by Kevin Hague
There’s nothing quite like a ministerial resignation to send political insiders and journalists into a frenzy. There are big issues arising from Nick Smith’s interference in Bronwyn Pullar’s ACC claim. Such as:
- Are the four letters that Nick Smith wrote concerning Ms Pullar’s claim the extent of his interference in her claim, or is there more?
- Did he interfere in other claims also?
- What effect did Nick Smith’s interference have on ACC? As everyone has pointed out, an ACC case manager seeing a letter from the Minister on the file is highly unlikely to be unaffected, and perhaps his involvement explains why two senior managers fronted up for a meeting with Ms Pullar.
New Zealanders are entitled to have confidence that there will not be political interference in ACC claims. We cannot have that without a full and independent investigation of these and other matters. On Tuesday, I wrote to the Office of the Auditor-General asking her to initiate such an investigation. I’d also be happy if some other form of independent inquiry (retired Judge, Commission etc) were used, so long as it occurs.
But let’s remember that Nick Smith’s political interference was uncovered because of arguably the greatest breach of privacy in New Zealand history, with confidential information relating to almost 7,000 people being leaked. These confidentiality issues also raise extraordinarily important questions, such as:
- What was the purpose of this spreadsheet that had these 9,000 records on it?
- Given ACC’s history of inadvertently sending confidential information to the wrong people, why had ACC not developed robust data management procedures, such as data encryption or dis-aggregating names from other information?
- How did the information get sent to Ms Pullar?
- Isn’t that a really amazing coincidence that random chance saw this highly confidential and potentially damaging information being sent to Ms Pullar specifically?
- Why was the privacy breach, which occurred in August 2011, not detected until Ms Pullar told ACC about it in December 2011?
- Is it actually credible that the two senior managers who met with Ms Pullar in December then did not mention the privacy breach to more senior figures? (as a former senior public servant myself, I can tell you that this does not ring true at all: their strong instinct, and correct procedure, would be to report this risk up the chain of command. I would be very surprised if the CEO and Chair were not informed.)
- Why was no action taken to repair and manage the privacy breach once Ms Pullar did not return the information she had been sent? (according to ACC’s account that is.)
- If ACC senior managers (the same ones who apparently did not report it to their superiors) felt the organisation was being blackmailed in December, why did they wait until now to raise this with Police?
- Why was information about Sensitive Claimants routinely distributed to ACC managers who are not part of the Sensitive Claims Unit?
- Why were the staff, who called those whose privacy had been breached, often described by these claimants as not understanding the impact of the news, insensitive, and unresponsive, in an organisation for which privacy ought to be an absolutely central consideration?
So, some issues for the Privacy Commissioner to look at as well. I wrote to her last Wednesday asking her to investigate and I’m pleased she is going to do so. However, the scope of her inquiry will be limited to privacy issues. The Privacy Act will not empower her to investigate non-privacy matters like political interference, a fact which is apparently lost on the Prime Minister.
And there is another set of issues again. The reason Bronwyn Pullar and her support person Michelle Boag were meeting ACC in December was to discuss a list of more than 40 breaches by ACC of the law, its own rules and good process. The existence of such a list will hardly be a surprise to many ACC claimants. There are still many good people working in the ACC system, and the organisation itself is fundamentally sound, but it is changing for the worse and good people are being squeezed out. A culture of public service is being replaced by what I call a culture of disentitlement: claimants are seen as the enemy, and the prime directive has become minimising expenditure rather than meeting needs. For well over a year I have been calling for an independent review of the reinterpretation ACC has conducted of its Act, which has seen large numbers of people denied cover because of assertions of “degeneration” or “pre-existing condition” and rapidly increasing numbers of ACC decisions being overturned by review or in the Courts.
Sounds like we need three inquiries.