The government minister responsible for disability issues will not intervene in the case of an autistic man held for five years in an isolated wing of a mental health unit, and defended the unit's use of seclusion.
Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, the associate Minister of Health, was quizzed yesterday in Parliament about the case of Ashley Peacock, who is allowed outside for only 90 minutes a day and sleeps in a room with just a mattress and a urine bottle.
Ashley has lived in the "de-escalation" wing of the Tawhirimatea unit run by Capital & Coast District Health Board since 2010, a tiny area the Ombudsman and Human Rights Commission have repeatedly said he needs to be removed from.
When staff order it, Ashley can also be locked in his room for long periods, including a two-and-a-half year stint with less than 30 minutes out each day for exercise.
Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague asked Mr Lotu-Iiga if he would intervene in Ashley's case, which the associate minister said he could not do as it was illegal.
Mr Lotu-Iiga said the Peacock family were working with the health board and the ministry on a "transition plan", and that while he had sympathy for them, the case was complex and safety was paramount.
The minister also accused the opposition of "using the case as a political football" to advance their interests.
Asked why he would not intervene despite the Ombudsman, Human Rights Commission and the National Intellectual Disability Care Agency all advocating his release as soon as possible, Mr Lotu-Iiga said it was wrong to say Ashley had been in seclusion for five years.
He argued Ashley was only locked in his room for 68 hours last year, which was just 1.5 hours a week. Speaking outside Parliament's debating chamber, he said "those rates [of seclusion] aren't that high."
Mr Hague said discussing the semantics of seclusion was redundant.
"The fact is that Ashley is still based in that small concrete cell and from everyone else's point of view it is solitary confinement," he said.
"I would not expect such answers from a minister I would expect him to stand up for the vulnerable and do the right thing in this case."
Mr Hague said the health board needed to "stop faffing about" and implement the recommendations in the latest report about Ashley's case.
Capital & Coast have repeatedly argued that their de-escalation wing does not constitute seclusion.
However, the Ombudsman's torture inspectors told the Herald they believe it is seclusion as it is a small area with a locked door from which he cannot freely exit.
Chief Crimes of Torture Act Inspector Jacki Jones said seclusion was considered a short term intervention and should never be used as a long-term solution to house patients considered high risk or high needs.
Three of their previous reports have raised concerns about Ashley's care.
Seclusion has been found to be traumatising for both staff and patients, and is considered a form of torture by the United Nations.
The practice is subject to a reduction policy in New Zealand, with the hope it will be eventually phased out.
The Human Rights Commission, however, has concerns about the use of the practice in New Zealand, and will bring an international expert here later this year to investigate.
Ashley's parents came to the Herald with their story after previous attempts to transition out of the service had failed. Despite a March report providing clear steps for a transition, they were concerned the steps were yet to happen.
Story so far
• Autistic man Ashley Peacock held in an isolated wing of a mental health unit, allowed just 90 minutes a day outside.
• The Ombudsman and Human Rights Commission consider his case one of prolonged seclusion, a practice subject to a reduction policy in New Zealand.
• His family say they want their son out. A review document agrees, saying he should be transitioned to a community setting.
• More cases are revealed, with investigators saying no one knows how many people are held in long-term seclusion nationwide.
• Opposition politicians call for the Minister to intervene in the case.
• Human Rights Commission announces it will bring an international expert to New Zealand to investigate seclusion practices.
• Associate Health Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga says he will not intervene and defends the use of seclusion treatment in unit where Ashley lives.