Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Earthquake Commission failed to comply with privacy act

Aerial view of earthquake damaged houses in Burwood, Christchurch. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Aerial view of earthquake damaged houses in Burwood, Christchurch. Photo / Geoff Sloan

The Earthquake Commission has failed to comply with its Official Information Act and Privacy Act obligations by dragging its feet over information requests from quake affected homeowners, say Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem and Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff.

In a report released today the two leading government watchdogs acknowledge the "extraordinary context'' in which the EQC is working, "but EQC's customers in Canterbury are living in the aftermath of a major natural disaster''.

"Access to information is not just a "nice to have'' that gives way to more important priorities in disaster recovery. It is a basic right that enables individuals to engage effectively with government agencies, and to have a proper say in decisions that profoundly affect their lives.''

The report finds EQC's backlog of information requests rose dramatically as the result of an abrupt increase in an already high volume of information requests - from 50 to 70 new requests per week in August-October 2012 to more than 160 per week in November-December 2012.

By May 2013, EQC was routinely breaching access to information requirements and advising people there would be a 6-7 month delay before the agency could respond to requests.

The report notes that the increase in information requests in late 2012 was sudden and unprecedented, "but it could have been anticipated, prepared for and possibly prevented''.

"In particular, part of the reason for the high volume of requests is that people were not able to obtain information through other means.

"If appropriately detailed information were available via the website, if call centre staff were able to provide adequate answers to more questions, and if EQC automatically sent scopes of work to customers sooner after they were completed, then the need for formal information requests would be greatly reduced.''

The report makes 13 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by EQC which is now taking steps to implement them.

Recommendations to lift EQC's game on information requests include:

- streamlining the processing of claim file information requests;

- improving the quality of information and service provided by call centre staff;

- considering the automatic provision of property reports to owners; and

- improving website delivery of information.

- NZ Herald

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