David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Health info release 'laundered'

Ministry officials warned to deal differently with requests from public, media and politicians.

Annette King has labelled the scheme an "OIA laundering process" designed to keep information from the public. Photo / File
Annette King has labelled the scheme an "OIA laundering process" designed to keep information from the public. Photo / File

Health officials are on alert for "politically sensitive" information being sent to taxpayers, with instructions to run potentially "controversial" details past minister Tony Ryall, according to official documents.

The Ministry of Health process for handling Official Information Act requests has been called "laundering" after different ways of treating requests from the public, media and politicians were revealed.

The Office of the Ombudsman is preparing to investigate the way the public service is dealing with the act, which was designed to increase the public's access to government. It comes after complaints about information releases rose to record levels.

The Herald sought the ministry process showing warnings for officials about releasing "politically sensitive or controversial" details to the public. It has six possible checks for releasing information before it was sent to Mr Ryall's office, where the minister and staff were given five days to review it.

When people from Parliament sought information, the number of steps increased to eight, and to nine when the OIA request came from media.

The Herald was provided the details of the process after making an Official Information Act request. The paperwork would have been bundled together by one health official with another reviewing the response.

The information could then be sent to the ministry's legal team for an opinion before being made ready for release. The process then checked whether the information was sought by the media and if so it should be sent to the public relations unit where the "response is checked and approved by the Comms [communications] team". It stated those preparing the release had to "negotiate the OIA response with the Comms team".

It was finally reviewed again by the director-general's office before being sent to Mr Ryall's office for up to five days.

In a letter responding with the documents, deputy director-general of health Barbara Phillips said: "The ministry's OIA processes are managed within the procedural framework enclosed."

The ministry's chief legal advisor Phil Knipe said the process was designed to make sure requests were handled in an "accurate, high quality, timely" manner.

In relation to media requests, he contradicted the process by saying the communications unit did not have the power to "approve" releases of information.

Opposition health spokeswoman Annette King has labelled the scheme an "OIA laundering process" designed to keep information from the public.

- NZ Herald

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