Healthy, safe housing is a basic human right

[Content note: death of a child]

The Greens have been calling for a “Warrant of Fitness” on all rental properties for a while, and the need for one has been highlighted with the tragic death of a toddler in Auckland:

The damp and cold conditions in a state house may have contributed to a toddler’s death, a coroner has found.

Two-year-old Emma-Lita Bourne died after a brain haemorrhage while in Auckland Starship Hospital last August.

She had been brought into the hospital after showing symptoms of fever, which turned out to be a form of pneumonia.

Brandt Shortland concluded the pneumonia was a contributing factor in her death and that the Housing New Zealand house in Otara where her family lived in may have been partly to blame for her ill-health.

The home was described as very cold, with leaking ceilings, little natural light and no carpet.

The family had requested a transfer to a better house and were on the waiting list at the time of the death.

Housing New Zealand gave them a heater, but they were unable to use it due to the amount it added to their power bills, the coroner said.

We have a political discourse that loves to wave the flag of personal responsibility. If Emma-Lita Bourne had died as a result of child abuse, you wouldn’t be able to move for commentators making grand proclamations about the responsibilities that come with receiving government support, or the duties of parents regarding children in their care. We’d know exactly who to blame.

But when a small child gets sick and dies because the house she lived in was damp and cold and her parents couldn’t afford to keep the heaters on we don’t talk about the duty of housing providers – public or private – to maintain healthy, safe properties.

Yet that’s what it is. A basic duty to ensure the thing you provide is fit for purpose. A rental warrant of fitness is no different to imposing basic hygiene standards on restaurants or health and safety requirements on employers (though our government may need a refresher on those, too.)

And the other side of it that we don’t talk about is the duty of government to ensure all its people have a basic, decent standard of living. It’s nothing but heartless to put a family in a cold dark house and then tell them to fix the problem with a heater they can’t afford to run.

We need a rental warrant of fitness. And we need a proper social safety net which provides all families with enough support to keep their kids healthy and warm. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not communism by stealth: it’s called caring for each other. So no child has to die for want of a warm home.

2014 in review – weetbix and elections

I started Boots Theory on 1 February this year, and since then it’s seen nearly 71 posts (72 now!), 5,000 visitors, and 7,500 pageviews. Not a bad start for a year which got pretty busy offline!

But what really staggered me was finding out that over at The Standard, I somehow managed to post the most-read article of the entire year!

The cost of a bowl of Weet-Bix (reposted at Boots Theory here) took a look at one of those really corrosive memes in NZ politics – the idea that poverty isn’t real because “a bowl of Weet-Bix and milk” is cheap.

The financial breakdown isn’t perfect. Commenters pointed out that I didn’t include some aspects of the Working for Families scheme which beneficiary parents might be able to get, for example. But a big part of the problem of poverty in NZ is how difficult it is for beneficiaries to know, much less get, their full entitlements. Navigating our social welfare system is downright nightmarish for many people, and the fact that WINZ’s website doesn’t even mention you might be entitled to a Family Tax Credit illustrates that.

I also got the tenth-most-read post on The Standard, on Three more years of National in government, and I’m going to give myself half-marks for contributions to the ninth-most-read post, announcing the election of Andrew Little as Labour leader.

On that high note, onwards into 2015!

Hiding the government’s failure on poverty

Three weeks ago I snarked John Key’s sudden desire to take serious action on child poverty.

Now, thanks to Radio New Zealand, we know that not only has Treasury been tailoring its advice to meet National’s prejudices, and not only has National got no real intention of changing the way it’s doing things, but they also really, really don’t want to be honest about it.

Radio New Zealand made the request for copies of the officials’ advice in May last year but the documents were only released early this month after repeated complaints to the Ombudsmen’s Office.

John Key has conceded the Government often delays information releases when it is in its political interests to do so. Delaying the release of this advice appears to confirm the Government is sensitive to debate about child poverty.

Before Mr Key became Prime Minister he talked about a growing underclass in New Zealand and his determination to reverse that trend. Information in the documents suggests the Government is yet to make any real impact on the problem.

Next week the Governor-General delivers the Speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament and this will outline the Government’s broad programme for the next three years.

Just what will it say about lifting children out of poverty?

My guess is it’ll be more of the same: the usual right-wing hand-waving about creating jobs and “incentives” to work – which in practice means sitting back and doing nothing except make it harder and harder for people to actually access vital support when there simply aren’t jobs for them to move into.

John Key’s focus groups are telling him people care about inequality, so he has to go through the motions of caring. But he’s already rejected the recommendations of the Expert Advisory Group on poverty and leads a government which is doing its damnedest to drive down wages and kick people off benefits. Expect a lot of big talk and no real action for another three years.