OIA protocols and official advice ignored to hide Child Poverty

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It might not seem so now, but child poverty was a major election issue. What a pity we did not have the full debate. In that debate it would have been very helpful to have seen the Ministry of Social Development’s officials’ advice over the past 2 years as report after report was submitted to government.

Radio New Zealand made an OIA request in May 2013 for the advice given in response to the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty report but the documents were not released until after the election, some 17 months later. Leaving aside this extraordinary time delay, the OIA documents are full of black holes where large  parts of advice have been blanked out. Radio NZ was onto it with an excellent piece from Brent Edwards on Morning Report, provocatively entitled  ‘Officials urge govt not to spend more on alleviating poverty’  Good also to see the Ombudsman expressing disquiet about the OIA process.

Radio NZ was given the following reasons from Minister Bennett for withholding information:

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How extraordinary!  My initial reaction was to think the officials of the Ministry of Social Development had been offering government something really unpalatable.  Perhaps more exhortations to force sole parents with very young children back to work?  Perhaps benefits cut again to provide more incentive for paid work, or for Working for Families to be more tightly targeted?  Possibly further subsidises to paid work as the answer to child poverty?  Maybe more money to private investigators to hound sole parents?   Perhaps this agenda was exactly what the government had in mind for the post-election period.

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If this was the agenda, given the pre-election public concern about child poverty,  it was not in the government’s best interests for that to be seen as the policy direction.  That explains the suppression.  Even so, it is ironic that if such advice is ‘serving the wider public interest’ the public must be shielded from hearing about it. The election is over, let’s see it released in full now.

But, there could be a more sinister explanation…

Soon after the introduction of Working for Families in 2006 the officials at the MSD offered advice in a briefing to the government about the impact of Working for Families. This was called Pockets of Significant Hardship and Poverty and was originally accessed by researchers under the OIA.  In it the officials warned the government of a group of families that were desperately poor and marginalised, falling below even the 40% poverty line. It did not suit the  Labour Government at the time to hear about the deficiencies of its landmark ‘Working for Families’ policy and that report was suppressed and was not published  on the website until  June 2007.

 

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Maybe, just maybe, the officials both in 2006 and 2013 were doing the same thing:  warning of the social divide and the extreme marginalisation of many families under current policy settings.  At very least the advice may have told the government that more money was essential.  Already we can see in the un-expunged bits that they thought  fiscally neutral suggestions, such as taking from poor older children to give more to poor younger children, would be a fruitless exercise.  It is even conceivable the officials advised the government that the most cost-effective way to reduce the worst child poverty, without helping higher income families at the same time, would be to extend the full child-related tax credits to those who currently miss out under Working for Families.

After all, the latest Household  Incomes monitoring report  from the Ministry not only points to the worrying 135,000 children under the 40% poverty line but highlights again the impact of the exclusion from WFF:

From 1992 to 2004, children in workless households generally had poverty rates around four times higher than for those in households where at least one adult was in full-time work.  From 2007 to 2012, the difference was even greater – around six to seven times higher for children in workless households.  This to a large degree reflects the greater WFF assistance for working families than for beneficiary families.

The fall in child poverty rates from 2004 to 2007 for children in one-FT-one-workless 2P households was very large (28% to 9%), reflecting the WFF impact, especially through the In-work Tax Credit.

Perry, 2014, p156

How absurd the justification for suppression is.  How would the release of advice “prejudice the quality of information from officials”?  The officials have written plainly in public reports about child poverty year after year. The withholding   “to protect the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinion”   is NOT to protect the officials, but to protect the government.

Clearly the Ministry was not very impressed by some of the Expert Advisory Group’s  report .  I could understand that officials might be nervous of upsetting their associates in Wellington when they use phrases like “the more sensible of their recommendations”  implying many of the recommendations were not sensible. It would have been easy to black out such ‘damming with faint praise’ comments in the interests of free and frank advice.  But no, officials have not been protected;  it is there for all to see.

On the Nation (Saturday 11th October) on Working for Families, John Key indicated there would be no more money for those on benefits and he explicitly stated that the In Work Tax Credit would NOT be expanded to beneficiaries so as to incentivise parents into paid work.  Shrewdly he said this reflected Labour’s view too.  Oh Labour, you got this one so wrong!  In the great game plan, making it look like there is agreement across the political spectrum  makes it easy for Key’s  government to continue to withhold the extra money that could relieve child poverty.

As the availability of official data and information on so many aspects of welfare dries up, will we ever see the suppressed advice that if acted on could have helped thousands of families and children?   The government hopes that in a few months no-one will remember the suppression of these inconvenient paragraphs.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Henry Giroux on the Rise of Neoliberalism:

    “….We’re talking about an ideology marked by the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; the celebration of profit-making as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship. But even more than that, it upholds the notion that the market serves as a model for structuring all social relations: not just the economy, but the governing of all of social life. ”

    “We’re talking about an ideology marked by the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; the celebration of profit-making as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship. But even more than that, it upholds the notion that the market serves as a model for structuring all social relations: not just the economy, but the governing of all of social life.”

    “What shocks me about neoliberalism in all of its forms is how utterly unapologetic it is about the misery it produces. And it’s unapologetic not just in that it says “we don’t care,” because we have a punishing state that will actually take care of young black kids and dissenting college students and dissenting professors who basically don’t believe in this stuff. It also blames the very victims that suffer under these policies.”

    I/V is about the USA but applies anywhere, including “Godzone” – great stuff @ http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26885-henry-giroux-on-the-rise-of-neoliberalism

    • The Giroux interview says it all – thank you for bringing this important article to our attention!

      Reading between the lines, the re-election of the Key government must have been a dream come true for the Bilderberg group!

      The most important thing for the Neoliberals is that they continue to be re-elected – term after term. Otherwise some “nasty” incoming leftist government might reverse their selfish, antisocial, “may-the-rich-get-richer” policies.

      So expect more lies, more obfuscation, more antisocial policy from this government over the next three years.

      Key’s personal motto is “Whatever it takes!”

      If that means “telling the lies, the whole lies and nothing but the lies” then so be it. The essential thing for the Key government is to advance the neoliberal agenda, as outlined in all its undemocratic, antisocial “glory” by Giroux.

  2. This article carefully lays out the intersection of two very powerful issues that have arisen in the public sphere of late. First, child poverty, it’s not a new thing by any means, but has become an issue of focus. Much to New Zealand’s shame we have people putting money before children, that’s repulsive. This continued preference to use cost-benefit analysis to decide on the ‘best’ option is problematic, what we need to do in my opinion is to choose the best way of solving the problem and then figure out how to pay for it regardless of cost.

    The second issue is one that I find really despicable. Government delaying releasing information based on political expediency. It’s not only immoral, which is bad enough, it’s also illegal. Why the police haven’t taken to parliamentary offices after John Key’s admission of such baffles me. At least the Ombudsman has publicly shown surprise and has expressed concern. Hopefully something more substantial than another review, report, inquiry or committee will come of it.

  3. Key said that addressing child poverty would be a major concern of his government this year.

    I seem to recall the same thing about raising wages in 2008.

    How did that go?

    • The petition to challenge the voting in of National , what happened to it ?
      The petition closed with the words “we won” what did we win? ,was the petition presented ,if so what was the outcome. Whats the point of a petition if we don’t hear the outcome?Does anyone know?

  4. It wasn’t a major election issue because our Nationalphile MSM didn’t want it to become one, to prevent the possibility of National losing votes when the truth is laid out. Another example of the pathetically low standards our MSM now regards as normality.

  5. Come on, Susan, and others, we know full well that this is common practice under this government, to delay OIA responses, to blank out as much as possible, and to use every legal excuse there is to hold back sensitive information.

    The sad fact is, not even the media do hammer them enough for doing this. Key and others have now said, well, other governments before us have done the same, so it seems to be totally “acceptable”. That is the same way they dealt with the “Dirty Politics” revelations.

    It was trivialised and otherwise ignored, and the media got no answers, or evasive answers, and in the end just blunt denials, so the media gave up asking more questions, let alone go after the people that Hager revealed in his book, being behind the smear attacks and so forth.

    As with that, the same is going on with the OIA scandal. The Ombudsman herself is too vague and does not take firm action. And the mainstream media just accept Key’s words again. I heard media commentators and even reporters repeat what Key said, and it seems to be accepted that this is just what governments do.

    As for the Office of Ombudsmen, they have been underfunded for years, and have been unable to keep up with processing OIA and other complaints. The government knows this, and exploits the Ombudsman’s lack of finance to do their work, as it is convenient for government that the Ombudsman could not chase up media and other complaints. At the same time it is the government short-funding the Ombudsman and the various commissioner offices, including the HDC.

    As for MSD and WINZ withholding info, we still have no clarity on much else, re welfare reforms and so:
    http://publicaddress.net/speaker/how-is-government-evaluating-its-welfare/

    And the many claims about people leaving benefits to work are also misleading:
    http://publicaddress.net/speaker/1600-beneficiaries-moving-into-work-each/

  6. I believe that it is vital that we all engage in all-out assault on the MSM and keep reiterating their role as the propaganda machine for neoliberalism and the National Party. It is clear that they are not the fourth estate anymore and are the vehicle for this governments mass campaign of misinformation, disinformation, smear campaigns, and the sabotaging of democracy. They have traded in their prime responsibility as the public watchdog for the mantle of corporate lapdog, as is this government. The influence of the MSM on the minds of the public is so great that I believe that they will dictate election results for the foreseeable future unless their so-called journalists (who are really Public Relations people) revolt, or the public take direct action. I think our democracy and our society, are worth it!

  7. Perhaps it wasn’t a MSM issue because most of middle NZ don’t care.

    We’ve had this individualist / competition at the expense of cooperation / neo liberal / Milton Friedman type of ideology foisted upon us for 30 years now. Middle NZ has swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

    Middle NZ blames poverty on the poor. They spend too much money on booze and ciggies, they can’t cook, they don’t look after their kids, if they’re given more $$ from taxpayers they’ll just waste it, if we feed the kids the parents get off…

    The divide and rule tactic from those in power is working so well.

    Many in middle NZ don’t even really think we have a problem of poverty or lack of jobs, they just think the poor are stupid and lazy.

    Not only do they not care, they hate and want to punish the poor.

    So no, not exactly a MSM seller that one.

    This is the result of 30 years of neo liberalism.

    • Ask yourself, how does the vast majority of information on poverty, on policies and intentions to ‘divide and rule’ and any other topical issue you choose to name, reach most New Zealanders? Carrier pidgeon? the alternative media? No!-via the MSM, of course. They are the opinion shapers and their influence on the thinking of the larger portion of the population is enormous. This is undeniable.

      • Chicken or egg?

        The perennial problem.

        I’d say its both actually.

        Those in MSM are also Middle NZers, and those running MSM are wealthy NZers.

        So they both believe in this free market ideology, which blames poverty on the poor, and they perpetuate these ideas at the same time.

        The originator was Rogernomics from 1984. That’s when everything changed.

  8. The fall in child poverty rates from 2004 to 2007 for children in one-FT-one-workless 2P households was very large (28% to 9%), reflecting the WFF impact, especially through the In-work Tax Credit.

    In other words, work is still the way out of poverty, as it should be, but wages are way too low and are having to be topped up by the government. If the Nats intended to do anything about child poverty, they’d look to the unemployment rate and pay rates, rather than social welfare benefits. Of course, they don’t intend to actually do anything about child poverty, just make the odd placatory speech.

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