Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

State house agency spends big on travel

Annette King.  Photo / Supplied
Annette King. Photo / Supplied

Housing New Zealand officials spent up large on overseas travel last year, including $30,000 to send the chief executive, Dr Lesley McTurk, to a five-day leadership course in London. It also flew six senior staff members to Australia to attend the same meeting.

Labour MP Annette King described the travel bill as extravagant at a time when Housing NZ was making people redundant.

An overhaul of the state housing department is due to take effect tomorrow. It includes closing several local offices and replacing them with a call centre for tenants - a change expected to see 70 jobs go, adding to the 92 redundancies since 2008. It is expected to save $8.2 million over three years.

Housing NZ's overseas travel bill for the 2010/11 year totalled $231,600 - almost $100,000 more than the $141,500 in its budget, although $62,500 was for travel in the next financial year.

Ms King also criticised a $5 million increase in spending by Housing NZ on contractors and consultants.

Since 2008, staff numbers had dropped by 108 to 1136 to meet the Government cap on bureaucrats. However, private contractors and consultants had increased from 274 to 459 and the total spending on those consultants increased from $28.6 million to $33.9 million.

Ms King said it was typical "smoke and mirrors" to cut core staff and send the work into the private sector.

She said that given financial constraints, there was no need to send multiple staff to the same overseas event. It was possible for one or two to go and report back to the others.

"Sending six people to Australia or three to an event in London seems excessive in a day when we have much better communication systems."

She also questioned the need for Dr McTurk's trip to Oxford, saying that while nobody would begrudge managers having extra training it was a lot to spend at a time of redundancies.

"We were told times were tough for government departments, but somehow there was enough money in the Housing NZ budget for a $30,000 trip to Britain for the CEO. What did she get out of the trip and how did it enhance her ability to be the CEO?"

Dr McTurk is one of several public service figures to have done the five-day course at Oxford University's Said Business School, which costs £11,000 ($21,320) a pop and £600 for accommodation - a total of about $23,000. Last year Waitemata District Health Board head Dave Davies did the course and disclosed $30,000 of expenses, including flights. Others in the past have included State Services Commission head Iain Rennie, deputy commissioner Sandi Beatie, and the Department of Labour's Todd Krieble.

Dr McTurk's travel adds to the $34,000 for two senior managers to travel to Britain last year for a conference with software company Northgate, and then to Canada. Their trip was just months before both quit to set up a private consultancy which is now in partnership with Northgate.

A Housing NZ spokesman said the department could not provide a full response until tomorrow.

The agency said the rise in consultants over the past year was mainly due to the Christchurch earthquake and the $80 million IT upgrade Housing NZ was undertaking, which required some short-term, specialised workers.

Its highest-paid contractors last year were Deloittes ($3.7 million), PricewaterhouseCoopers ($1.1 million) and KPMG ($600,569). Other contractors included Colmar Brunton, paid $93,500 for "tenant satisfaction survey", and Methcon, which got $54,000 to train tenancy managers on methamphetamine awareness.

TRAVEL LOG

60 overseas trips by Housing NZ officials.

* May 2011: CEO Lesley McTurk to Britain for Oxford leadership course. Cost: $29,145.
* June 2011: Senior staff Stephen McArthur and Roy Baker to England and Canada. Cost: $34,885.
* July 2011: Three staff to London to meet "demand forecasting experts". Cost: $16,281.
* September 2011: Two to USA for performance excellence awards study trip. Cost: $26,656.
* Trips with multiple staff members

Six to Sydney for "leadership event" ($7247); four to Sydney re Northgate software ($9913); four to Melbourne for housing course ($5779); four to Melbourne for peer review of Tamaki Development ($2906); four to Sydney re Northgate again ($4323); three to Sydney for Hobsonville development planning ($4774).

- NZ Herald

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