The chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development has refuted claims he gave a personal undertaking to stop using fake names on official paperwork, and says he has the documents to show it.

A Social Security Appeal Authority decision yesterday revealed the ministry has been using pseudonyms during clients' benefit reviews, a practice the authority labelled "repugnant to the most fundamental concept of justice".

It said the ministry's justification that it needed to anonymise staff to protect them was not justified.

Ministry chief Brendan Boyle was named personally in the judgment, with the authority saying he agreed to stop using fake names but continued anyway - despite knowing it was unlawful.

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The decision was referred to the Solicitor-General. It is also before the State Services Commissioner, after a lawyer for the woman at the centre of the case wrote to say Boyle should be investigated.

Yesterday, Boyle said the ministry was considering its legal position in relation to the decision, which he took "extremely seriously".

However, he defended the use of pseudonyms, saying health and safety was critical.
The commissioner, Peter Hughes, has publicly supported Boyle's decision, saying threats and violence towards staff were a daily occurrence.

Today, Boyle went further with his statement, adding he refuted any claim that a personal undertaking was given to discontinue the use of pseudonyms.

"The documents will show that," he said.

However, when asked for the documents, the ministry would not provide them saying it would be in breach of the Social Security Act 1964.

In its judgment, the authority laid out what had happened after it found the ministry was using pseudonyms in 2015, when it ruled it unlawful.

It said the ministry had continued to use fake names despite the ruling, and "on the face of it" the chief executive had deliberately disregarded its ruling.

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It asked the chief executive, Boyle, to personally explain the situation.

Boyle's lawyer replied, saying "he accepted he was under a statutory compulsion to take all necessary steps to carry into effect the decisions of the authority," the decision said.

The authority then summarised this as the chief executive giving a personal undertaking that he would comply.

Why does the ministry use fake names?

The ministry argues it only used fake names for clients it considered a risk, and it was necessary to protect workers, particularly after a double murder at its Ashburton office in 2014.

Commissioner Peter Hughes, the head of the public service, this morning said he "totally supported" Boyle in his efforts to keep staff safe.

"Unfortunately threats, abuse and even violence towards MSD staff is a daily reality in our country," he said.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes says it is unacceptable that public servants would be threatened. Photo / File
State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes says it is unacceptable that public servants would be threatened. Photo / File

Twelve staff were assaulted, there were 468 serious and critical security incidents and 242 threats made in 2016, he said.

"Threats, abuse and violence towards staff is completely unacceptable."

He said the staff were loyal public servants who were working hard to give services and support to New Zealanders who needed them.

"The safety of Ministry of Social Development staff is something I know Mr Boyle takes very seriously," Hughes said.

"Mr Boyle has advised me that he is reviewing the legality of pseudonyms. That is the right thing for him to do."

Hughes said if the use of pseudonyms was found to be inappropriate, he would support him in implementing other measures to keep his staff safe and free from violence and abuse.

Background to the case

The decision arose in the case of Taranaki beneficiary Sonja Marie Lawson who appealed her case from the ministry's internal review body, the Benefits Review Committee, to the Social Security Appeal Authority last year.

Lawson, who has a long history of conflict with the ministry, is part of a group of about 80 Work and Income clients considered a "risk" to staff and placed in a "Remote Client Unit" who have no face-to-face contact with staff.

Beneficiary Sonja Lawson is at the centre of the fake names case. Photo / Supplied
Beneficiary Sonja Lawson is at the centre of the fake names case. Photo / Supplied

During the appeal, a ministry manager wrote to the authority arguing Lawson's behaviour meant that the names of the committee members dealing with her also needed to be secret.

Until then, the authority was unaware the names and signatures on the decision documents it was dealing with from the committee were false.

It said it was extremely concerned because it had previously warned Boyle that the use of fake names was unlawful.

At that time Boyle gave an undertaking the practice would stop, the authority said.

However, it had not. The authority listed a further seven times where Boyle had used fake names, saying it was not acceptable.

"The concept of 'faceless' decision-makers in a statutory process of independent review is repugnant to the most fundamental concept of justice," it said.

"In New Zealand's open justice system, the most serious crime is prosecuted by prosecutors whose identity is not hidden, members of juries who do not have their identities concealed hear cases, and judges do not have their identities hidden either."

Without being identified, there was no way to ensure the members of the committee were not biased, or if they were fit to be on the committee, it said.

Fallout since the decision was made public

Lawson's lawyer Tony Ellis wrote to Hughes this morning saying in his opinion it was appropriate the State Services Commissioner investigate.

He said it was "alarming" that Boyle had stood by his decision in that it raised concern as to whether Boyle abided by the law.

"At the very least such a statement shows poor judgment, and queries the chief executive's fitness to hold such an office," Ellis said.

He noted the commissioner had the power to remove a chief executive from office.

The Minister of Social Development, Anne Tolley, has not responded to requests for comment. She was busy campaigning in her electorate, her press secretary said.

The State Services Minister, Paula Bennett, has also not returned calls.

The Herald has asked Boyle for the documents he referred to.