Friday 27 January 2012

Reforms that work - for whom?

“It would be awesome if 2011 was remembered for the beginnings of a movement that rises up to protest the increasing income disparity” (Ruby Duncan, NZCCSS President)

NZCCSS began 2012 by releasing our latest Vulnerability Report 11 January 2012 that covers latest available statistics for the Quarter ending 30 September 2011 as well as other information from our social services networks that puts the human face on the numbers.

Where have all the people with cancelled benefits gone? Most of them did not go into jobs because unemployment has not decreased. More than twelve thousand people have had their unemployment or domestic purposes benefits cancelled as a result of the Government’s Future Focus welfare changes. Housing NZ has drastically reduced its waiting lists, not by providing any more housing, but by simply refusing to add any people assessed as “low priority” to their lists. NZCCSS member agencies and other services saw further increases in people needing emergency support, counselling, food and accommodation. More than 120,000 referrals to budgeting services (run by community organisations) have been made by government agencies.  This feels very much like Government unloading its responsibilities onto the community with little additional funding to meet the costs. Read the full Vulnerability Report here.

Inequality, Poverty & Exclusion
International concern about the risks and negative impacts of high economic inequality continues to grow around the world. The conservative business group World Economic Forum rates “severe income disparity” among the top global risks for business. At the same time Oxfam released a report on the world’s 20 largest economies showing that high inequality holds back economic growth and hinders attempts to reduce poverty. In New Zealand, political commentator Colin James rates it one of the defining issues of 2012, Waikato University Vice-Chancellor Professor Bryan Gould notes that diverting so much national wealth into so few pockets undervalues and makes poor use of the productive potential of the rest of us, so that we produce less as a country than we should. NZCCSS will continue to promote ways to reduce income inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand through the Closer Together Whakatata Mai – reducing inequalities programme. Signing up to this will help build the fabric of support for change.

Child and Family
Spurred by their electoral success, the National Government has clearly set out the course it wishes to follow on further welfare reform. Prime Minister John Key has put “implementing major welfare reforms” top on the list of his government’s priorities. A Bill to implement youth reforms targeting young people “at risk of long term welfare dependency” will be in Parliament early this year. In the second half of the year another Bill will cover the other reforms. The full details on welfare reform including Cabinet Papers and fact sheets are available on the Ministry of Social Development website.  The strong election result is taken as a mandate to push through this reform programme yet our agencies and others have pointed out (see our November 29 Policy Watch) that the new approach has flaws that will most likely mean more harm than good for the most vulnerable in our society. There is serious risk of policy failure in an approach that claims to “invest” in people yet operates with a highly punitive set of sanctions for non-compliance. The only hope of success for the changes will be if the investment in people is given clear priority over sanctions for non-compliance.

Investment in our children is a key theme for the debate around the Government’s Green Paper on Vulnerable Children. As former All Black Norm Hewitt tours the country in a campervan to collect submissions, we also urge you to Say Something! Before you do this, take a look at the Children’s Commission Summer Newsletter that is all about children and poverty – moving beyond rhetoric. Take a look at our NZCCSS website page on the Green Paper as well. Minister Paula Bennett is quoted as hearing many people calling for mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Our member agencies who work every day with vulnerable children fear that mandatory reporting could mean people will not seek help for their children when there needs to be every encouragement for parents in trouble to get the assistance they require. Family service approaches have been shown to be more effective than child protection approaches.
Check out also the Social Service Providers Aotearoa seminars taking place over the next couple of weeks providing expert input into the Green Paper issues. These themes will also be important at our NZCCSS Social Services Conference in Auckland 18th - 20th April, check out the programme and registrations are now open.

Better quality and more affordable rental housing would also do a lot to help our vulnerable children.  The Families Commission submission to the Productivity Commission on housing affordability makes the point that “Poor quality housing not only has a direct impact on family health outcomes, the stress of living in such homes can prevent families from benefiting from programmes designed to support them in other ways, such as parenting programmes.”

The draft report from Productivity Commission on Housing Affordability was released in December and they are inviting further feedback until 10th February and plan to make a final report to Government in mid-March. Community Housing Aotearoa, the national umbrella organisation for the not-for-profit housing sector welcomed the draft report’s finding that the rental market won’t deliver enough secure long-term quality rental housing without a significant increase in government investment. The Salvation Army also welcomed the recommendation to include housing in the National Infrastructure Plan. The NZ Nurses Organisation praised the recognition of the strong link between health and good quality housing. The Green Party criticised the emphasis placed on loosening housing regulation and planning criteria as a “recipe to increase the cost of living” by creating further urban sprawl with all the associated costs of transport to access employment and increased risk of problems such as the leaky homes fiasco. Local Government NZ also responded by saying simply making more land available for development is no ”silver bullet” to solve the housing affordability problem.

Older People
The squeeze is on health funding as District Health Boards try to manage budgets that are have not been increased enough to cover cost inflation. The Southern DHB is transferring $1.2 million funding out of rest homes to fund community care for older people, which equates to funding 90 fewer rest home places for older people. The details of their plans are still to be negotiated but the DHB points to spare capacity with around 500 of the 1700 rest home beds in the region not occupied. The trend in health strategy is for higher level residential care (hospital-level, dementia, and psychogeriatric residential care) to be funded and aim to have rest home level care substituted with home and community support. As DHBs around the country wrestle with the challenges of such a transition, it is important that adequate funding for high quality home support services is available so that older people and their service providers can ensure they really do get the good care and support they need.

Health Minister Ryall has ruled out forming an independent aged care commissioner in response to call from Waikato residents and MPs. He points to all the work already being done to monitor and audit rest homes, as well as the available complaints process through the Health and Disability Commissioner. As aged care provider Bupa CEO Dwayne Crombie points out, standards are on the whole better than 10 years ago but are limited by the level of government funding available. We need a significant national debate on how to further improve aged care – where can this debate take place? Check out our NZCCSS Services for Older People conference programme, designed to be a place where service providers, managers, board members, policy makers can engage with these issues.

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