Oranga Tamariki Bill delay needed

Labour's insistence on pressing on with unpopular legislation for oversight of the beleaguered Oranga Tamariki child protection agency is hard to understand.

It runs the risk of looking as if it is responding to taunts about not getting things done at the expense of getting things right.

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 omnibus Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System and Children and Young People’s Commission Bill.

But as we have previously said, taking this amount of time is no guarantee the Government has got it right.

Early this year there was criticism that a large part of the submission period for the Bill fell during the Christmas-New Year hiatus, but even so 403 submissions were received by the social services and community committee.

A mere eight expressly supported the Bill, 311 opposed it and the remainder were on the fence.

Also, it has not attracted cross-party support, something which would be desirable given the importance which should be afforded oversight of child protection and the fact that Oranga Tamariki has been involved in a stream of controversies since its establishment in 2017.

Opposition parties, rather than being mischievous and difficult for the sake of political point-scoring, are generally echoing the concerns of many submitters.

Now it has reached second reading stage, two of the major concerns about the Bill remain, despite some tinkering by the Labour-dominated select committee.

These are about the disestablishment of the Children’s Commissioner role as we know it, and whether the proposed Independent Monitoring Agency of the Oranga Tamariki System will be truly independent.

Under the Bill as reported back from the select committee, the existing Children’s Commissioner role will be replaced with a Children and Young People’s Commission.

This Crown entity will have between three and six members. A change from the original Bill is that the chairperson of the commission board will be designated the Chief Children’s Commissioner. This move is designed to preserve a clear public face for advocacy for young people.

But will it achieve that, or will the commission turn out to be a cumbersome money-wasting bureaucracy? The commission will be involved with advocacy only, with the current commissioner’s monitoring and investigative roles going elsewhere. The Office of the Ombudsman will be given a strengthened complaints and investigation role which will not be duplicated by the commission.

The other contentious proposal is the positioning of the monitoring body as a departmental agency within the Educational Review Office. The concern here remains the independence. The committee’s answer to that, fiddling about with the wording to put emphasis on the independence of the agency in the Bill, cannot erase the perception that anything so closely linked to a government agency (even if it is argued it is for administrative efficiency) is not truly independent. Again, as we have said before, 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 body.

The Government should listen to what current Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers, and many others, suggest. Hit pause until the findings of the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care issues its final report, due next June.

Judge Eivers says to pre-empt that work would be to make a mockery of those who were brave enough to tell their stories, designing new legislation before waiting to hear their insights.

If the Government is to regain some mana over this, it must recognise there would be no shame in such a delay.