Getting more children into preschool education is positive, but the Government is going about it the wrong way, a local families spokeswoman says.
"We definitely need more children accessing early childhood services - there's just no question," Family Works East Coast manager Pam McCann said.
In what has been described as a world first, new government policy will halve parents' benefits if their children don't attend preschool from the age of 3.
The decision, recently announced by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, will apply from July to 31,500 children, aged 3 and 4, whose parents are either on sole parent or couple benefits.
Social workers working in Hastings schools report that children who missed out on early childhood education (ECE) lagged behind other children when they reached primary school, Ms McCann said.
"We need to encourage and motivate families - I'm not sure that cutting benefits is the best way to do it, to be honest."
Parents will have their benefits halved if they fail to take "all reasonable steps" to keep their children in licensed or certificated early education for at least 15 hours a week from the time they turn 3 until they go to school.
The policy has been labelled "beneficiary bashing" and criticised for removing parental choice. It was unveiled along with new Social Development Ministry figures showing the country's beneficiaries would cost taxpayers $78 billion if they stayed on benefits for life.
A Cabinet paper estimates about 2200 beneficiary families might fail the test each year, of which 1300 might fail to comply immediately and have their benefits cut.
Auckland University sociologist and welfare reform expert Maureen Baker said family allowances were tied to medical checks in France. But she had not heard of other countries tying benefits to preschool attendance.
Maxim Institute researcher Dr Jane Silloway Smith said beneficiaries should seek work in return for support, but making them hand over their children to someone else would undermine families.
Childcare Association chief executive Nancy Bell warned of a shortage of ECE services in poor and rural areas, where many beneficiary families would be based.
But Grace Ikiua of Mangere's Good Seed Trust, welcomed the policy and said preschool play groups could meet the need.
"There's a group of people that don't really understand the importance of ECE for their children.
"They have a responsibility to the taxpayer. They are on a benefit to bring up their children and sometimes you have to use a stick."
By the numbers
13,636 people on a benefit in the Hawke's Bay region as of June 30
Beneficiary parents must ensure their children:
- Attend early childhood education 15 hours a week from age 3
- Attend school from age 5 or 6
- Enrol with a general practitioner