Committee on the Rights of the Child reviews report of New Zealand

Committee on the Rights of the Child
19 January 2011

The Committee on the Rights of the Child today examined the combined third and fourth periodic report of New Zealand on how that country is implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Introducing the report, Sue Mackwell, Deputy Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development of New Zealand, said that the Convention on the Rights of the Child was an essential human rights instrument for New Zealand and played an important part in the promotion and protection of children's rights. New Zealand continued to be committed to the progressive implementation of the Convention, but acknowledged that there were issues to be confronted in translating the principles of the Convention into practice. In the education sector, New Zealand had focused on quality education and clear performance information for parents, with a particular emphasis on improving educational outcomes for Maori and Pacific youth. New Zealand had also worked on better, quicker and more convenient access to integrated health care and the Government had introduced legislation designed to protect and assist children, amending notably the Crimes Act and immigration law.

In preliminary concluding remarks, Maria Herczog, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the report of New Zealand, said that a very intensive, rich and detailed dialogue had been held today during which many issues concerning the lives of children in New Zealand had been discussed.

Also in concluding remarks, Ms. Mackwell thanked the Committee for this rich and open dialogue, the results of which would be passed on to the Government. New Zealand was doing well in many regards and the delegation appreciated the Committee’s support in relation to that, as well as its comments on the issues New Zealand still needed to work on.

Other Experts raised a series of questions during the discussion, including whether children were really able to make their voices heard in decision-making processes, whether New Zealand acknowledged traditional adoption among indigenous peoples and how many children had been institutionalized by the State. Committee members noted with concern that children were fairly invisible in legislation, although many laws had been passed, and regretted that the age of criminal responsibility had been lowered for some cases.

The Committee will release its formal, written concluding observations and recommendations on the report of New Zealand towards the end of its three-week session, which will conclude on Friday, 4 February 2011.

The delegation of New Zealand included representatives of the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Health, the Crown Law and the Permanent Mission of New Zealand to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

As one of the 193 States parties to the Convention, New Zealand is obliged to present periodic reports to the Committee on its efforts to comply with the provisions of the treaty. The delegation was on hand today to present the report and to answer questions raised by Committee Experts.

When the Committee reconvenes at 10 a.m. on Thursday 20 January, it will review the combined second and third periodic report of Singapore under the Convention (CRC/C/SGP/2-3).

Report of New Zealand

The combined third and fourth report of New Zealand (CRC/C/NZL/3-4) underlines that New Zealand values all children and young people and places a great deal of importance on their doing well in a range of settings, which generally is the case. This has been achieved through significant and sustained investment to ensure that solid foundations are in place so all children and young people can achieve their full potential. Investments have been made in education, from early childhood through to tertiary, with the provision of 20 hours per week of free early childhood care for all three to four year olds, and initiatives to improve secondary school retention with a focus on improved education outcomes for Maaori and Pacific people. In terms of health, free access has been provided to primary health care for all under six year olds and children of low income families, the cost for all others have been lowered and a range of targeted initiatives have been conducted to improve health outcomes. A comprehensive income assistance package has also been offered to assist families with children, providing increased and enhanced parenting programmes and a range of universal and targeted support services.

The Government is also committed to reducing rates of youth suicide, an issue about which the Committee previously expressed concern. Positive improvements have been seen through a national action plan on preventing suicide, targeted programmes and awareness-raising campaigns. The rate of suicide among 15 to 19 year olds peaked during 1996–1998, but has since declined to 16.2 deaths per 100,000 in the 2003–2005 period. Research has been undertaken to explore determinants of suicide and review effective intervention practices, and New Zealand was amongst the first countries to develop a national youth suicide prevention strategy. Other recent developments include the establishment of a suicide prevention research fund and the launching of pilot suicide prevention co-ordinators in five district health boards.

Presentation of Report

SUE MACKWELL, Deputy Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development of New Zealand, said that the Convention on the Rights of the Child was an essential human rights instrument for New Zealand and played an important part in the promotion and protection of children's rights. New Zealand continued to be committed to the progressive implementation of the Convention, but acknowledged that there were issues to be confronted in translating the principles of the Convention into practice.

The Government strongly believed that the well-being of a family directly impacted that of a child and that improving outcomes for families improved the outcomes for children. The Government had created a sound foundation for families to build opportunities for themselves and their children by encouraging job retention and economic growth. This approach worked well for the great majority of families, although some needed more assistance to address problems, build opportunities and realise independence. More needed to be done to assist those children who fell through the gap, Ms. Mackwell admitted.

New Zealand had continued its drive to improve children’s well-being and invested heavily in areas affecting children. Government expenditure across education, health and welfare was nearly $29 billion since 2003, or about 22 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product. By the year ending 30 June 2003, it had exceeded $46 billion, or about 24.5 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product. Since 2009 alone the Government had allocated an additional $1 billion on new projects to lift the health, education and wellbeing of children and young people, with a significant proportion focusing on children under twelve.

Progress has also been made in the education sector, where New Zealand had focused on quality education and clear performance information for parents. The Government had introduced twenty hours a week of free early childhood education to all three and four year olds in 2007. In 2010, this had been extended to all five years olds and children attending play centres or early childhood education and care centres. Particular emphasis had been placed on improving educational outcomes for Maori and Pacific children and young people, particularly to reduce disparities. The proportion of Maori students leaving school with senior secondary school qualifications or higher has increased significantly from 28.8 per cent in 2003 to 43.9 per cent in 2007. Similar results had been seen for young Pacific people, with a rise from 42.3 per cent to 56 per cent in the same period.

The focus in the health sector had been on better, quicker and more convenient access to quality and integrated health care. New Zealand had introduced the Zero Fees for Under Sixes and Very Low Cost Access, resulting in over 82 per cent of New Zealand children under the age of six being able to access free primary health care services during business hours. In addition, immunisation rates increased by 20 per cent from 2007 to 2010, bringing the national immunisation figure for two year olds to 88 per cent.

The Government had also responded to the Committee’s recommendation that New Zealand strengthen its system of child protection. The situation had improved markedly over the last five years for both care and protection as well as youth justice services. Examples included that the number of cases that were still open after 90 days had dropped from 5,066 in 2005 to 129 in 2010, that the number of unallocated cases had dropped to 99 in 2010 (from 1,026 in 2005) and that response times have been reduced. Nonetheless, the Government was acutely aware that some children still fell through the gaps.

Turning to legislative changes, Ms. Mackwell said the Government had introduced legislation designed to protect and assist children. The amendment of the Crimes Act 1961 aligned New Zealand’s legislation with the Convention and abolished the legal use of parental force for the purpose of correction, while also giving children the same status as adults in cases of assault. Changes have further been made to immigration law, removing legislation that prevented foreign national children to legally attend compulsory education while unlawfully in New Zealand. Government had also lowered the age of criminal responsibility for certain serious offences and widened the jurisdiction of the Youth Court to include 12 and 13 year olds who had committed serious criminal offences.

Progress had also been made on New Zealand’s reservation against Article 37(c), Ms. Mackwell went on to say, including by minimising age-mixing in court cells to avoid mixing adult and youth appearances. Work to ratify the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography was also advancing, and legislative amendments had been made to ensure that national law complied with the obligations set out in the Protocol.

The children of New Zealand were its future. New Zealand was committed to ensuring that all children, regardless of their circumstances, had the opportunity to reach their full potential. More work was to do in order to achieve this goal, Ms. Mackwell acknowledged, saying the Committee’s suggestions on how best to undertake this would be welcomed.

Questions by Experts

MARIA HERCZOG, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the Report of New Zealand, said that the Committee welcomed the adoption of the Children, Young Person and Their Families (Youth Courts Jurisdiction and Orders) Amendments Act of 2010, the adoption of the Care of Children Act, and its 2004 and 2008 amendments, the Status of Children Amendment Act 2007 and the 2003 enactment of the Children’s Commissioner Act. The Committee also appreciated the ratification of several Conventions and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

New Zealand was a country where the majority of children were living well and in a safe and protective environment where their rights were respected. There were however some challenges and areas where improvements were needed, as well as areas where serious concerns could be expressed. This was especially the case if comparing the opportunities and access to services of the majority of children with the vulnerable groups who had limited chances. In spite of the favourable situation for most children, child rights-based policies and an overarching comprehensive child policy did not exist as there was no specific department or ministry responsible for issues related to children. The Convention had not become an integrated internal legal provision and was not used as a framework when developing strategies.

In New Zealand, there was no National Action Plan and very limited coordination, but according to the written replies of the Government, “the Convention is implemented through comprehensive action.” A forum was established by the social sector chief executives for coordination and joint work programmes, but there was no ministry or unit for child rights either. What was more, despite the data available, the collection of data, evaluation, child budgeting and outcome measurement was missing. Awareness about children's rights and the dissemination of the principles and implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child did not seem to be a priority. As part of that, the participation of children in decision making and the widespread acknowledgement of the importance of their opinion were also lacking. Children themselves were expressing the need for greater awareness of the Convention and to be listened to, in their opinion sent to the Committee.

Ms. Herczog said the increase in expenditures since 2004 was welcome but the way resources had been provided and allocated was still lacking the sufficient opportunities to eliminate child poverty and inequalities, access to resources and services. There was no child budgeting initiative and systematic data gathering, outcome measurement and long-term comprehensive planning and policy to proof and make visible the value and effectiveness of investment into children from pre-natal care onwards. A stronger, long-term commitment could be achieved by proving its effectiveness and efficiency, besides the most important effect: happiness and joyful childhood of children.

Children were drawing the Committee’s attention to the needs of indigenous groups -- Maori and Pacific Island people -- refugees, migrant children, those living with disability as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons so that they were respected and not discriminated against. This also meant appropriate consideration of Article 3 on the best interests of the child in all policies and practices.

The Committee noted with appreciation the new legislation on abolishing the legal use of parental force for the purpose of correction. It was concerned, however, that there was no explicit prohibition of all forms of corporal punishment in the home, while recognizing that efforts have been made to provide alternative disciplining techniques to parents and caregivers.

Another Expert said children were fairly invisible in New Zealand’s legislation although many laws had been passed. What was the reason for this and why could there not be a Ministry of the Child?

Were children really able to make their voices heard in all decision-making processes, Experts wondered. The Government seemed quite proactive regarding their political participation, but some traditional attitudes persisted by which children were considered as immature persons. This dangerous tendency was further compounded by a paternalistic attitude, the Committee member underscored. Also, what measures had been taken to empower children with information and knowledge pertaining to their rights and was there any coordinating body ensuring that children’s rights were taken into account?

An Expert noted that progress had been made regarding Maori and Pacific people, notably in relation to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. There however remained gaps in terms of poverty, health and exposition to violence, among other things. How was the Government working on these disparities and what indicators did it use to measure progress? While indigenous languages have been revitalized, progress still needed to be made regarding cultural expression, a Committee member further underscored.

Turning to child poverty, an Expert noted that 20 per cent of children in New Zealand lived in income poverty. It was of particular concern that many Maori and Pacific people lived in poverty, even if measured by income poverty, which did not entirely reflect child poverty. The Expert also underlined that many developments had been seen regarding the right to life and survival, and yet infant and child mortality rates remained staggering. What causes led to unchanged levels of child mortality over the last ten years?

Experts asked about the links between corporate responsibility and children's rights in New Zealand and whether there was a comprehensive law reflecting a comprehensive policy on children and adolescents, while also noting with concern the reported use of tasers.

Response by Delegation

SUE MACKWELL, Deputy Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development of New Zealand, responding to these questions and others, said that the Committee had spoken about the lack of a National Plan of Action and the invisibility of a policy framework. It was true that New Zealand did not have a National Plan of Action since 2008. It was looking forward to the Committee’s recommendations in this regard before speaking to its Ministers.

The establishment of a Children’s Ministry seemed rather unlikely in the current constrained financial situation, but the afore-mentioned social sector forum had a broad agenda. It dealt with issues related to children and was formally mandated to provide ongoing advice around coordination regarding children. From a public health perspective, it was the Ministry of Social Development which had the lead role in implementing the Convention, moved from the Ministry of Youth Development. Budgeting and programme coordination was conducted in close cooperation between Ministries, Ms. Mackwell underscored.

In relation to concerns about taking into account children’s views and rights, Ms. Mackwell said children were consulted in decision-making, particularly from the age of 14 and above. The Ministry of Social Development was increasingly reaching out to youth through social networking media in order to pull in their voices into decision-making. For example, there had recently been a very successful and major review looking into alcohol use when driving. Local councils were also involved in ensuring that young people were consulted. New Zealand was doing well in reaching out to young people between the ages of 12 and 24, but there was scope for improvement in reaching out to those below twelve.

An Expert was pleased to hear about these innovations, but said the Convention was for all young people up to the age of 18. All young people should be given the opportunity to express their views and there should not be any geographical limitations.

The New Zealand courts displayed a relatively high degree of openness to international human rights standards, both across the board and regarding the Convention more particularly. The Convention had been cited in 50 decisions of the High Court. In criminal proceedings publicly funded youth advocates acted as children’s autonomous representatives. It was mandatory that any young person in criminal proceedings had a legal representative.

The Committee had previously recommended that New Zealand review its legislation to ensure coherence with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This has been conducted, resulting in a resource drawn upon when legislative changes were made. Consideration of children and international human rights treaties that were relevant to New Zealand, including the Convention, formed an essential part of developing new laws, the delegation asserted.

Responding to concerns about reservations, the delegation said while New Zealand maintained some reservations to the Convention, it had made substantive progress towards withdrawal or modifying relevant practices. Regarding reservations to Article 2, compulsory education coverage has been extended to children who were unlawfully in New Zealand. Emergency and acute services had likewise been extended, but not social assistance and public housing services. Substantial practical progress has also been achieved regarding reservations to Article 37(c), notably by differentiating different age groups. As for the minimum age for child labour, New Zealand children were involved in some light work, such as delivering newspapers, but measures had been taken that this did not affect school participation. New Zealand had also discussed with the International Labour Organization regarding to ILO Convention No. 138.

Reacting to the Committee’s concerns about evaluation and outcome measurement, the delegation said that major social programmes were evaluated in New Zealand, while acknowledging that this was not the case for all programmes. The Government was very interested in much more closely cooperating with community organizations, businesses and philanthropic institutions to do things differently in this regard. More generally, innovative partnerships already existed, such as a housing partnership with business and other actors for a predominantly Maori and Pacific community in South Oakland.

New Zealand did have unacceptably high number of child abuses and child deaths, but this was taken very seriously and several new initiatives had been brought in. This included the vulnerable infants package and tasking social workers to work together with health personnel at district health board hospitals.

Questions by Experts

MARIA HERCZOG, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the Report of New Zealand, in a second round of questions, asked how shortages in childcare places were being tackled, particularly for Maori and Pacific people, and how women were encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their babies under six months, in a bid to increase current low rates.

The Rapporteur had seen the impressive and important research on families receiving benefits. However, she wondered whether any programmes had been developed on this basis to empower unemployed parents who were unlikely to find employment to help them to be better role models for their children and ensure their rights? Also, what kind of parenthood preparation programmes were in place and how widespread were they?

A Committee member noted that New Zealand’s Adoption Act did not take into account cultural factors and the views of the child, among other things. Despite earlier promises, no progress has been made on adoption law, suggesting that this was a low priority on the Government agenda. Could the delegation comment on this and inform of any plans to reform the adoption?

Experts wondered how bullying in schools was tackled, particularly regarding obesity, what plans the Government had to move towards the inclusive education of children with disabilities that the Committee recommended, and whether New Zealand acknowledged traditional adoption among indigenous peoples. Also, how many children had been institutionalized by the State, and in what form of institutions, and was New Zealand implementing guidelines regarding alternative child care?

An Expert commended New Zealand for its rather low HIV/AIDS rate, but expressed concern at the reported increase in infections among Maori people and men who have sex with men. In view of this situation, how did the Government intend to improve education, particularly in terms of sensitization about reproductive health and adolescent lifestyle at secondary schools?

Response by Delegation

Responding to questions and concerns regarding non-discrimination protection, the delegation said that discrimination on various grounds was prohibited by the New Zealand Human Rights Act. The National Human Rights Commission had produced specific outreach materials designed to make this legislation work well for young people. The Government had last year appointed a welfare group that had released its first report on discrimination issues that New Zealand faced. The second and final report, which would recommend what the Government should do in moving forward, was due next month and eagerly awaited by the authorities.

The often mentioned barriers were real, not only regarding health and education. There were in fact issues of access to services but there was no active discrimination of Maori or other ethnic people, the delegation emphasised. The existing issues were addressed in part by the increasing number of Maori and Pacific organizations that provided social services with the support of the Government. In terms of land, financial compensation was given for all land confiscations or other grievances under the treaty. The latter was also translated into Maori and other languages.

The delegation asserted that tasers were only used by trained police when less forceful action was impossible. Particular emphasis was on avoiding the use of tasers whenever possible and it was automatically registered whenever a taser was removed from its holster. Tasers had not been used on young people but would be used in extreme, life-threatening situations.

Picking up on questions on disparities, the delegation said achievements had been made in the education of Maori people thanks to initiatives that were particularly responsive to their needs. The proportion of Maori students leaving school with senior secondary school qualifications or higher ones had increased significantly in recent years although it was still lower than for other youth.

Asked whether the impression was correct that family group conferences were not used as much as in the past, the delegation asserted that quite the opposite was the case, but family group conferences were not only the only option available. Many successful actions were taken prior to family group conferences.

The delegation acknowledged that New Zealand’s legislation on adoption had not been reformed in relation to the Convention. While it had been accepted that this should be done, the amount of time was not available due to other legislative matters. A rather old adoption statute was still in place, but this did not mean that the Convention had no impact; New Zealand was very responsive to international human rights instruments. Also, the 1955 Adoption Act did take into account the best interest of the child. On customary adoptions more particularly, the delegation explained that these were completely different from legal adoption. Unlike legal adoption, they placed much more emphasis on family continuity and Maori people had no interest in a codification of legal adoption.

Turning to health, the delegation said according to 2009 statistics from the Ministry of Health there had only been 150 new HIV infection cases. The majority of these cases occured in New Zealanders of non-European ancestry. To tackle this issue, mothers had been offered screening early on in pregnancy and efforts have been made to prevent transgenerational HIV transmission. Improvements however remained to be made regarding mental health coverage and access to primary health care services, a review of services for people living with HIV/AIDS had recently shown.

Sudden unexpected deaths in infancy had been decreasing, although the gap between children with European origins and Maori children had widened. Thanks to its significant reduction in infant mortality over the last 10 to 15 years, New Zealand now established at about the middle of the list of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. While doing well, New Zealand acknowledged challenges, such as high smoking rates among Maori mothers as well as bed sharing, and efforts were being undertaken in this regard.

To increase breastfeeding, the Government had conducted social marketing, particularly among Maoris; it had many baby friendly hospitals, a breastfeeding authority as well as compliance panels that addressed concerns. To tackle the problem of obesity, guidelines have been developed on nutrition, and growth charts of the World Health Organization had been integrated into child health assessments.

Questions by Experts

In a further round of questions, a Committee member wondered how 17-year-olds were dealt with as they seemed to be excluded from criminal protection and what the maximum duration for pre-trial detention was.

An Expert noted with concern that New Zealand had not only not increased the age of responsibility for serious and repeated offences, as the Committee recommended previously, but had even lowered the age of criminal responsibility for certain serious offences from 14 to 12 years. It was unclear to the Expert what were considered “certain serious offences”, whether there were any objective criteria for this and what the reasons for this were. The introduction of military-style correction gave rise to a number of concerns.

New Zealand was commended for adopting anti-trafficking legislation in 2002. But why were trafficking and smuggling covered by the same law although there was a difference between the two? The Expert also wished to know how safe houses and shelters for victims were operated, how these structures collaborated with law enforcement entities, and what training programmes were in place for officials to ensure victims were not treated as perpetrators.

New Zealand had been one of the first countries to be examined under the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The Committee had voiced concerns regarding the recruitment to the armed forces and voluntary enrolment but these did not seem to have been adequately addressed. According to the report, the age of recruitment had not been raised as the military provided children from disadvantaged backgrounds good opportunities, which puzzled the Expert. Could the delegation comment on this?

Committee members further asked whether children in custody had the right to education, how foreign children were educated if their parents could not pay for it, whether there was any structure to ensure that children with disabilities enjoyed their full rights and whether state-funded legal representation was available for children before they appeared in family group conference?

Response by Delegation

SUE MACKWELL, Deputy Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development of New Zealand, responding to these and other questions, said the early childhood system had changed significantly in the last ten years. One of the priorities was to increase participation rights. Much was going on in terms of looking into services that were culturally appropriate for Pacific and Maori families and children. All forms of childhood education were governed by the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008. Parental leave provisions in New Zealand provided for 14 paid weeks. While those provisions had been in existence for some time and were not scheduled for review, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner would next month publish his inquiry on the care of under-two-year-olds.

The out-of-school care system in New Zealand was not as well established, however, and the number of out-of-school services in no way compared to those for early childhood. One reason for this was that it was up to each school to decide whether or not such services were offered on its grounds.

In relation to access to free education for non-nationals, the delegation clarified that persons legally resident in New Zealand on a long-term basis did have access to publicly-funded education. Some categories of migrant visa holders must however pay for school in the first couple of years as New Zealand held that people who entered the country with the purpose of accessing education should pay for it. Children with disabilities were not discriminated against either but had the same rights as others. New Zealand took its responsibilities under international treaties very seriously and was reporting to the United Nations on this matter.

Turning to child labour, the delegation said discussions had been held to reconcile New Zealand’s protection approach with Convention No. 138 of the International Labour Organization. More generally, there was a minimal age of school leaving. New Zealand had done away with pure aged-based minimum wages and had in place alternative approaches concerning substantial employment.

There was a common legislation for trafficking and smuggling of people. But there were two separate offence definitions; trafficking required proof of coercion and smuggling did not. Efforts had been undertaken, involving public education, employer education and migrant sensitization and a free helpline. Since 2004, 15 cases had been prosecuted in New Zealand.

The recruitment of 17-year-olds to the army was not the only source of opportunities, but it certainly was one that was attractive to some, the delegation went on to say. There had been a response to the Committee’s earlier concluding observations, the delegation asserted.

Regarding the lowering of criminal responsibility in some cases, the delegation said prior to the last election there had been cases of very young people committing very serious crimes with high media attention. That was the environment in which the Government saw itself needing to take action. There has been some thinking that the provisions had been too short to make a difference and that they needed to be extended. However, the changes gave more opportunities to get such offenders back on track, providing for parents to go on parenting programmes and offering mental health programmes for drug and alcohol abusers.

Preliminary Concluding Observations

MARIA HERCZOG, the Committee Expert serving as Rapporteur for the Report of New Zealand, said a very intensive, rich and detailed dialogue had been held today and many issues concerning the lives of children in New Zealand had been discussed. The Committee would summarize both the discussion and all available information and put it together in its concluding observations.

SUE MACKWELL, Deputy Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development of New Zealand, thanked the Committee for this rich and open dialogue, the results of which would be passed on to the Government. New Zealand was doing well in many regards and the delegation appreciated the Committee’s support in relation to that, as well as its comments on the issues New Zealand still needed to work on.

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