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6. SUE MORONEY (Labour) to the Minister of Education: Does she stand by her commitment on The Nation on 20 August 2011, that low and middle income families would not pay more for 20 hours of early childhood education in the next three years if the Government is re-elected?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY (Minister of Education) : That is not what I said. If the member listens to the interview again, she will hear that I was not asked about low-income families. But I can tell the House that this Government will be maintaining the 20 hours’ early childhood education policy should we be re-elected.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The text of that question was validated by your office, and the Minister has disputed that that was a statement that she made.
Mr SPEAKER: And it is absolutely the right of a Minister to do that. Although a question is validated as being compliant with the Standing Orders, a Minister is still at liberty to totally disagree with what may be included in the question.
Hon Trevor Mallard: Did she make the comment that was referred to in the primary question?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: My answer to the primary question was that I did not say—I was not asked about low-income families.
Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was a very direct question: did she make the comment?
Mr SPEAKER: I hear what the member’s point of order is. The member did not ask whether the Minister was asked in this interview about low to middle income families. The question was whether she made this comment about low to middle income families, and that is a different question.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I was neither asked nor did I make comment about low-income families.
Mr SPEAKER: I thank the Minister.
Sue Moroney: Will she commit her Government to keeping the existing subsidies in place for 20 hours’ early childhood education for the next 3 years if it is re-elected?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: It is good to hear the Opposition talking about this Government being re-elected. What I can say is that this Government will be retaining 20 hours’ early childhood education and fee controls.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The question was specifically about keeping the existing subsidies in place for 20 hours’ early childhood education, and the Minister made no reference to that in her answer.
Mr SPEAKER: Given the unnecessary comment at the start of the answer, I think the Minister should be asked to answer the question again. The question was quite specific. It contained no criticism of the Government; it just asked whether it was the Government’s intention to maintain current subsidies during a further term, should it be re-elected. I do not believe the answer was fair in responding to that question.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: The answer to the question is that we will be retaining the 20 hours’ early childhood education and fee controls.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Again, the Minister failed to answer the question, which was about keeping the existing subsidies in place for 20 hours’ early childhood education for the next 3 years if re-elected to Government. The Minister has made reference to fee controls. She has made no reference to the specific question, which is the only part of this question, about the existing subsidies.
Mr SPEAKER: I think the member who asked the question has a fair grievance, in that the question asked about subsidies and the answer spoke about 20 hours and fee caps. I might be stupid, but I do see a difference. When members commendably ask straight questions, I think it is in the interest of the House that they are answered.
Hon Steven Joyce: I am new here, but my sense is that obviously 20 hours’ early childhood education is a subsidies programme, and I would have thought that the Minister did answer the question. Perhaps more broadly, I think we are getting into a situation this afternoon where members of the Opposition are not only seeking to ask questions but also seeking the exact answers that they want, as well. It is perhaps getting a little bit tough, because the Minister does have the ability to answer the question that I think the member asked.
Mr SPEAKER: I do not need any further help on this matter. As I said, I might be stupid, but members have a right to ask questions and Ministers are accountable. Where questions are absolutely within Ministers’ portfolio areas, they are accountable to answer those questions. The question did not ask whether the Government intended to keep the 20-hours policy in place. The question did not ask whether the Government intended to keep a fees cap in place. The question asked whether the Government intended to maintain the current subsidy levels. I cannot help with regard to the questions asked. It is not my job as the Speaker to stop members asking questions. It is a fair question, it is in the public interest, and I believe it should be answered. It may be that no decision has been made; it may be that there are trade-offs in certain areas. But to ignore the question totally is, in my view, not on, because Ministers are accountable to this House and the House deserves an answer. As I say, the question was commendable in that it did not make any criticism of Government policy. It was a straight question, and I believe it deserves to have some kind of answer.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I attempted to answer the question by saying this Government, should it be re-elected, intends to maintain 20 hours’ early childhood service, which is a subsidy programme, and the fee controls. They are the two essential parts of 20 hours: universal provision of early childhood services for 20 hours for every 3 and 4-year-old, with fee controls—
Hon Members: Free.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: It is not free. It never has been free, which is why we renamed it. It was never free—
Mr SPEAKER: I have assisted the Opposition to obtain an answer here. To put up a barrage like that when the Minister is answering the question as she sees appropriate is not on. If members of the Opposition want the Speaker to assist in getting answers, they should treat answers with more dignity.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: There is something happening towards the end of November, which is called an election, and if the Opposition wants to know what the Government’s policy is, it will have to wait until it is announced.
Sue Moroney: When the Minister says the subsidy programme will continue for 20 hours’ early childhood education, is she committing to the same level of subsidies that currently exists?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I have just said any election policy will have to be announced as part of an election policy, but this Government is committed to 20 hours. We have extended it to k?hanga reo, Playcentre, and 5-year-olds, and we have said we would maintain fee controls. Parents like it, parents use it, and we will retain it.
Sue Moroney: Do her promises on this issue carry the same weight as her promise in National’s 2008 education policy that “National is also committed to keeping all other ECE funding.”, given that she subsequently cut $285 million from early childhood education in 2009 for improved staff-child ratios and $400 million in 2011 for centres employing more than 80 percent qualified staff?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: It is pretty rich to get that sort of a question from an Opposition party that, when in Government, allowed early childhood education spending to treble while less than 1 percent more children turned up at school having experienced early childhood education. This Government has increased the spending on early childhood education by almost 40 percent over what the last Government spent, and we are determined to make sure that those children that will benefit the most from it—that is, M?ori and Pasifika children, and children from poorer backgrounds—actually get access to good-quality early childhood education.
Sue Moroney: I seek leave to table the education policy document from 2008.
Mr SPEAKER: We will not do that sort of thing; that is all available to members.
Sue Moroney: Will she rule out any funding cuts to home-based early childhood education and k?hanga reo, should her Government be re-elected?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: This Government has proven time and time again that it believes in having a diverse sector; we believe in having a very diverse early childhood education sector. If there are any changes made to the funding system, it would be to make it less bureaucratic and much more flexible than it currently is, and to maintain the diversity. Home-based care is extremely important, as are parent-led services, to parents. We believe in parents having choice.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The question was very straightforward: will she rule out any funding cuts to home-based early childhood education and k?hanga reo?
Mr SPEAKER: The member has done pretty well today, but, as has been pointed out, some of these questions are about what the Government might do after the election. The Minister made it clear that there is an election policy to be finalised in this area. I think that was a fair answer to that question.