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1. Hon ANNETTE KING (Deputy Leader—Labour) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: Which, if any, of the seven key recommendations of the Child Poverty Action Group’s report Left Further Behind will the Government be implementing?
Hon PAULA BENNETT (Minister for Social Development and Employment) : I would not implement that report any more readily than I would Labour’s so-called policies, but, then again, they are the same thing.
Hon Annette King: Does she agree with the Prime Minister, who said this week that there are likely to be 228,000 children living in poverty now, and is that more or fewer than when she became the Minister?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I will not speak on behalf of the Prime Minister; the question was directed at me. I can say that we have more than 220,000 children who are in benefit-dependent households, and by any measure we take of poverty, that says that children of benefit recipients are often doing worst in this country.
Hon Annette King: Does she agree with the Prime Minister, or not?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: The Prime Minister is always right.
Hon Annette King: Does she agree with the Child Poverty Action Group that the position of children is a lot worse than it was 3 years ago, and that the longer that children spend in poverty the more harm it does; if not, why not?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I struggle to agree with pretty much anything that is in the Child Poverty Action Group report; it is so political. In fact, I think it is so political that it could almost carry a Labour Party authorisation with it, quite frankly. I can give the member many examples of why I do not agree with the Child Poverty Action Group, and I struggle with that example.
Hon Annette King: Given that the Prime Minister said this week “I am deeply concerned about every child in New Zealand who is in poverty.”, why has the Government waited 3 years to issue a green paper, which is to become a white paper that may or may not become policy sometime after the election, and which manages to mention the word “poverty” on one page in the entire document?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I think this really is the key: while Labour pontificates on whether there are children in poverty and on which report says there are and which report says there are not, this side of the House is actually getting on with real solutions—like 100,000 households that have been insulated, like more money going into early childhood education, and like $43 million more in the last Budget going towards State kids. If Labour members want to talk about vulnerable children, I say that those are the children who need us most, and whom this side of the House is prepared to stand up for.
Hon Annette King: Why does the Government believe that the interests of children have to be balanced with the interests of other New Zealanders, as the Prime Minister said, but have no hesitation in spending public money on bailing out South Canterbury Finance, the Rugby World Cup, and kiwifruit growers, to name but a few examples of the Government’s more important priorities?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: This Government does concentrate on, and has a belief in, supporting those children. Quite frankly, the list of initiatives is so long that I would not be allowed to read it out. With the health initiatives around immunisation of those children, the rate has been lifted from 73 percent to 90 percent, which is extraordinary in helping those children. Extra assistance is going into child well-being. But what do we have from the other side? A kneejerk reaction like calling for a new Minister for children. What would they do and what kind of budget would they have? I will be interested in hearing responses on that.
Hon Annette King: Is she aware that one of the key recommendations from the Child Poverty Action Group’s report is to ensure training allowances to support sole parents to go into education, to enable them to move into employment, and will she reinstate the training incentive allowance; if not, why not?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I think I have made it quite clear that I do not put merit on the Labour document that is the Child Poverty Action Group’s report, which, quite frankly, is just a rehash of old policies and of what Labour perhaps intends to do, depending on whether it changes its mind in the next few weeks. On the issue of those on benefits going into training, this Government is hugely supportive of that, and we stand by our record on it.
Hon Annette King: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Mr SPEAKER: Before I come back to the member, it would have been quite helpful had the Minister mentioned something to do with the training incentive allowance. My hearing may have let me down, but I do not recollect that in the answer. The question asked whether the Minister would reinstate the training incentive allowance, but I do not think that that was even mentioned in the answer.
Hon PAULA BENNETT: With regard to the training incentive allowance, of course that has not been cut. We have simply changed the criteria to make sure that it is addressing the more than 50 percent of women, in particular, who are on the domestic purposes benefit and who have no educational attainment whatsoever, and to make sure that they are getting the priority they need and deserve.
Hon Annette King: Could the Minister outline, then, what changes she did make to the training incentive allowance soon after she became the Minister, and did that include not allowing those on benefits to undertake tertiary training at a degree course level, which is the same training she managed to get under the training incentive allowance programme?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: Talk about the politics of envy. Quite frankly, if that member was still running policies like she did 20 years ago, she would be selling State assets, because that is what she was doing 20 years ago. If we all went back to what was happening 20 years ago, it would be kind of ridiculous. The changes that were made to the training incentive allowance I have reiterated in this House many times. We changed the criteria so that its eligibility is around the level of achievement and for those attaining level 3 or under.
Hon Annette King: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Maybe my hearing is not so good today, but I thought that in a previous answer the Minister said there had been no changes to the training incentive allowance?
Mr SPEAKER: What would perhaps have helped to get a more specific answer out of the Minister on the last supplementary question was if the question had not included a slightly challenging reference to the Minister’s own past life. That sort of question always leaves more latitude for a Minister in how he or she answers it.
Hon Trevor Mallard: Can the Minister explain to the House how the withdrawal of eligibility for a group of people to go towards a degree course is not a cut?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: There was a change in the criteria. Those women can still get tertiary level achievements. There are student loans for them, there is extra early childcare assistance, there is out-of-school-hours care assistance for them, and, on top of that, there is an extra loan they can get that is interest free. So no one is saying that they cannot go on to study at a tertiary level. There is a lot of Government support for that.
Hon Trevor Mallard: Is the Minister telling us that although people in the same circumstances as a group of women who previously got the training incentive allowance are not now eligible, that is not a cut?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: To the first part of that question I say that the people who were receiving the training incentive allowance were able to continue receiving it. That was not actually taken away from them. But, yes, we changed the criteria of the training incentive allowance. I think everyone acknowledges that.
Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think the Minister answered a question that I did not ask. I asked a question about women who were in the same circumstances as the women who received the allowance, not about the same women. That part of the question was not addressed.
Mr SPEAKER: The Minister, in answering, said that in respect of women in the same circumstances the Government has changed the criteria—that is what I heard the Minister say—and therefore some women maybe not qualifying under those new criteria is the implication of that. Whether someone wishes to interpret that as a cut is up to a member, but I think the Minister did answer that question.