Minister under fire again on privacy

By Derek Cheng

Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A request for a cash settlement to resolve a privacy complaint against Cabinet minister Paula Bennett suggests the politician could have been at fault, a top privacy lawyer says.

John Edwards, who has been a privacy lawyer for 20 years and helped set up the Privacy Commissioner's Office in 1993, says Ms Bennett may have breached privacy rights again in disclosing details of the request.

Ms Bennett revealed the contents of a letter she received last week from the commissioner's office, when asked by the Herald if there had been any progress on the matter.

In the letter, solo mother Natasha Fuller asked for a $15,000 cash settlement and an apology for the hurt and humiliation she had suffered.

Last year, she criticised the Government's cutting the Training Incentive Allowance.

Ms Bennett responded by revealing how much money Ms Fuller - and another woman critic - received in welfare payments. Ms Fuller then complained to Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff.

This week, Ms Bennett did not comment on whether the letter indicated she had been in the wrong, as it was an issue for the commissioner.

But Mr Edwards said the letter showed Ms Bennett had overstepped the mark. If there had not been a privacy breach, the commissioner would have dismissed the matter.

"The Privacy Commissioner has conveyed the complainant's suggestion for settling the matter. If there was no basis for the complaint, she wouldn't do that. The fact that the commissioner is still involved suggests that the initial action probably was a breach of the Privacy Act.

"And in disclosing the correspondence, the minister has done it again. Releasing that material is arguably a fresh breach of privacy.

"Whether it is or not, it is an aggravating factor of the initial breach."

Ms Bennett said she disclosed the contents of the letter because she wanted a transparent and fair process.

"I was really clear with the Privacy Commissioner those weeks ago, when the last issue came up, that I wanted a transparent process, because I felt that my integrity was being questioned.

"So when this came up I thought that if I am asked directly, then I am giving an honest answer."

She said she had not done anything to hurt Ms Fuller and did not regret disclosing the information.

But Mr Edwards said her actions were "entirely inappropriate".

"Those mums weren't putting their incomes into the public domain. The information the minister released had nothing to do with the issues the women were discussing publicly."

He said $15,000 was at the high end of a privacy settlement, but not an "outrageous amount".

Ms Bennett has always said that a cash settlement was never on the table, and criticised Ms Fuller for earlier saying she did not want any money.

Ms Fuller declined to comment, but it is understood she changed her position after legal advice that a cash settlement was not unusual.

Ms Bennett said she would not pay a cash settlement. Prime Minister John Key said she had acted honourably and appropriately throughout, and no money should change hands.

- NZ Herald

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