Labour plans privacy complaint against Bennett

Social Development Paula Bennett was unapologetic over releasing two beneficiaries' income details. Photo / Doug Sherring
Social Development Paula Bennett was unapologetic over releasing two beneficiaries' income details. Photo / Doug Sherring

Ministers and departments need to consider the Privacy Act when they release personal information, Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was today unapologetic for releasing the income details of two solo mothers who criticised Government policy, saying she did it to round out the story.

Jennifer Johnston and Natasha Fuller went public last week with their criticism over the scrapping of the training incentive allowance (TIA).

Ms Bennett's office yesterday released details of the Government benefits that the solo mums received - Ms Fuller received $715 net a week and Ms Johnston $554.

While she did not ask the women's permission to release the information, Ms Bennett felt they had taken the matter public by talking to the news media, establishing a website and writing a blog.

She made her decision based on guidelines on the Privacy Commission website, Ms Bennett told reporters.

In Parliament she confirmed she had not sought officials' advice, but said it was something she would not be making a practise of.

Ms Shroff did not say whether she believed a breach had occurred, but said ministers and departments needed to consider the Act before releasing details publicly.

Departments needed in some cases to consider whether they should give a minister information.

"When an issue is raised publicly, it will often require the minister to make a careful judgment about how far he or she can go in response."

Ms Shroff said if she received a complaint the office would consider it.

The Labour Party intends to lay a complaint with the privacy commissioner against Social Development Minister Paula Bennett for releasing income details of two beneficiaries.

Ms Bennett released the income details of solo mothers Jennifer Johnston and Natasha Fuller after they publicly criticised the Government's decision to scrap the training incentive allowance (TIA). Ms Fuller received $715 net a week and Ms Johnston $554, Ms Bennett's office said.

Justifying the unusual action - government ministers seldom comment on individual cases - Ms Bennett said she did it to round up a one-sided story. She felt the women were misleading the public by releasing "selective information".

"I think most New Zealanders will see that actually they've been given a real fair go."

While she had not sought the women's permission she felt they had taken the matter public by talking to the news media and writing on the internet.

Ms Bennett based her decision on guidelines on the Privacy Commission website but in Parliament she revealed she not sought legal or officials' advice.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff, in response to media queries, said ministers and departments needed to consider the Privacy Act when they released personal information.

Labour Party MP Charles Chauvel said he would lay a complaint.

Ms Shroff did not say whether she believed a breach had occurred, but would consider any complaint made.

"When an issue is raised publicly, it will often require the minister to make a careful judgment about how far he or she can go in response," Ms Shroff said.

Considering a complaint she would look at "whether the person involved had authorised a minister to talk about their case publicly, or whether their authorisation can be inferred from their statements in going public with their case".

Another consideration was whether disclosing the information directly related to the purposes for which the information was obtained.

Prime Minister John Key told reporters he was "comfortable" with the women's information being released and accepted Ms Bennett's justification.

Labour has accused Ms Bennett of using bullying Muldoon-style tactics to silence welfare policy critics.

Labour deputy leader Annette King said beneficiaries had the same rights as others and the women's concerns about training were unrelated to benefits to help them raise their kids.

Facing questioning from Mr Chauvel in Parliament, Ms Bennett said she had not sought any advice other than checking the website.

Mr Chauvel said it was disturbing Ms Bennett had not done that before releasing personal information which he said was invasive and unnecessary.

"The minister's decision was clearly not taken in good faith and I believe it breaches several of the Information Privacy Principles contained in the Privacy Act.

"Even the most basic taking of advice from officials or a lawyer would have made this clear to the minister."

Mr Chauvel said Ms Bennett's actions were "an attempt to intimidate and silence people who are disappointed the minister has allowed access to the Training Incentive Allowance for sole parents - which she herself used - to be severely curtailed".

He questioned her judgement.

Mr Chauvel, in Parliament, also suggested Ms Bennett may have got her facts wrong about what benefits the women got, asking her if she checked information provided about payments under the Child Support Act was right.

Ms Bennett said she had relied on her ministry.

"I can't present information that I do not have."

Ms Bennett confirmed she had received the TIA when a beneficiary.

"I have never made a secret of the fact I have been on and off the benefit and that I did receive the TIA.

"What I can tell those people who are looking at tertiary study is that it's not going to be easy but if they back themselves, and this Government is backing them as well, then they can get off the benefit. They may even end up a cabinet minister."

- NZPA

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