no other OECD country had the same rise in child poverty or inequality in the 1990s.

Babies born during that period are now 21 and don't know any different, he said.

"Is there child poverty in New Zealand? Absolutely there is. Talk to any teacher, talk to any paediatrician, talk to any social worker, you bet there is."

But there are also solutions. Last year he commissioned an expert group to come up with recommendations to combat child poverty.

He is proud of their work and believes in their suggested solutions. One of the headline recommendations was the introduction of a universal child payment to parents with children aged under 5.

Prime minister John Key was quick to dismiss the idea, but Dr Wills said that meant he needed to sell the idea better.

"National superannuation is an extremely good tool for reducing poverty. Our poverty rate in the elderly is one-sixth of our child poverty rate, it's one of the lowest rates in the OECD, and we should be really proud of that."

Superannuation works because everyone gets it. That reduces access barriers and makes the programme easy and cheap to administer, Dr Wills says.

"We worry about giving benefits to people who don't need it; there are very few parents of young children who are wealthy."

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In fact, 70 per cent of children living in poverty lived in rental housing, much of which was "woeful".

Introducing a warrant of fitness for rental properties would go a long way to mitigating poor health and education outcomes, Dr Wills says.

It will take time to retrofit thousands of homes, but there are other changes which could be implemented tomorrow and would have immediate impacts.

Automatically enrolling every newborn with a GP, Well Child provider and on the national immunisation register would improve primary healthcare access.

"If someone rings up at 30 weeks and says, 'I think I might be pregnant' then a response, 'look up M for midwife in the Yellow Pages' isn't good enough. It needs to be, 'what are you doing tomorrow? Come and see me, let's make sure you get a midwife'. That will cost nothing."

The public mood was supportive of making changes but they will have to come from the top, he says.

If 2012 was the year of expert advisory groups, reports and recommendations then 2013 is the year when the "ball will be in Government's court".

- The Dominion Post

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