Minister accused of breaking privacy law

By Claire Trevett

Social Services Minister Paula Bennett defends herself during question time in Parliament yesterday. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Social Services Minister Paula Bennett defends herself during question time in Parliament yesterday. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is facing a complaint under the Privacy Act for disclosing the amounts two solo mothers have received in benefits - but last night she remained unrepentant.

One of the mothers said she will complain to the Privacy Commissioner after Ms Bennett provided the Herald with details of the state support she and another had received. The Labour Party also plans to lodge a complaint with the commissioner.

Ms Bennett disclosed the women's weekly incomes after the pair - Natasha Fuller and Jennifer Johnston - objected to the Government's decision to stop the Training Incentive Allowance for solo parents doing tertiary level study.

Natasha Fuller, said she would complain and the Privacy Commission said it had received a number of calls from people concerned about the disclosure.

Any investigation is likely to also look at whether the Ministry of Social Development had breached privacy rules for passing the information to the minister.

Ms Bennett said her decision to reveal the extent of the help the state already provided the women was justified because they had repeatedly used their personal circumstances to speak out.

She denied she was trying to bully the women, saying she valued the right to have such debates. She was willing to meet the two mothers and described them as "gutsy" for arguing their corner. However, she said the episode was "a lesson" for anyone wanting to speak out that they should reveal the full facts of their situation.

Ms Bennett came under concerted attack in Parliament. Green MP Sue Bradford said her behaviour was "disgusting" and Labour's Annette King described it as "reminiscent of the days when Muldoon was in power and anybody that put their head up to speak out against Government policy was hit over the head with a political sledgehammer".

Prime Minister John Key backed Ms Bennett. He said he was not involved in authorising the release of the information but was "comfortable" with her decision. The women had put their stories into the public domain and he did not believe an apology was needed from Ms Bennett.

"What would be helpful was if all that information had been in the public domain in the first place so people can judge the merits of it," he said.

The two mothers yesterday said they felt bruised by the experience, especially the public reaction on talkback and comments on news media sites criticising beneficiaries.

Ms Johnston was undecided about complaining but saw little point in doing so. She said she was angry at the minister's actions and did not believe she had given consent "implied or otherwise". In hindsight, she possibly would not have spoken to the media "but I do believe this is a righteous fight".

She believes Ms Bennett was trying to intimidate her by releasing the details.

"I think it was a very rude thing for her to do," Ms Johnston said.

"She's targeted me in this way and insinuated in her statements to the press that I have misled and withheld information for my own ends."

Ms Johnston said she was grateful for the $553.95 a week she received but it was not enough to live on and fund a tertiary education as well.

"I think the whole point of this was to intimidate us out of exercising our democratic right to protest the Government's decision," she said on Radio New Zealand.

"I'm not asking for a handout. By all means make it recoverable, make it a loan, let us pay it back or increase the amount that we can apply to StudyLink for."

Ms King also challenged Ms Bennett to reveal the income she herself had received as a solo mother in the early 1990s.

Ms Bennett has refused to do so, saying she had made no secret that she had relied on government support, including the allowance for university study, but did not believe her circumstances 15 years ago were relevant to the current case.

Ms Bennett has told Parliament that she checked the Privacy Commission website before releasing the personal details of two solo-mothers.

An example on the Commission's website bears some striking parallels to Ms Bennett's disclosure.

Under the heading Checklist for Ministers and departmental officials, the following example is given: "Someone goes to the media about a Department's decision to stop their benefit and is quoted as saying it shows the unfairness of the policy."

The Commission advises:

"The Minister could comment in a way that discloses no further information than is already in the report (for instance explaining how the policy is designed to apply and why it says what it does). If the individual has misrepresented the facts on which the Department's actions were based, the Minister could say that there are some undisclosed facts which give a somewhat different picture and, if the individual would authorise release of further details from the Department's files, the Minister would be happy to oblige. Again, these facts could be set out in a letter to the individual and the media duly informed."

* Did Paula Bennett breach privacy rules?

The guidelines Ms Bennett was relying on when releasing the details:

GROUND ONE
Implicit consent:

"Authorisations do not have to be in writing. They may be given orally or inferred from statements made ... the minister need only believe, on reasonable grounds, that the individual has authorised the disclosure."

GROUND TWO
Where a person has released personal details to make allegations and the minister wishes to add further detail to respond.

"By releasing a large amount of personal information to the media, the individual is taking the risk that unfavourable publicity could result. If the minister releases only information which is relevant to the issues raised by the individual, that person may not be able to claim that any particular harm was caused by the ministers' disclosure rather than by the individual's own disclosure."

Source: Privacy Commission checklist for ministers and departmental officials.

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA

- NZ Herald

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