Labour MPs have accused a leading public sector chief executive of "covering" for the Government after getting contradictory answers about spending on the Saudi Arabia food security partnership and is demanding an apology.

When questioned at the commerce select committee last week by MP Clare Curran, the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise chief executive Peter Chrisp denied that spending on the agri-hub had been suspended.

"No, there's absolutely no reason to," he said.

He said the food security and agri-hub partnership was currently being implemented and the final leg is the construction and shipping of an abattoir.


But that answer contradicted a memo including in papers Labour received last year under the Official Information Act.

A memo from an unnamed person to Paul Stock, a deputy chief executive at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), refers to a report written by the chief executive for an NZTE board meeting on August 20 and says "You may want to note the report's discussion [...on the agri-hub...] and that further spending is currently suspended."

Labour's David Parker said Mr Chrisp and NZTE chairman Andrew Ferrier who appeared with him at the select committee must apologise.

"It is a very serious matter to mislead a select committee...

"Peter Chrisp and Andrew Ferrier may be covering for the embarrassment caused by the government and Murray McCully but that's no excuse.

"They must apologise for misleading the committee and through them the New Zealand public."

The agri-hub deal is at present being investigated by the Auditor General, Lyn Provost.

The deal was designed to mend diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in the wake of a ban on live sheep shipments which left a Saudi investor out of pocket and disgruntled.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says the deal was above board and was subject to scrutiny by Foreign Affairs' legal division.

Mr Chrisp has been in Labour's sights over another issue this week, giving each of 500 staff a greenstone pendant, which David Clark says shows a culture of extravagance at MBIE - NZTE is an agency within MBIE.

But Mr Chrisp said an independent review in 2015 found that NZTE had made a "fast-paced and very effective transformation" since a poor review in 2011.

Over that period, annual revenue growth among the export companies it worked with rose from $21 billion to $30 billion.

"High employee engagement was key to those improved measures and to say thank you we presented all our staff with a small pendent carved from a single piece of Ngai Tahu pounamu stone," Mr Chrisp said.

He said highly motivated staff produced better results, and recognising effort was a simple way of motivating people.

The financial review document said that the agency changed its policy last year to only give gifts to staff who had been at the agency for 15 years or more.