More time needed for OT Bill

Plans for the oversight of the beleaguered Oranga Tamariki child protection agency and reformation of the Children’s Commissioner role are shaping up to be more controversial than the Government would have hoped.

While the name of the Bill is long — Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill — there is concern the submission time for the Bill has not been long enough.

The 122-clause omnibus Bill with four schedules had its first reading in Parliament in November and was referred to the Social Services and Community Committee. Submissions opened on November 17 and close next Wednesday.

Changes have been in the offing since 2017 when the Government commissioned a review of independent oversight arrangements for the OT system and children’s issues.

This was followed by Cabinet agreeing in March 2019 to develop legislation which brought together the roles, responsibilities and powers of the oversight bodies in one place, which has now taken the form of the current Bill.

Taking this amount of time, however, is no guarantee the Government has got it right. At the first reading, both the Greens and Te Paati Māori voted against it going to the select committee.

Concerns about the Bill include whether the proposed Independent Monitoring Agency of the Oranga Tamariki System will be truly independent, and the removal of the investigative role of the Children’s Commissioner.

Under the legislation, the new monitoring body would be a departmental agency within the Educational Review Office, something which has been criticised as lacking real independence. Although the Bill specifies ministers must be hands-off with the monitoring agency, it should be no surprise survivors of abuse in state care, whose complaints were either ignored or downplayed for years, are highly suspicious of anything within cooee of a government department.

Another proposal attracting criticism is the replacement of the existing Children’s Commissioner role with a Children and Young People’s Commission. This crown entity will have between three and six members, including the current commissioner. The Government describes this move as enhancing the functions of the Children’s Commissioner, making the emphasis for the commission on advocacy and moving it away from the monitoring of complaints and undertaking investigations. The office of the Ombudsman will be given a ‘’strengthened complaints and investigation role’’ which will not be duplicated by the commission.

The recently appointed Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers has sensibly suggested it would be good for her office to retain the investigative functions, even to a small degree, perhaps working in with the Ombudsman and Independent Children’s Monitor.

Save the Children has launched a petition calling for the saving of the Children’s Commissioner role and retaining the authority of the commissioner to report directly to the prime minister with or without invitation.

It is also asking that children be specifically consulted about the proposed commission.

At the very least it seems it would be wise to extend the time for submissions, because any consultation time so close to Christmas and the holiday season is always problematic.

According to RNZ reporting, while the select committee seemed willing to extend the deadline by a month, this proposal was stymied because the Business Committee, which determines the House of Representatives’ sitting programme, would not allow the select committee more time to report back on the Bill.

This seems tin-eared, given the prominence given to the failings of state care over decades through The Abuse in Care Royal Commission and a plethora of recent scandals involving OT, and needs to be reconsidered.

There must be time for as many people as possible to have input into this, and for all the ramifications to be fully considered by the select committee. Getting this right is more important than the parliamentary timetable.


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