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Hekia Parata breaks law – ignores Official Information Act – claims emails “not found” – and it gets worse!

30 January 2016 2 comments

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official-information-act-OIA-NZ

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As first revealed on 1 December (Hekia Parata breaks law – ignores Official Information Act), Minister Hekia Parata’s office has apparently deliberately broken the law by ignoring requests for information lodged under the Official Information Act.

Intro

The story begins several months ago when this blogger wrote to the Minister’s office on  27 October last year,  requesting answers to the following questions regarding National’s Food in Schools programme;

1. How much has been spent on the programme since 28 May 2013?

2. Is the funding still set at $9.5 million, over a 5 year period from 2013 to 2018?

3. How many schools are part of the programme?

4. It was initially available in decile 1 to decile 4 schools. Higher decile schools would be able to opt in from 2014. How many other, higher decile schools have opted into the programme?

5. Are there any figures as to how many children are participating in the programme? If so, what is that data?

6. Is there a time limit as to the length of time a school can participate in the programme?

7. Have any schools been declined participation in the programme? How many? For what reason?

8. Are Sanitarium and dairy cooperative Fonterra still participating in the programme? Have any other companies joined in?

9. Does the KickStart programme in any way affect a schools allocated budget?

10. Have any Charter Schools requested to join the programme? If so, how does this affect their funding?

By 12 November, after no response nor even an acknowledgement, this blogger wrote again to Minister Parata;

On 27 October, I lodged this OIA request with your office. I have recieved no reply or even an acknowledgement.

Please advice whether or not you intend to respond to my OIA request. If not, I will proceed by laying a complaint with the Ombudsman’s Office.

As at 29 November, no response had been forthcoming from the Minister’s office, and a complaint was laid with the Ombudsman’s Office. As this blogger pointer out in the complaint;

I do not believe it is satisfactory that a Minister of the Crown wilfully ignores the law and fails to follow her obligations under the Official Information Act.

Up-date

On 10 December, a response was received from the Ombudsman’s office stating;

“We have made enquiries with the Minister’s Office about this matter and it appears that they did not receive your request. They have conducted an extensive internal search and have been unable to locate your emails of 27 October or 12 November.”

The Ombudsman’s letter went on to that that “the Minister’s Office advised that the information you are seeking is likely to be held by the Minister for Social Development” and suggested that I “may wish to put [my] request to the Minister for Social Development, Hon Anne Tolley, directly by emailing: a.tolley@ministers.govt.nz“.

I wrote back the following day to the Ombudsman, providing specific information of the email addresses used to lodged my OIA request with Parata’s office;

“I am in receipt of your letter dated 10 December where you state that the Education Minister’s office claims “that they did not receive [my] request”. (Emails dated 27 October and 12 November)

I am cutting and pasting the header of both emails into this email;

from:Frank Macskasy <fmacskasy@gmail.com>
to:Hekia Parata <hekia.parata@parliament.govt.nz>
date:Tue, Oct 27, 2015 at 12:57 AM
subject:KickStart breakfast in schools
mailed-by:gmail.com

from:Frank Macskasy <fmacskasy@gmail.com>
to:Hekia Parata <hekia.parata@parliament.govt.nz>
date:Thu, Nov 12, 2015 at 10:45 PM
subject:Fwd: KickStart breakfast in schools
mailed-by:gmail.com”

I pointed out;

“If the Minister’s email address is incorrect, my emails did not “bounce” back to me.”

I invited the Ombudsman’s office “to test the email address – (hekia.parata@parliament.govt.nz)  to ascertain it’s validity”.

The response from the Ombudsman’s Office, on 15 December, was less than inspiring;

“I note you emailed your original request for information to the following address: hekia.parata@parliament.govt.nz. The Minister of Education’s Office has confirmed that this email address is correct. However, as Mr Ilott explained in his letter of 10 December 2015, the Minister’s Office conducted an extensive internal search but was unable to locate your emails.

This Office has no reason to doubt either party’s account of what has happened. In situations like this where a dispute of facts exist, it is generally not the function of an Ombudsman to determine which version of events is the one that should be preferred.”

The Ombudsman’s response does not reassure this blogger that his Office is capable of holding Ministers to account to uphold the letter and spirit of the Official Information Act.

Specifically;

(A) “Losing” one email sent to a legitimate, active, email address is possible. An accidental deletion is not outside the realms of possibility.

But “losing” two emails seems unlikely and does not withstand the credibility “sniff” test.

(B) The Ombudsman stated that Minister Parata’s Office “conducted an extensive internal search and have been unable to locate your emails of 27 October or 12 November“.

How has the Ombudsman  arrived at the conclusion that Minister Parata’s Office “conducted an extensive internal search“?

It almost seems as if the Ombudsman has become an (unwitting?) apologist for Parata obvious willful refusal to answer a legitimate OIA request.

(C) Having established  Minister Parata “alibi” that they could not “locate” my emails,  why was her Office not advised to write to me directly to request copies of my emails?

In what manner is it the responsibility of the Ombudsman to act as a “go between” between a Minister and a Citizen to advise me to write to Minister Tolley’s Office?

Is Minister Parata refusing point-blank to deal with me solely because of past criticisms of her actions? (See ‘Previous related blogposts’ below)

The Ombudsman’s Report bears out this suspicion when she refers to “different and more risk averse treatment of requests by the media and interest groups” (p142).

(D)  In stating that “This Office has no reason to doubt either party’s account of what has happened. In situations like this where a dispute of facts exist, it is generally not the function of an Ombudsman to determine which version of events is the one that should be preferred” – it beggars belief  that the Ombudman’s Office appears to be abdicating any responsibility to hold a Minister of the Crown to account for what appears to be a breach of the Official Information Act.

If the Ombudsman’s role does not include “the function of an Ombudsman to determine which version of events is the one that should be preferred” – then what is the raison d’être for that Office?

This situation is simply not acceptable. The Minister’s Office has broken the law; offered an implausible excuse; and has drawn the Ombudsman into their sphere of chicanery. The Ombudsman appears to have naively permitted itself to be used as a puppet in this instance.

According to a 2013 dossier compiled by Labour, Parata’s record to responding to OIA requests is poor;

“Along with uncertainty whether the log is 100% accurate, it is also evident that she regularly responds to requests late with only just over half the total number of responses sent within the 20 day statutory period. “

Status of OIA Request

Following on from the suggestion from the Ombudsman’s office (10 December), I duly wrote to Minister Tolley the following day and put the same ten questions to her that I initially sent to Minister Parata.

That letter was acknowledged the same day (11 December) at 9.50AM.

At 11.36AM (11 December) I received a subsequent email from Minister Tolley’s office stating that my OIA “request has been transferred to Brendan Boyle, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development in line with section 14 (b)(ii) of the Act“.

Since then – nothing.

A month and a half  passed. On 21 January I wrote back to Minister Tolley’s office, who subsequently contacted the Ministry of Social Development. The following day, I recieved this unsigned, anonymous response from the Ministry;

With regard to your Official information Act request, it was transferred to the Ministry of Social Development on 11 December 2015. While it has not been our standard practice to acknowledge transferred requests (as the transfer letter is effectively an acknowledgement), we realise it would have been helpful if we had brought to your attention at the time the fact that the days between 24 December 2015 and 15 Janaury 2016 do not count as ‘working days’ as defined in section 2 of the Official Information Act 1982 (http://www.ombudsman.parliament.nz). Due to this holiday period, your response is due on 1 February 2016. We apologise for not informing you of this at the time that your request was transferred to us.

Somewhat bizarrely, when the anonymous author from MSD stated that “the days between 24 December 2015 and 15 Janaury [sic] 2016 do not count as ‘working days’ as defined in section 2 of the Official Information Act 1982 “, s/he then posted a link – not to the OIA legislation referred to – but to the Ombudsman’s Office.

When this blogger checked  “Section” 2 (actually, Part 2) of the Official Information Act 1982,  no reference was found to “the days between 24 December 2015 and 15 Janaury [sic] 2016 do not count as ‘working days’ as defined in section 2 of the Official Information Act 1982 “.

The Act simply refers to twenty working days, which, from December 14 (the next working-day following my OIA lodgement) extends to 13 January.

Accordingly, I wrote back to the Ministry (22 January);

I am in receipt of your email to me, dated 22 January 2016, whereby you claim that “the days between 24 December 2015 and 15 Janaury 2016 do not count as ‘working days’ as defined in section 2 of the Official Information Act 1982”.

I have checked Part 2 of the Act and can find no reference to “the days between 24 December 2015 and 15 Janaury 2016”. Please feel free to enlighten me as to where that proviso exists within the legislation.

By my calculation, twenty working days extends from 14 December to 13 January 2016, inclusive.

If you do not intend to abide by the statute, please advise me and I will lay a complaint with the Ombudsman’s office.

I will keep readers of this blog appraised of this on-going situation.

The shenanigans being played out by Ministers, ministeries, and sundry government departments and other state bodies makes a joke out of the Official Information Act.

National obviously has little regard for the law when it is inconvenienced. Which is ironic, considering right-wing political parties portray themselves as champions of Law and Order.

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National hoarding staying strong on crime

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John Key admits to his government flouting the law

Whether by an unintended slip, or by some machiavellian plan, on 16 October 2014, our esteemed Dear Leader admitted that his government abused the Official Information Act for purely political self-interest;

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"Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that's in our best interest to do that."

“Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that’s in our best interest to do that.”

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This disturbingly candid admission of the contempt held by National to the Act provoked condemnation from the Ombudsman, who a day later on TV3’s ‘The Nation‘, called it “cavalier and a disregard for the law“.

Even National’s allies within the  right-wing blogosphere at  Your NZ, Whaleoil, and  Kiwiblog were taken aback by Key’s dismissive hubris toward the Act.

Wakem said she would be ” having words with a few people, I suspect” – including Key.

Previous Criticisms of the Ombudsman

On 8 December 2015, the Ombudsman – Dame Beverley Wakem –  released a reporton an investigation into  the practices adopted by central government agencies for the  purpose of compliance with the  Official Information Act 1982“.

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eight_col_oiacomp

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In the Report’s conclusion, the Ombudsman stated;

“I commenced this investigation because of what I perceived to be growing concern
and criticism that government agencies were not complying with the requirements
of the OIA, nor acting in accordance with its principle and purposes when making
decisions about the accessibility of official information they held. Following a
comprehensive examination of how agencies have organised and resourced
themselves and currently operate in practice, I am satisfied that the OIA itself is
fundamentally sound, but it is not always working in practice.

On the positive side of the ledger, agencies are compliant with the OIA most of the
time and most government officials working within these agencies have a genuine
desire to ensure that they are compliant.” – p140

However, the report’s Conclusions also drew attention to Ministerial interference in responding to OIA requests;

“Where I have found that agencies are vulnerable to non-compliance with the OIA,
I have not found evidence of deliberate obstruction but rather the unintended
consequences of various attempts to:

[…]

try to meet the expectations of two masters ie, the public under the OIA and
the Minister under the ‘no surprises’ principle;

[…]

well-meaning practices that invite opportunities for ministerial/political
advisors to influence more than they ought to and sometimes on matters
where they have no legitimate place” – p141/142

The Ombudsman’s Conclusions then veered off onto a tanjeant shifting fault to the public, bloggers, and media. A  subsequent Dominion Post editorial was scathing;

What a shame, then, that retiring Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem is leaving office amid a cloud of justified controversy. Her recent remarks make her look less like a champion of freedom than a friend of the powerful.

It is truly extraordinary to hear her scolding journalists as “rottweilers on heat” and warning them not to annoy “innately conservative” officials who might then become “gun-shy”. These statements are what you would expect from a bad-tempered bureaucrat, not an ombudsman. 

It is not for the Chief Obudsman to tell anyone to be polite and humble when asking for information. It is most certainly not for her to suggest that officials can obstruct information – because that is all that being “gun-shy” can mean here – when they are irritated.

The Official Information Act requires the government to provide information unless there is good reason not to. The reasons for refusal are laid out in statute. The law must determine when the gate is open and when it is shut, not the manners of the applicant or the mood of the gatekeeper.

If Wakem had made these statements when first appointed, they would be good grounds for seeking her resignation. They show a fundamental misunderstanding of her role and an establishment mentality.

The Ombudsman also complained of a lack of public and media submissions to her Inquiry;

“I note that the public were less forthcoming in responding to the surveys, and I was
unable to determine precisely why that was. It could be interpreted many ways –
from a loss of confidence in the OIA and the work of my Office, to a demonstration
that a significant proportion of the public believed with so much official information
now being made available on a regular basis, the OIA was working for them…” – p143

Which is an astounding suggestion to make, considering that  for the 2013/14 financial year,  the number of complaints to the Ombudsman was the third-highest ever. The Ombudsman could easily have based it’s report – even partially – using information gleaned from complaints of  non-compliance and tardiness from Ministers and Ministries.

This blogger suggests that the a lack of public submissions could well be attributed to a perception that the Ombudsman’s office is powerless in the face of a government that has been unrelentingly secretive and autocratic.

Indeed, recall that in their 10 December statement to me, the  Ombudsman’s office suggested;

 “…the Minister’s Office advised that the information you are seeking is likely to be held by the Minister for Social Development. Accordingly you may wish to put your request to the Minister for Social Development, Hon Anne Tolley, directly by emailing: a.tolley@ministers.govt.nz”.

It is simply not the role of the Ombudsman’s Office to be adopting a “helpful” position for a government minister.

Otherwise, the perception – whether rightly or wrongly – is that the Office of the Ombudsman has been captured by ministers and agencies of this government.

As NZ Herald reporter, David Fisher, said on 15 October 2014;

“In the 25 years I have worked as a journalist, there have never been so many questions, or such a loss of faith, all at once.”

Dark Clouds Looming

Up to now, the two weapons-of-choice employed by National Ministers and our Esteemed Dear Leader has been Delay and Defer. For many journalists and bloggers, waiting  long periods for a response is not uncommon. By then, news stories have become ‘stale’ and public interest has moved on.

Recently, a new  weapon in government and bureaucratic armoury has been unveiled; charging for OIA requests.

On 18 January, the Dominion Post published an editorial describing how the Reserve Bank had begun to demand compensation for information;

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Editorial A tax on official information is a tax on democracy itself

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The editorial said, in part;

The Reserve Bank has started a very bad trend by deciding to charge for most Official Information Act responses. The bank says it made this decision last October, but the world only learned of it last week, when the bank invoiced a Fairfax reporter. This is not the right way to make or reveal such a momentous decision.

The bank’s move is in important ways an undemocratic act. The Act makes information available as of right to the country’s citizens; it reverses the previous legal assumption that the government’s information is secret. Information is power, and the act provides power to all.

Charging for researching and providing that information puts a barrier in the way and is an obstacle to the exercise of what is now a vital democratic right. No doubt the bank will point out that the act allows for some charging for costs. But the bank’s policy will institutionalise what has until now been a patchy thing.

This means that ordinary citizens could now face a hefty fee for information. The invoice sent to Fairfax business reporter Richard Meadows was for an estimated $651. A fee of that size would be a serious obstacle for an individual. If OIA requests routinely cost this much it would also be a problem even for large media outlets.

In the Ombudsman’s 2015 report,  “Not A Game Of Hide And Seek“, Wakem quoted an earlier  Law Commission Report from 2012, which stated;

“…access to official information is an important tool for opposition parties to be
able to scrutinise government policy, and that parliamentary research units should
not usually be charged for reasonable requests. However, there is no reason why
unreasonable political requests should be completely exempt. Voluminous and
unrefined requests from parliamentary research units can cause a great deal of
expenditure of resources. The charging mechanism should be available to agencies
as a defence mechanism in appropriate cases, regardless of the source of the request.
The public interest waiver should provide the flexibility for appropriate charging of
MPs and incentivise these requesters to ensure that requests have a sufficient public
interest basis in order to qualify for a waiver of charges.” – p96

Wakem agreed, saying;

“I agree with this approach and believe it should apply to all types of requesters.
The OIA does not provide for an outright exemption based on the identity of a requester
or their role in its charging provisions. Nor did I find many members of the media
who believed they ought to be exempt from charging, although some worked for
organisations that had a policy not to accept any charge for the provision of official
information. “

The Law Commission and Ombudsman’s Office ignore the cold hard political reality that politicians and and their bureaucratic minions will not recognise “niceties” of what constitutes “a sufficient public interest basis”.

To be be blunt; if politicians can get away with it – expect them to do it.

The Reserve Bank’s policy of charging for OIA requests is a thin-end of a wedge. It is a test to see if they can get away with it. Other government agencies, Ministries, and Minister’s will follow with predictable succession.

Only expensive legal action could over-turn a charging policy – and few individuals and organisations have pockets deep enough to take on the State.

In a pathetic defense of his organisation, Reserve Bank deputy governor, Geoff Bascand, said;

The Reserve Bank has established a policy on when it will charge for responses to Official Information Act (OIA) requests that has drawn the ire of some critics.

Far from it being an obstacle in the path of freedom that The Dominion Post editorial claimed (January 18), the policy is a common, fair and reasonable response to a marked growth of OIA requests.

I’d like to explain our rationale, and what the policy means for requesters – most of whom will likely not be charged.

Our approach is consistent with the Official Information Act and meets the bank’s commitment to transparency.

Garbage. This is a naked attempt by the RBNZ to stifle transparency, not promote it. Any assertion to the contrary is a ridiculous attempt at ‘spin’ from a not-very-clever spin-doctor working for the Bank.

The irony is that the RBNZ is attempting to charge for information that rightly belongs to us, the tax-payer. That information was gathered  using taxpayer-funded resources and by taxpayer-funded public servants.

It is not private information – it belongs to us, the taxpayer.

Politicians, bureaucrats,  the Ombudsman’s Office, and Mr Bascand, would do well to reflect on this salient fact.

Conclusion

This blogger will vigorously pursue the OIA lodgedment with  Minister Parata; who passed it on to Minister Tolley; who passed it on to the Ministry for Social Development, requesting answers to the following questions regarding National’s Food in Schools programme;

1. How much has been spent on the programme since 28 May 2013?

2. Is the funding still set at $9.5 million, over a 5 year period from 2013 to 2018?

3. How many schools are part of the programme?

4. It was initially available in decile 1 to decile 4 schools. Higher decile schools would be able to opt in from 2014. How many other, higher decile schools have opted into the programme?

5. Are there any figures as to how many children are participating in the programme? If so, what is that data?

6. Is there a time limit as to the length of time a school can participate in the programme?

7. Have any schools been declined participation in the programme? How many? For what reason?

8. Are Sanitarium and dairy cooperative Fonterra still participating in the programme? Have any other companies joined in?

9. Does the KickStart programme in any way affect a schools allocated budget?

10. Have any Charter Schools requested to join the programme? If so, how does this affect their funding?

More than ever, I am curious what the answer(s) will be.

And I do not intend paying a cent for it.

From Radio NZ’s Mediawatch

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Information watchdog’s probe into political meddling - Radio NZ - mediawatch(Alt.link)

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“Information is the currency of democracy and my Office will play its part in ensuring the OIA is not devalued.”

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References

Red Alert: The right to know – Hekia Parata

Parliament: Official Information Act 1982

Radio NZ: PM admits Govt uses delaying tactics

TV3 The Nation: Transcript – Beverley Wakem

YourNZ: Disgraceful Key admission on OIA delays

Whaleoil: Key and PM Office told to stop farting around with OIA requests

Kiwiblog: Chief Ombudsman to review OIA compliance

Ombudsman:  OIA Report Not A Game Of Hide And Seek

Dominion Post: Editorial – Chief Ombudsman shows how not to be an information watchdog

Radio NZ: PM’s admission concerns Ombudsman

NZ Herald: David Fisher – OIA a bizarre arms race

Dominion Post: Editorial – A tax on official information is a tax on democracy itself

Dominion Post: Reserve Bank – Charging for official information a ‘reasonable’ response

Additional

Radio NZ: The watchdog and the rottweilers

Radio NZ: Mediawatch – Information watchdog’s probe into political meddling (alt. link)

Other bloggers

The Jackal: Back to school for Hekia Parata

The Jackal: various

The Daily Blog: Hekia speaks with forked tongue

No Right Turn: An attack on our democracy

Previous related blogposts

Parata, Bennett, and Collins – what have they been up to?

Karma for Key?

Hekia Parata breaks law – ignores Official Information Act

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 25 January 2016.

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Media stories of the Week: Police Commissioner Mike Bush on dubious police practices

6 December 2015 2 comments

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Every so often, the mainstream news media do their job well, and little nuggets of insights are revealed…

Also on TV3’s ‘The Nation‘, Police Commissioner Mike Bush was interviewed by veteran journalist-broadcaster, Lisa Owen.

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commisioner mike bush - the nation - 28 november 2015

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Some of the responses she elicited from the country’s most senior policeman were revealing.

Issue 1: The troubling case of Dr Jarrod Gilbert

On Radio NZ’s ‘Morning Report‘, this country woke to disturbing news that NZ Police hierarchy were censoring academic researchers and preventing the use of collated data if it did not meet with their “standards”.

As reported by Radio NZ;

Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury, said police had told him he could not get simple data on where incidents such as assaults happen because of his association with gangs.

He said that association should come as no surprise.

“I entered the field as an academic and did the two largest studies on gangs this country’s ever seen.

“So in effect I’m being banned from studying crime, because I hang out with criminals, it’s just insane.”

Dr Gilbert said that Police insisted that academics sign a contract binding them to produce reports that did not have “negative results”;

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police contract with academics

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police contract with academics (2)

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police contract with academics (3)

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Acknowledgement for above screen-shots: Jarrod Gilbert’s Blog

Most reasonable people would be aghast that a State agency – especially one with uniquely coercive powers such as the NZ Police – would think it acceptable behaviour to impose such restrictions on free academic research. Such controls are rarely seen outside of autocratic regimes such as dictatorships, one-party states, and governments operating under war-time conditions and/or a State of Emergency.

What might have been appropriate under Pinochet’s Chile; Gaddafi’s Libya, or the former East German Democratic Republic, has been playing out under our noses in good old, laid-back, “She’ll Be Right“, New Zealand.

As Dr Gilbert’s story went from Radio NZ to the rest of the msm (temporarily setting aside stories relating to Ritchie McCaw’s knighthood and latest hero-worship of our esteemed Dear Leader), and criticism of the Police’s authoritarian stance drew more criticism,  Deputy Chief Executive [of? for?] Strategy Mark Evans defended his organisation’s quasi-Stalinistic controls over the free-flow of information.

At 1.40pm on the same day Dr Gilbert went public, Deputy Chief Executive Strategy Mark Evans issued this statement;

Police places a high value in academic research which provides evidence to improve Police policy and practice. It is essential that our policing strategies and tactics are effective and focused. Having an evidence-based approach towards policing enables us to understand ‘what works’ best, and then put that into practice. Police has strong links with academic institutions and individual researchers who are involved in a range of research to encourage debate on various aspects of police work.

Police receives a large number of individual requests for academic research – 37 applications in 2014.  While Police already publishes large volumes of data, such research requests often involve access to confidential information, which can include personal identifiers. There can also be a substantial resourcing commitment involved in providing such information. 

To ensure appropriate decisions are made about such applications there is a robust process in place to ensure that they have benefits for Police, are of good standard, meet our privacy obligations and are feasible in relation to the demands on Police time and resources.   This process includes a Police vetting check on individuals involved in a research application.

The research agreement which academics are expected to sign with Police sets out our expectations, including that research is accurate, balanced and constructive.  Police reserves the right to discuss research findings with the academic if it misunderstands or misrepresents police data and information. Police also reserves the right to prevent further access to Police resources if a researcher commits any breach of the agreement.

Our priority is always to ensure that an appropriate balance is drawn between the privacy of individuals and academic freedom.  To date Police have not prevented access by any academic under this clause in the agreement.

While we will not discuss specific matters regarding Dr Gilbert, we can say that we have communicated to him that further consideration will be given to our decision regarding the security clearance (police vetting) check.

END

It is as if the Police have never heard of the Official Information Act 1982.

However, this was far from the “END” as Evans put at the conclusion of his statement.

Three days later, Commissioner Mike Bush was forced to accept that Police policy was out of step with a supposedly open, transparent, and democratic society. On ‘The Nation‘, interviewed by Lisa Owen at National Police Headquarters (?), Bush stated;

“So, what’s happened in the last week has caused us to really have a look at our policy. It was possibly fit for purpose at one stage. It’s not fit for purpose now. We work in a dynamic environment. So that’s being reviewed as we speak, both the policy and the decision that was made in respect of Dr Jarrod Gilbert, and I’m sure you’ll hear more about our review of that next week. But it’s also important to point out that the intent of that was to keep people’s information private, and that’s why we have some policies and rules.

[…]

Yeah, that’s why we will be changing the wording of that policy and what it’s about, because the frustrating thing is it’s the opposite that’s true in terms of where we’re at at the moment. We’re wanting to build great relationships with academia because we’re determined to be a very evidence-based police service.”

It took three days, but hopefully the Police hierarchy have realised that this is not former East Germany or Pinochet’s Chile, and they are not the Kiwi-equivalent of the Stasi.

What should concern all New Zealanders, regardless of political persuasion, is not that the Police made this outrageous policy blunder – but that they thought it was appropriate in the first place.

It is my contention that Police actions in this area are symptomatic of a wider malaise in our country. Attitudes held by National, and others in positions of  State power, believe that State Authority over-rides freedom of information; civil liberties; and that the public are beholden to politicians and their state agency employees.

On 10 March 2014 John Key stated in an interview on ‘The Nation‘;

“You’ve got to think, we’ve been way more transparent than any other Government that’s been around…”

When a Prime Minister has to try to convince us that his government is “transparent”, there is a problem.

We shouldn’t have to be convinced if it’s true.

Issue 2: Police Budget

Lisa Owen raised the issue of funding for the Police. She asked;

“Okay. Well, you’re monitoring these detainees, and that is an example of the more jobs that you are being asked to do without extra funding, because, if you look at the figures, you’ve had to suck up, I think it is, about 300 million in new costs in the past four years without real budget increases. So where are you trimming to make ends meet?”

Commissioner Bush replied;

“So, the first thing is we have had an increase in our budget by 41 million recently.”

As this blogger reported on  30 October;

On top of which, using the Reserve Bank inflation calculator, it is fairly simple to determine that the Police budget has not kept pace with inflation.

Research going back to 2008 shows that Vote Police has  dropped in dollar-terms (using 2008 Dollars as the base), and in 2015/16, the Police will be allocated $1.422 billion (in 2008 dollars) – compared to the $1.445 billion in 2008.

‘Vote Police’ – Budgets 2008-2015 – Total Annual and Permanent Appropriations

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vote-police-2008-2016

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* Using Reserve Bank NZ Inflation Adjuster from Budget Month/Year Q2 dollars into 2008 Q2 dollars. (http://www.rbnz.govt.nz/monetary_policy/inflation_calculator/)

The figures do not support the claims made by the Commissioner of any increase to the Police budget.

Which raises the question why Commissioner Bush would make a statement that, as the country’s “top cop”, he must know is factually incorrect?  Claiming that the Police budget has increased when actually the opposite has occurred sounds like he is covering for the current National government.

Which is a distinct possibility recently raised by another blogger, Curwen Rolinson;

There is very much a two-way relationship between the New Zealand Police and the New Zealand National Party. They each work together to cover each other’s backs and to make the other partner look good. They’ve got it down to such a fine art that they don’t even necessarily need to sotto-voce instruct one another to make this happen. When something happens that might embarrass the Police, certain parts of the Government will step in or look the other way to ensure it doesn’t untowardly scandalize them (or, heaven forbid, actually provide serious impetus for change). Equally, when the Police turn up something that might take some of the luster out of the Government’s sails, they’ll deliberately hide, lie and obfuscate in order to make sure the “right” outcomes come out for their pals. Not necessarily as an organization, mind – occasionally as isolated individuals or as small-scale units … but the effect is all the same.

Admitting that the Police budget has suffered ongoing cuts (after inflation is factored in) would definitely “take some of the luster out of the Government’s sails” – something embarrassing to a party that has made a fetish out of being “staying strong on crime“.

Commissioner Bush’s statement on the Police budget was revealing, but not quite as he intended.

Issue 3: ISIS/terrorism

On 24 February 2015, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee announced that National would be sending troops to Iraq to “train Iraqi soldiers” in their fight against ISIS.

Chipping in for his mate, Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, said at the time;

“The New Zealand government has been very clear that in addition to deploying non-combat troops to help train Iraqi forces, we also need to take steps to combat ISIL at the diplomatic level and provide humanitarian support to those displaced by the fighting in the region.”

The deployment was roundly condemed by Labour, Greens, Maori Party, Peter Dunne, and NZ First, saying that National had no mandate to commit troops to Iraq, even for so-called “training” purposes.  Maori Party co-leader, Te Ururoa Flavell was prescient when he issued this warning in Parliament;

“So let us be under no illusion that by sending training troops and other personnel to the region we are not effectively raising our heads above the parapet. This decision increases the chances of Aotearoa being a target for rogue ISIS attacks.”

Nine months later, and ISIS has discovered New Zealand’s involvement in American adventurism in the Middle East. As TV3 News  reported;

Islamic State (IS) has vowed to destroy New Zealand in a chilling new propaganda video.

The New Zealand flag appears among 60 others in the slick video published by the group’s media arm.

In the video, New Zealand is named among its allies as part of the “coalition against Islamic State”.

New Zealand made the list because of humanitarian and military aid efforts abroad.

The screen-shot from the ISIS propaganda video clearly shows our flag, “Old Blue”, encircled in red;

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global coalition flags - new zealand

source

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It seems that the similarity of our flag to Australia’s may not be much use to us now. So much for “camouflage”.

On ‘The Nation‘, Commissioner Bush attempted to make reassuring noises to quell any public disquiet on potential terrorist attacks;

“We are very practised and very ready and very well trained if something does occur in New Zealand, so we’re really ready to respond.”

Which is not very reassuring at all.

If a terrorist incident does occur in New Zealand – the first since one of our “allies” bombed an unarmed vessel in one of our harbours in 1985 – responsibility for any injuries or deaths can be sheeted home to one man, and one man alone: John Key.

The responsibility for putting our nation in harms way rests solely on his head.

Issue 4: Lies, Damned Lies, and Bogus Statistics

The story of bogus statistics broke in the Herald in July, last year;

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Police made burglaries vanish - greg o'conner - national - crime statistics

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It took journalist Eugene Bingham two years to uncover information requested under the Official Information Act;

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Two-year search for 'ghost crimes' truth - greg o'conner - national - crime statistics

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When the Herald finally received the information they had requested, a startling item of incriminating nature was discovered;

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Calls for 'ghost crimes' inquiry after police note revealed - commissioner bush

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A damning internal police document has emerged that appears to show senior officers discussed not releasing embarrassing details about the “ghost crimes” controversy in which 700 burglaries vanished from official crime statistics.

[..]

The memo, known within police as a job sheet, states John Tims had been advised by then-deputy commissioner Bush and assistant commissioner Allan Boreham not to respond to the [OIA] request. Brady [see image above] wrote: “(Tims) had been advised to let the request sit and when and if (3rd Degree) followed up with a request the matter would be addressed then.

“The direction to me was to not respond to the Official Information Act request and file the file as it is.”

[…]

However, Brady, when contacted by the Herald on Sunday, stood firmly behind his job sheet. “The job sheet records my conversation with Superintendent Tims and that’s about as far as I’m going to go with it. I think the job sheet is self-explanatory.

“My job sheet is my job sheet. It’s the record of my conversation and I have no other comment to make about that document.”

Lisa Owen pointedly asked Commissioner Bush;

“One last thing I want to ask you about before I go, Commissioner. Last night I spoke to the ombudsman about a complaint that relates to you. It’s an allegation that you instructed staff to let an Official Information Act request sit to stall the release of information relating to doctored burglary stats. So I want to give you the opportunity to answer to that. Did you do that?”

Commissioner Bush replied;

“Absolutely not. For obvious reasons, I kept myself well away from everything that was going on in that space because I was the district commander at the time. So that’s absolutely not correct, and, yeah, I distance myself for obvious reasons.”

Ms Owen persisted;

Owen: Okay, well, I’m wondering why a police officer would record in his job sheet that you did do that, then. Is that person lying when they say that you did, and I’ve got the job sheet here if you needed to refresh your memory. The job sheet says , ‘The direction to me was not to respond to the Official Information Act request and file the file as it is.’ Have you seen it? I’ve got it.

Bush: I have seen it, yeah.

Owen: Yeah. So was that officer lying or…?

Bush: That officer is absolutely incorrect. That did not occur.

Owen: So why would that officer write that on a job sheet?

Bush: I have no idea, but I can say it’s absolutely incorrect.

Commissioner Bush’s facial expression and voice tone  is worth considering when he denies instructing an investigating police officer to withhold responding to an OIA request.

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I leave it to the viewer to make his/her own determination on the matter.

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References

Radio NZ: Morning Report – Jarrod Gilbert

Radio NZ: Police block gang expert’s data access

Dr Gilbert’s Blog: The Police research contract

New Zealand Police: Deputy Chief Executive Strategy

New Zealand Police: Police statement on academic research applications

TV3: The Nation – Interview with Prime Minister John Key

TV3: The Nation – Interview with Commissioner Mike Bush

TV3: The Nation – Interview with Commissioner Mike Bush (Transcript)

Treasury: Budget 2008

Treasury: Budget 2014

Treasury: Budget 2015

Radio NZ: Brownlee outlines Iraq deployment

Radio NZ: Iraq deployment condemned

Parliament: Ministerial Statements — Iraq—Deployment of Military Personnel

Fairfax media: NZ flag shown in Islamic State video on group’s enemies

TV3 News: NZ on list of Islamic State targets in new video

NZ Herald:  Police made burglaries vanish

NZ Herald:  Two-year search for ‘ghost crimes’ truth

NZ Herald: Calls for ‘ghost crimes’ inquiry after police note revealed

Previous related blogposts

Weekend Revelations #3 – Greg O’Connor and criminal statistics

Other bloggers

The Daily Blog: Is There A “Special Relationship” Between The National Party And NZ Police?

The Standard: Jarrod Gilbert is tilting at windmills

The Standard: Jarrod Gilbert 1 – Windmills 0

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pinochio

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 30 November 2015.

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State houses – “wrong place, wrong size”?

6 November 2015 5 comments

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1949 state house in Taita

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Information released under the Official Information Act (OIA) suggests that National’s oft-repeated claim that around “one third” ( or 22,000)  of  state houses are in the “wrong place and wrong size” is not supported by Housing NZ’s own figures.

Various ministers, including our esteemed Dear Leader,  have indicated that up to “a third” of state houses are “in the wrong place or wrong size (or ‘type’)“.

The “wrong size/wrong place” claim is the argument being used by National to advance a major sell-off of Housing NZ properties.

On 1 November, 2014, Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett said on TV3’s ‘The Nation’,

“It’s about being smart in what we’re doing. So you just look at us having the wrong houses, in the wrong place, of the wrong size..”

On 2 December, 2014, the Minister responsible for Housing NZ, Bill English expressed his agreement with the proposition of one third of Housing NZ homes being in the “wrong size/wrong place” ;

“Yes. As recently as just last month Housing New Zealand issued a press release that said: ‘around one third of our housing stock is in the wrong place, wrong configuration or is mismatched with future demand’.

[…]

… in fact, a third of them are the wrong size, in the wrong place, and in poor condition.”

On 28 January this year, John Key announced in his “state of the nation” speech;

 “Around a third of Housing New Zealand properties are in the wrong place, or are the wrong type to meet existing and future demand.”

Housing NZ currently  “manages 67,245 homes” (as at 30 June 2015). When Key, and other National ministers refer to “around a third of Housing NZ properties”, simple arithmetic translates that fraction into 22,190 homes being the “wrong size/wrong place” .

On 17 September I lodged OIA requests to Ministers Nick Smith, Paula Bennet, and Bill English. Only English was prepared to answer – and even that took  42 days (30 working days) to eventuate after a reminder was emailed to the Minister’s office.

In a response eventually received on  29 October,  information in the form of a  chart -“Stock reconciliation taking into account impaired properties as at 31 January 2013” – was attached;

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minister english oia response 29 october 2015 - HNZ housing stock - wrong place wrong size

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In two columns headed “Right Place, wrong home” and “Wrong Place“, the respective figures add up to 13,560. This constitutes a little over half of the “22,000” that is being bandied about by National.

I  specifically asked Bill English;  “How many [state houses] are the “wrong size and in what manner are they the “wrong size“? “Do they have too many rooms; too few rooms?

English replied;

“In general terms, Housing New Zealand has a shortage of smaller two bedroom homes and
larger family homes and a surplus of three bedroom homes, with the exception of Auckland
where there is a demand for homes of all sizes. The type or configuration of particular
properties may also affect demand making them difficult to let.”

English totally ignored the direct question “How many [state houses] are the “wrong size“. He either does not know, or is unwilling to admit the number. “In General terms” is not a specific quantity.

Furthermore, English says that “Housing New Zealand has a shortage of smaller two bedroom homes and larger family homes and a surplus of three bedroom homes, with the exception of Auckland where there is a demand for homes of all sizes.”

Unsurprisingly, the 2014/15 Housing NZ Annual Report confirms the high demand for housing in Auckland;

“Across the country we also have too many three-
bedroom properties, while demand has grown for smaller
one- or two-bedroom homes or for much bigger homes.
Demand for homes in the Auckland region is high and
more Housing New Zealand homes are needed.” (p22)

Yet, the chart referred above (“Stock reconciliation taking into account impaired properties as at 31 January 2013“) states that there are 8,180 houses in the Auckland region that are supposedly “Right Place, wrong home”  and a further 420 that are in the “Wrong Place” – 8,600 in total.

This would appear to contradict the Minister’s assertion that “there is a demand for homes of all sizes” throughout Auckland.  Both cannot be right.

This contradiction is further compounded by the fact that, as of 30 June, there were 2,267 people on the waiting list in the Auckland City area;

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auckland city housing nz waiting list 30 june 2015.

Even where houses have been the wrong size, Housing NZ has been undertaking a programme to add extensions, or entire new, smaller dwellings on larger sections;

Overcrowding is an issue that affects many of our
tenants’ health and wellbeing, especially in Auckland,
where there is high demand for larger homes. Our
bedroom extensions programme is helping to meet
demand from the social housing register in Auckland
by converting three-bedroom homes into four- and
five-bedroom homes. Adding an extra one or two
bedrooms (and another bathroom where necessary)
means more of our tenants are living in appropriately
sized and healthier homes. During 2014/15 we
completed bedroom extensions to 247 homes.

Our existing land in Auckland will also house more small
families, couples and single people in need. We are
building new two-bedroom homes on Auckland sections
that are big enough to have another dwelling. During
2014/15 we built an additional 107 two-bedroom units
on existing Housing New Zealand sections, which also
included making improvements to the existing homes
where these were required.“(p23)

If we substract the 8,600 homes in the Auckland region, from Housing NZ’s original estimate of 13,560 (see above chart), this leaves 4,960 houses “wrong place/wrong size”.

Nearly five thousand homes supposedly in the “wrong place/wrong size” category in Auckland – and there are still 2,267 people on Housing NZ’s waiting list in Auckland City. How is that feasible?

I further enquired from English; “Could you please explain what the term “wrong size, in the wrong place” actually refers to? Where are they situated that are considered the “wrong place“?”

English replied;

In 2011 Housing NZ carried out an assessment of it’s future projected stock
requirements for the purpose of forward planning, based on its future use of intention of its
properties and informed by demand forecasting. This assessment was not intended to reflect
current demand at a point in time…

[..]

The analysis identifies some properties as being the wrong home, not specifically the wrong
size.”

It is worthwhile noting English’s comment that “Housing NZ carried out an assessment of it’s future projected stock  requirements for the purpose of forward planning,  [but] this assessment was not intended to reflect current demand at a point in time”.

The apparent purpose? According to English’s 29 October statement to me;

This relates to the number of bedrooms that a property has and also includes
properties that are wrongly configured to meet demand for social housing.

“Social housing” is National’s code for private providers.

The 2011 Housing NZ  assessment of it’s “future projected stock” appears to have been designed to meet the needs of “social housing”, aka private providers.

In respect to answering my question “Where are they situated that are considered the “wrong place”?”, English’s response was vague and lacked any informative value (as did many of his answers);

“A property being in the wrong place refers to the location of the property in relation
to demand. On a regional basis, there are areas of general low demand. However, some of
Housing New Zealand’s properties may be in locations with high concentrations of state
housing or existing social issues that may contribute to them being difficult to let or
result in a high turnover of tenants.”

There were no geographical locations; no cities or towns; no suburbs given. The statement in itself is meaningless twaddle with a vague reference to “some of  Housing New Zealand’s properties may be in locations with high concentrations of state housing or existing social issues”.

Where these “wrong places” might be is anyone’s guess.

My follow-up question – “How many areas have been designated “wrong places”?” – was ignored entirely.

In an effort to drill down and assess where houses might be in the “wrong place”, I asked English; “where houses are in a particular “wrong place”, how many people are on HNZ waiting lists in those same “wrong places”?

The purpose of this question was straight-forward. Where demand for housing is high in a given region, it seems inconceivable that any properties in that same region would be in the “wrong place”. Auckland being a prime example.

I wanted to know how many other regions had high numbers on their waiting lists – whilst also having houses in the “wrong place”.

According to the above chart, the following regions designated as having houses in the “wrong places” have the following numbers of houses attached to them;

Auckland: 420

South Island: 740

Central North Island: 870

Lower North Island: 1,740

“Community Group Housing”: 100

Total: 3,870

Because of the (deliberate?) vagueness of English’s response, we have no way of knowing where, for example, the South Island’s supposed 740 houses are located in the “wrong place”.

It is difficult to understand why the Minister could not be more precise.

If the “wrong size/wrong place” issue is real, then National must have hard data, with supporting numbers, identifying where state houses are located  in the “wrong place”. This information should be on-file; readily accessible; and easily released to interested parties.  Then again, my OIA lodgement to Minister English took 30 working days (including one “request” for an extension) to complete.

Perhaps such data does not exist.

According to Housing NZ itself, every district within it’s authority has people on their waiting list;

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Housing NZ waiting list - by region - by bedrooms needed

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Source

Source

There is no district recording zero-need.

I asked English; “What replacement houses are being built to replace those that are the “wrong size”, and how many rooms will they have? More? Less?” andWhere Housing NZ houses are in the “wrong place” – will new State houses be built in exactly the same place?”.

The Minister responded;

Housing New Zealand’s Asset Management Strategy provides for the redevelopment of its
land holdings in order to align the typology, location and size of its portfolio with demand.
As a result, it is building more two, four and five bedroom properties. Where there is low
demand, Housing New Zealand will look to sell surplus properties and reinvest the proceeds
into providing homes in areas of high demand.

As outlined above, Housing NZ has a current programme of adding bedrooms to existing three bedroomed houses, and, where the land is big enough, adding two bedroom houses onto an existing built-up section.

English’s reference to selling “surplus properties” is troubling, as we are still none-the-wiser where such properties exist. Especially when all Housing NZ districts have people on waiting lists.

As for English’s assertion that “Housing New Zealand will look to sell surplus properties and reinvest the proceeds  into providing homes in areas of high demand” – Paula Bennett was not willing to give that assurance on 1 November last year, speaking on Q+A.

Which leads on to the last question I put to the Minister; “If HNZ houses that are in the “wrong place” are sold/given away to community organisations – what will make those houses suddenly become in the “right place”?”

Because if it’s in the “wrong place” when owned by Housing NZ – why would it suddenly be in the “right place” owned by someone else?

The Minister’s response was baffling;

The Government has no plans to offer Housing New Zealand properties that have been
identified as being in the ‘wrong place’ to community housing providers. In Tauranga and
Invercargill for example, the areas identified for initial potential transfers of social
housing properties from Housing New Zealand to community housing providers, MSD’s purchasing
intentions anticipate stable demand. Following a transfer, any new provider would receive
both the properties and a contract with MSD to continue to provide social housing.”

That statement appears to be at complete variance with this undated Beehive document, headed “Social Housing Reform Programme – Media Qs and As“;

SOCIAL HOUSING REFORM PROGRAMME – Media Qs and As

“Around one third of the $18.7 billion Housing New Zealand portfolio is in
the wrong place or of the wrong type to meet this need.”

[…]

“To help community housing providers grow, there will be sales of
Housing New Zealand properties and we will involve these providers
in the redevelopment of Crown land…”

[…]

“Details will be determined after national engagement, including
with community housing providers and iwi,over coming months.
Providing we can achieve better services for tenants and fair
and reasonable value for taxpayers, we will look to sell
between 1,000 and 2,000 Housing New Zealand properties over
the next year.”

[…]

“15. Will properties being sold be tenanted, and if so what
happens to the tenants?

In most cases where houses transfer to a community housing
provider, the properties will have tenants. The new owners
will continue providing social housing with the income-
related rent subsidy.”

[…]

“Look at selling between 1,000 and 2,000 Housing New Zealand
properties for continued use as social housing, run by approved
community housing providers. These providers might buy
properties on their own or go into partnership with other
organisations lending them money, contributing equity, or
providing other services.”

The document specifically refers to the sale of state housing, that are “the wrong place or of the wrong type“,  to community service providers.

And in Parliament, on 24 March, Bill English himself made reference to the sale of “wrong place” Housing NZ properties to Community providers;

“In the first place, Housing New Zealand has an ongoing sales
policy, and often it is selling houses that we do not need or
that are in the wrong place, or some of them have just become
unsuitable to be lived in and cannot be upgraded at reasonable
cost. In respect of the transactions that are coming up over
the next 6 months or so, there is a process of testing what
the real values of those houses are. For instance, many
community providers believe those houses are not up to date
on maintenance, and therefore are overvalued when they are
valued as if they can be sold for the best price on the day
in the location that they are in. Those are exactly the things
we are having discussions about over the next few months.”

[…]

“Neither property developers nor community housing providers
are compelled to buy houses off the Government. If they do
not want to do that—if they do not want to manage the tenants
or own the stock, which may be the wrong size in the wrong
place—then they certainly do not have to do that.”

Which creates doubt over English’s assertion that  “the Government has no plans to offer Housing New Zealand properties that have been
identified as being in the ‘wrong place’ to community housing providers”.

So if Housing NZ properties that are in the “wrong place” are sold to community housing providers – as confirmed by Minister English on at least two occassions – what will transform those “wrong place” houses into “right place” houses?

Very little of National’s “wrong size/wrong place” proposition makes sense – unless viewed through the lens of raising revenue by way of partial asset-sales.

That is the only thing that makes any sense of this issue.

The only reason that the “wrong size/wrong place” meme has worked for National thus far is that very few (if anyone) has delved behind the phrase to check it’s validity.

Perhaps it is time this issue was scrutinised more carefully?

The apparent fudging of Bill English’s response to my OIA request, in itself, speaks volumes.

Postscript

On 29 October, I wrote to Bill English expressing my dissatisfaction with his response to my OIA lodgement;

from: Frank Macskasy <fmacskasy@gmail.com>
to: “B English (MIN)” <B.English@ministers.govt.nz>
date: Thu, Oct 29, 2015 at 8:01 PM
subject: Re: State houses – wrong place, wrong size

 

Thank you for your letter dated 29 October.

I refer you to two questions which you have not answered in my OIA request;

4. Where are they situated that are considered the “wrong place”?

5. How many areas have been designated “wrong places”?

Please advise if you do not intend to answer those questions, and I will lodge a formal complaint with the Office of the OImbudsman.

Regards,

-Frank Macskasy

Appendix1

In 2014/15 Housing NZ “returned” $321 million to the government’s Consolidated Fund. This comprised of $118 million in tax; $96 million in interest costs, and $107 million as a dividend. (2014/15 Annual Report, p24)

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References

TV3: The Nation – Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett

Parliament: 6. State Housing—Suitability of Housing Stock

Fairfax media: John Key Speech – Next steps in social housing

Housing NZ: 2014/15 Annual Report

Housing NZ: Register by priority and Auckland local board – 30 June 2015

Beehive.govt.nz: Social Housing Reform Programme – Media Qs and As

Parliament Today: Social Housing Reform — Objectives

Other Blogs

The Jackal: More homelessness under National

Previous related blogposts

Government Minister sees history repeat – responsible for death

Housing Minister Paula Bennett continues National’s spin on rundown State Houses

Letter to the Editor – How many more children must die, Mr Key?!

National under attack – defaults to Deflection #1

Another ‘Claytons’ Solution to our Housing Problem? When will NZers ever learn?

National’s blatant lies on Housing NZ dividends – The truth uncovered!

National recycles Housing Policy and produces good manure!

Our growing housing problem

National Housing propaganda – McGehan Close Revisited

Housing; broken promises, families in cars, and ideological idiocy (Part Tahi)

Housing; broken promises, families in cars, and ideological idiocy (Part Rua)

Housing; broken promises, families in cars, and ideological idiocy (Part Toru)

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Housing NZ - state housing - over crowding

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 1 November 2015.

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Questions over Serco’s “independent” monitors and it’s Contract with the Crown

4 August 2015 4 comments

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serco logo d

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Questions have arisen regarding the  supposed “safe-guards” Monitors at Mt Eden Prison, and at least one aspect of the Serco-Corrections Dept Contract.

According to section 21.2 of the contract between Corrections and Serco, between two to three Monitors were tasked with;

(a) compliance with this agreement;

(b) the accuracy of the Contractor’s invoices or reports relating to the Services;

(c) processes and procedures of the Contractor or any subcontractor relevant to the provision of the Services;

(d) anything else relating to the Services.

Also according to the contract, the monitors were ostensibly appointed by Corrections, though whether they are paid by Corrections or Serco depended on “… if the Service Audit reveals that the Contractor has breached this agreement” (p21.3), in which case “then the Contractor must pay the Crown’s costs in relation to the Service Audit“.

However, on 2 May, TV3’s ‘The Nation’ interview between Lisa Owen and Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga had this interesting exchange;

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Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga on The Nation

Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga on TV3’s ‘The Nation‘, 2 May 2015

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Owen: Okay, well, who’s monitoring their performance? Who makes sure that they reach their targets and that they’re assessing themselves fairly?

Lotu-Iiga: Okay, they are actually more scrutinised than any public prison. They’ve got two monitors— there will be two prison monitors in each of the prisons.

Owen: Who employs those monitors? Who employs the monitor in the prison?

Lotu-Iiga: There will be— If I can just finish, there will be an ombudsman. They will be subject to complaints—

Owen: So the monitor in the prison, Minister, just to be clear, the monitor in the prison; who employs the monitor?

Lotu-Iiga: My understand is that the monitors are based in the prisons, but they report to the Department of Corrections.

Owen: Who employs the monitor and pays their wages, Minister?

Lotu-Iiga: Well, I don’t have those facts on me, but they do report—

Owen: Well, I do. The person who employs the monitor— the person who employs the monitor is the company, Serco. They employ the monitor, and pay their wages.

Lotu-Iiga: Okay, can I just finish—

Owen: So how is that an independent analysis?

Lotu-Iiga: Well, they’re reporting to the Department of Corrections. We have the ombudsman as well. We have the chief inspectorate, if I can say, the chief inspectorate is based in the Department of Corrections. They will be also subject to the scrutiny and the questioning and the examination through the chief inspectorate. That is no different, can I say, to any other prison.

Owen: But you’ve just told me that they’re going to have a higher level of assessment monitoring—

Lotu-Iiga: Well, they do.

Owen: —by saying that they’ve got this person in the prison. But they’re actually employed by the people who run the prison.

Lotu-Iiga: They’re employed by Serco, but they are reporting back to, as I’ve just said, someone in the Department of Corrections. So they’ve got not only two monitors, they’ve got the ombudsman, they’ve got the chief inspectorate and also the office of the Auditor General. That’s no different to any other prison in this country.

Whoever employs (employed?) the Monitors at Mt Eden, they do not appear to have forwarded Incident Reports of violence and other criminal activity taking place at the facility. The prompt forwarding of Incident Reports is also a prime feature of the contract between Serco and Corrections;

22.2 Incident reporting requirements:
If an Incident occurs, the Contractor must report the Incident in accordance with the requirements set out in Schedule 5.

[…]

Schedule 5
Appendix 1
Timecode1

Immediate notification to “Incident Line” (04) 473 1745 anytime day or night, followed by IOMS incident report (or in the event of IOMS being unavailable an E.08.01.F1 Notification of  incident form (which is contained in the Department PPM)) within 2 hours of the incident being advised.

The prevalence of violence (including alleged  “dropping”); “fightclubs”;  injuries; at least one death; drug use; home-brew production*; contraband such as cell-phones; and now three prisoners arrested for involvement in gang-related drug activities – does not seem to have impacted on Mt Eden’s high ranking on Corrections’ Prison Performance Table – the most recent being for twelve months ending March this year;

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Mt Eden prison - prison performance table - corrections department - serco

(Hat-tip: Martyn Bradbury, for above chart)

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Since April 2014, Mt Eden has rated “Exceptional” in previous performance grades. It’s rehabilitation rates at 96.75% – which in itself is odd, as Mt Eden is also a Remand Prison, and 676 out of 952 prisoners (as at 31 December 2014) are on remand; awaiting trial;  and have not been convicted of any crime.

It is fairly obvious that as more and more stories of violence and other criminal activity emerge, Serco’s statistics cannot be taken at face value.  As the Herald’s David Fisher reported on 27 July;

Serco had previously been rated at the highest levels of safety despite the allegations of violence inside Mt Eden prison. It was contracted to carry out its own performance management reviews – and was also responsible for telling the Department of Corrections when its pay should be docked.

One means by which assault figures could be ‘fudged’ by Serco was illustrated by Fisher in the same report;

Over the past week, cases have emerged of prisoners being transported from the Serco prison to other institutions arriving with serious injuries.

The Weekend Herald reported a case in March this year in which a prisoner sent to Manawatu prison was found to be needing urgent hospital care when he arrived.

There are  six questions that beg to be answered by the various inquiries currently under way;

1.

Why did the Monitors at Mt Eden not report incidences of violence – including one death – as well as other criminal activity? Monitors were tasked with reporting untoward events such as assaults to the Corrections Department. Why was this not done so?

2.

Considering the assaults, drug taking, and other other instances of illegal activity taking place at Mt Eden, how could that facility gain a high “Exceptional” rating on the Prison Performance Table? Do Corrections Dept officials, and the Corrections Minister have faith in the accuracy of Prison Performance data? And why did the Monitors not challenge those high rankings?

3.

Why did the Monitors not report that injured prisoners were being transferred out from Mt Eden to other correctional facilities? Why did they not advise the Chief Executive of Corrections (Ray Smith) that by transferring out injured prisoners, that this would inevitably result in favourable statistics for Mt Eden.

4.

Who were the Monitors directly responsible to; Serco or Corrections?

5.

Was there a deliberate, organised policy of silence, between Serco, Corrections Dept, and Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga’s office, to suppress reports of violence and other criminal activity at Mt Eden, because otherwise disclosure of the truth would damage the credibility of this government to pursue it’s agenda for further privatisation of services?

6.

There is provision in the contract between Serco and Corrections for a good faith relationship between the parties;

SCHEDULE 1
WORKING TOGETHER

2.1
In recognising the significance of the relationship between the Crown and the Contractor from an operational and contractual perspective, the parties agree to work cooperatively and collaboratively.

The parties will:

(a) ensure that their communications are open and honest;
(b) proactively raise, and respond to, issues with a view to prompt and efficient resolution;
(c) take a constructive and open minded approach to points of difference; and
(d) treat each other with respect at all times.

The degree to which Serco has with-held information from it’s partner – the Crown – should be seen by many as being far from “open and honest“; has failed to “proactively raise, and respond to, issues“; and certainly not treated the Crown “with respect at all times”.

So why is Schedule 1 not grounds to break the contract with Serco?

Not only has Serco apparently circumvented the spirit, as well as the intent, on their contract with Corrections, but it has apparently connived to suppress information, as Kim Vinnell reported for TV3 on 24 July;

There are fresh revelations private prison operator Serco went out of its way to make sure its squeaky clean record stayed that way.

In Mt Eden prison where inmates are king, are guards who say they’re understaffed and afraid.

“It’s about time we all spoke out and say what it’s actually like,” says one guard, who spoke to 3 News on the condition of anonymity.

He says when prisoners or guards break the rules, management would rather official reports tell a different story.

“You’re told to state the facts, but to leave all other things out of it.

“They go missing off the system several times, or they get edited and you’re not told that they’re edited.”

The Government says it didn’t know what was going on, despite the fact three prison monitors – who are Corrections employees – have been there since Serco’s first day.

Under the Corrections Act, prison monitors must report to the chief executive at least every four months. The sole purpose of their job is to report on prison management and any concerns they may have about the prison’s running.

The government claims “it didn’t know what was going on“.

In which case, not only was the Correction Minister’s office kept in the dark – but also the entire Corrections Department. Is this feasible?

It is inconceivable that National Ministers did not know the depth of problems afflicting Mt Eden and Serco.

In which case, this government was actively complicit in a cover-up, to protect it’s credibility with voters – and to  safeguard it’s privatisation agenda.

This scandal may yet engulf the government and bring it down, forcing an early election.

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* Note: Home-brew involves fermentation to produce alcohol. The process creates carbon dioxide and strong odours. How is it that staff at Mt Eden could not smell fermentation processes within the facility?

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Addendum1

Email to Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, on 28 July;

Kia ora Minister  Lotu-Iiga,

I am querying the appointment on Monitors for Mt Eden Prison, which up till yesterday (27 July), was managed by Serco.

Can you please advise  regarding the following;

1. Who employs the Monitors? Is it Serco or the Corrections Department?

2. Who do they report to; Serco or the Corrections Department?

3. Who pays their salaries; Serco or the Corrections Department?

4. Are the Monitors responsible for providing information to Corrections, which forms the Prison Performance Table? If not, who provides that information?

5. Are the Monitors still employed at Mt Eden? If not, why not?

6. Have the monitors made any Incident Reports to Corrections, as required Prison under the Management Contract for Mt Eden Corrections Facility (para 22.2). If so, what Incidents were reported and when?

Please respond asap to this OIA request, as this is a matter of some urgency.

A response from  Minister  Lotu-Iiga’s Private Secretary acknowledged  my email on the 29th, advising;

As the information you have requested is held by the Department of Corrections, I have transferred your request to the Department. This decision is in accordance with section 14 of the Official Information Act 1982.

The Department is required to provide you with a response within 20 working days of receipt of my transfer letter.

It is likely that Corrections Dept will use a provision within the Official Information Act to request an extension to the 20 Working Day time-limit.

Addendum2

Schedule 11 (Information Requests) of the Serco-Corrections Dept Contract, stipulates;

Official Information Act (OIA) requests

These can often be requested by journalists wishing to probe deeper into issues they believe the public may be interested in. Requests under the OIA are managed within the statutory timeframes described in the legislation – this is generally 20 Working Days for a response.

OIA requests, by law, must be facilitated as soon as possible. The “20 Working Days” option is a maximum – not a target response time to work to.

Part 2, Section 15 of the Act clearly and explicitly states that responses to OIA requests “shall, as soon as reasonably practicable, and in any case not later than 20 working days after the day on which the request is received” be “given or posted to the person who made the request notice of the decision on the request“.

It is unclear how the Serco-Corrections Dept Contract complies with requirements contained within the Official Information Act to provide responses “ as soon as reasonably practicable“.

Addendum3

Considering that the Schedule 11 (Information Requests) of the Serco-Corrections Dept Contract, appears to contravene the spirit, intent,  and letter of the Official Information Act (Part 2, Section 15), I wrote to the Office of the Ombudsman to seek their advice;

Kia ora,

I understand that your Office has been looking into a possible actions by various government Ministers to willfully and deliberately delay replying to OIA requests. Part 2, Section 15 of the Official Information Act states that responses to OIA requests;

“…shall, as soon as reasonably practicable, and in any case not later than 20 working days after the day on which the request is received” be “given or posted to the person who made the request notice of the decision on the request“.

I have recently been looking into the Prison Management Contract for Mt Eden Corrections Facility   that applies between the Corrections Dept (acting on behalf of The Crown) and a private company, Serco.

Schedule 11 (Information Requests) of the Serco-Corrections Dept Contract, stipulates;

Official Information Act (OIA) requests

These can often be requested by journalists wishing to probe deeper into issues they believe the public may be interested in. Requests under the OIA are managed within the statutory timeframes described in the legislation – this is generally 20 Working Days for a response.

It is my contention that the Contract’s reference to “Requests under the OIA are managed within the statutory timeframes described in the legislation – this is generally 20 Working Days for a responseis counter  to the spirit, intent, and letter of the Official Information Act.
The Act clearly states that OIA requests should be actioned “as soon as reasonably practicable” and that “20 working days” is a maximum time limit, not a target time-frame to work toward.
In your view, is the Contract accurately reflecting the Official Information  Act?
If not, how does that impact on the legality of the Contract itself?
I would welcome your advice on this matter.
This blogger will keep readers advised on further developments.

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References

Corrections Dept: Prison Management Contract for Mt Eden Corrections Facility

Scoop  media:  The Nation – Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga

NZ Herald: Head Hunters raids – Police investigating former Mt Eden prison guard

Corrections Dept: Prison Performance Table

NZ Herald: Serco docked $565k over violence in prisons

Corrections Dept:  Prison facts and statistics – December 2014

TV3: Mt Eden prison guards ‘understaffed, afraid’

Legislation.govt.nz: Official Information Act 1982

Previous related blogposts

The closure of three prisons and loss of 262 jobs – five issues for the National govt

“The Nation” reveals gobsmacking incompetence by Ministers English and Lotu-Iiga

Letter to the editor – If Serco was the answer, what was the question?

On private prisons

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corrections - serco - private prisons

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 30 July 2015.

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