Ministry axes health groups' lobby deals

By KEVIN TAYLOR political reporter

Lobbying clauses have been removed from five Health Ministry contracts with non-Government organisations and suspended in a sixth after a review criticised the ministry for "unacceptable" contracting.

Act MP Rodney Hide revealed in Parliament last month that some anti-smoking groups had received taxpayer money to lobby MPs over smoking legislation.

The review of about 1400 ministry contracts with non-Government organisations found six where the ministry's health promotion role had "become entangled with the advocacy and lobbying role" of the organisations.

"This is unacceptable under public service standards and could compromise the political neutrality of the ministry," said the report of the review headed by former State Services Commissioner Don Hunn.

It recommended writing guidelines for contracts with such organisations.

Mr Hide told the House last month that three groups had received five contracts totalling $2.1 million which required them to lobby MPs.

A controversial private member's bill from the Labour MP for Rotorua, Steve Chadwick, which will ban smoking in bars and restaurants is expected to be passed next week.

Mr Hide said the Hunn review was a whitewash, and the politicisation of the public service should worry all New Zealanders.

"It doesn't matter what the bill is - a bunch of officials have decided to fund groups to lobby MPs."

Mr Hide was irritated that the investigation was ordered by the Health Ministry instead of being done by the State Services Commission and the Auditor-General.

"It staggers me that here we have a complete breach of the public service code of conduct but no one is held to account," he said.

Director-General of Health Karen Poutasi agreed with the review's findings, but said the situation arose from concentration on achieving health goals rather than a deliberate involvement in politics.

The review recognised that the enthusiasm and energy of public health staff had coloured the approach to contracting with non-Government groups.

"It's quite inappropriate that we should have done this," she said.

"It was overlooked that the ministry cannot properly contract for lobbying - if it can't lobby itself it can't properly contract for lobbying."

But Dr Poutasi said staff who entered into the contracts or did not change them had no "malevolent purpose". She said the value of the lobbying elements in the contracts, most of which dated from the late 1990s, was less than $500,000.

Health Minister Annette King said the review made recommendations the ministry had already started implementing.

Some of the clauses in dispute could be found in contracts that went back to the 1990s and had remained each time the contracts were renewed.

Associate Health Minister Damien O'Connor said he was pleased the report had clarified the ministry's approach to contracting with non-Government organisations.

Altered contracts

* Anti-smoking lobbying clauses in contracts between the Health Ministry and Action on Smoking and Health, Aparangi Tautoko Auahi Kore, Smokefree Coalition, Alcohol Healthwatch and Manukau City Council have been removed.

* A clause in a contract with the Obesity Action Coalition has been suspended because it was "marginal".

* A review found the clauses were unacceptable under public service standards and could compromise the ministry's political neutrality.

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