If any Government service should be sticking to the straight and narrow, it is surely Immigration New Zealand.
Too often over the past decade it has shown every indication of being a law unto itself. Yet a series of reputation-sullying incidents have not been enough to stop it stumbling into another of its own making.
A directive to its officials not to record information to avoid judicial reviews and extra paperwork has, quite rightly, attracted criticism.
In its calculated nature, it betrays a flippant notion towards concepts of accountability and transparency that should, in fact, be underpinning the service's behaviour.
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The directive relates to section 61 of the Immigration Act, under which officers can grant visas to those unlawfully in this country and not subject to a deportation order. Their decisions are open to review by the Ombudsman. Last November, staff were told not to "record any reasons or rationale" in all such cases. According to operational policy official Kathy Tait, "they [resolution officers] strongly feel that including rationale just opens up the risk of judicial review and Ombudsman complaints".
Undoubtedly that is the case, and this creates additional, sometimes irksome, work. But the rationale for any official decision must be expected to pass outside scrutiny. To suggest otherwise is to eliminate transparency in decision-making and to diminish any prospect of accountability. It also flies in the face of the Public Records Act, which requires that "every public office and local authority must create and maintain full and accurate records of its affairs, in accordance with normal prudent business practice".
Immigration NZ has eschewed such niceties in favour of a wholly self-serving approach. Unfortunately, that is far from unusual. This was the service responsible for an internal memo in 2003 stating that "everyone had agreed to lie in unison" about the apprehension of Ahmed Zaoui. At much the same time, it kept in-house the case of a staff member who asked for sexual favours from a young woman seeking residency.
This was also the service from which, more recently, its head, Mary Anne Thompson, resigned over indiscretions that included helping relatives enter New Zealand. It is a record that should have persuaded its managers to steer well clear of any policy that threatened further opprobrium.
Perhaps worst of all, the new directive suggests a disgraceful attitude towards official information requests remains alive within the service. It was suggested in November that the Ombudsman should be contacted for comment on the instruction. But this has happened only recently after concerns were raised. There are echoes here of the contemptuous attitude of the service in the handling of an Ombudsman's request for information in 2003. Media logs were not handed over in the first instance, even though the Ombudsman had advised six years earlier that they carried official information status.
In that case, there was little inclination to observe the obligations of public servants under the Official Information Act. The new directive is a blatant attempt to torpedo any inquiries by denying documentation. This disdainful attitude to the Ombudsman and, by extension, the public is wholly inappropriate for a service that wields considerable influence. Matters of public interest must be handled transparently, and officials must be able to be held accountable. This directive must be rescinded.