Becroft: Children need stronger voice in legislative process

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says New Zealand needs a proper debate about whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft has continued his push for greater involvement and consideration of children in the political process, saying a quarter of the New Zealand population are being shut out of debate.

Becroft says every piece of legislation should be subject to a “child impact assessment”, while he has also called on politicians to consider giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

Speaking to Parliament’s social services and community committee as part of the annual review process, Becroft said his office “boxed above its weight in calling attention to children’s issues”, and had successfully campaigned for the inclusion of 17-year-olds in the youth justice system.

“While that won’t be perfect and solve every issue, it will be a better outcome for 17year-olds than the adult system, of that I’m utterly convinced.”

Becroft wished he had the courage to push for the inclusion of some 18- and 19-year-olds with disabilities, special needs or developmental issues.

“The youth justice system with the discretionary room to transfer would have been I think an ideal court for these types of young people."

“The New Zealand of today is not the New Zealand I and some of you grew up in - it’s a much more stratified and disadvantaged group of children, much more clearly a gap between those who succeed and those who don’t.”

Speaking about the state of New Zealand’s children, Becroft said there was a “70/20/10” rule across the board: 70 percent were doing well, 20 percent were struggling in and out of significant disadvantage, and 10 percent did “as bad, if not worse, than most comparable OECD countries”.

“The New Zealand of today is not the New Zealand I and some of you grew up in - it’s a much more stratified and disadvantaged group of children, much more clearly a gap between those who succeed and those who don’t.”

While children were growing in numbers, they had dropped as a percentage of the population from 29 percent to 23 percent - a decline due to New Zealand’s aging population which Becroft said would present challenges.

“While we have a proud record of prioritising aged care - and as I approach that group long may it continue - we do not a have proud record of prioritising children...

“I think we’ve dropped the ball over the last 30 years actually and the stats bear that out.”

The Government would need to set comprehensive targets, similar to those in the now-scrapped Better Public Services measures, as part of its child wellbeing strategy, which he said could act as “an essential building block” for a new approach.

Reducing child poverty, the focus of government legislation, was critical in addressing the wellbeing of children as a whole.

“In my time as Children’s Commissioner, all roads lead back to child poverty and material disadvantage.

“I’m not saying it’s causative, but if you look at all the measurements: child abuse and neglect, hospitalisation for accidental injury, infant mortality, educationa; achievement, youth suicide, there is a social gradient - that is, for those who are most disadvantaged there is a clear association.

“They’re not just another interest group to be factored in, they’re nearly a quarter of the population who desperately need to ensure their interests are prioritised and looked after.”

Asked by National MP Louise Upston whether he felt the Government’s proposed measures of child poverty were too complicated for New Zealand families to understand, Becroft said he did not believe that was the case.

Politicians needed to “put children’s voice front and centre clearly in a way we have never done before”, he said.

“They’re not just another interest group to be factored in, they’re nearly a quarter of the population who desperately need to ensure their interests are prioritised and looked after.”

Children were deeply interested in speaking to MPs about the issues facing them.

“Outside parents, when we ask them who do they want to most talk to about their issues, do you know what they said? Local politicians.”

Becroft said New Zealand needed to have a debate about giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote, saying New Zealand could take a world-leading stance and encourage the next generation to be invested in democracy.

He also said every bill that went before Parliament should be subject to a “child impact assessment”, looking at whether and how it would affect children.

“If it doesn’t, fine, let’s move on, if it does, let’s assess the impact and how we might address it.”

Becroft dismissed concerns from National MP Alfred Ngaro that such a move would slow down the legislative process, saying bills with no possible impact on children would take “about 30 seconds” to consider.