By MATHEW DEARNALEY



Public officials face little or no penalty for resisting Parliament's will by stonewalling requests for information.



Many remain bent on waiting out the maximum legal response time of 20 working days before refusing information, knowing complaints to the Ombudsmen or Privacy Commissioner will take months or years to resolve.



They know that the need for the information is often likely to burn out before they have to open their books. Not even cabinet ministers are averse to dragging the chain.

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Research published several years ago by the authoritative Public Sector journal quoted unnamed senior civil servants concerned that ministers had ordered them to destroy rejected advice in case it became public.



The then Housing Minister, Murray McCully, denied issuing such an instruction but admitted feeling it prudent sometimes to tell advisers not to put certain information on paper.



Court rulings have, however, established that knowledge can be sought under the Official Information Act even if it exists only in the minds of public servants.



Politicians themselves can face similar frustrations to those of the public and press, but the tenacity of one stands out as a beacon for public information crusaders.



Former Kaimai National MP Robert Anderson died in 1997 waiting for letters he sought from the Airways Corporation about a multimillion-dollar contract awarded to an Australian firm six years earlier.



State-owned Airways defied an Ombudsman's directive to supply the information anyway, but Mr Anderson had extracted a deathbed promise from Labour MP Harry Duynhoven not to let it off the hook. The letters were released nine months later, after the Ombudsman ruled death was no impediment.



Former crown health enterprises, which refused an Ombudsman's order to disclose salaries of public relations staff, also eventually surrendered the information, under threat of legal action by the Attorney-General.



But the Herald is still waiting for the Government to release briefing papers on the performance of public hospitals, well past the 20 working-day limit and despite Labour's call while in Opposition for greater health sector accountability.



Only by being found guilty of actively obstructing an Ombudsman's inquiry - such as by shredding incriminating documents - can officials be liable to a maximum fine of $200.



A higher penalty of up to $2000 faces those hindering Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane, but he deals only with requests by individuals for information about themselves. Understaffing often means delays of up to 18 months before cases can be investigated.



Breaches of the Privacy Act may also lead to damages awards of up to $200,000 by the Complaints Review Tribunal, although most are settled informally for under $1000.



A record $20,000 was awarded to a man who complained that a volunteer organisation told his employer he was subject to a complaint of indecently assaulting a child in his care, but then withheld the information from him.



In a similar case, however, a man whose employer told his wife he was suspected of theft accepted a settlement offer of Christmas grocery vouchers.



The law says officials from cabinet ministers to local body clerks must make information available on request, unless there are good reasons for withholding it that are not outweighed by the public interest.



This is supposed to let New Zealanders participate more effectively in the making and administration of laws and policies governing their lives, while keeping elected politicians and appointed officials accountable.



Work pressures on the country's two Ombudsmen, coupled with a lack of penalties for ignoring time limits, often mean requested information loses much of its value before eventually being released.



Take Herald reporter Eugene Bingham's battle for information from the Fire Service Commission, an organisation singled out in the Ombudsmen's annual report to Parliament for its delaying tactics.



Of six requests Bingham made between January and May last year in the midst of upheaval in what is one of the country's most essential services, only one has been responded to in full - and that took eight months.



Basic information about changes to fire callout times and manning levels on fire engines was eventually disclosed in November. Bingham has yet to receive correspondence sought on January 28 last year between the commission and national fire commander Ken Harper, who had criticised aspects of a restructuring plan.



The commission's chairman at that time, Roger Estall, first denied there had been any such correspondence, but admitted when challenged that there was a letter he could not find.



When it finally turned up, the commission suppressed it on Official Information Act grounds aimed at safeguarding personal privacy and the "effective conduct of public affairs."



Chief Ombudsman Sir Brian Elwood is still investigating a complaint by the Herald, having determined in consultation with Privacy Commissioner Slane that some parts of the letter must remain private but others might be publishable.



The commission this week disclosed bland information about how acting chief executive Alison Timms was appointed after the sudden resignation in May of Jean Martin.



But information about a golden handshake given to Mrs Martin after she fell foul of the Government for secretly negotiating an industrial deal with firefighters remains under consideration by Sir Brian and Mr Slane.



Commission chairwoman Dame Margaret Bazley took 10 months to tell Bingham that Alison Timms arrived at the Fire Service as her assistant before being offered Mrs Martin's position after the latter's resignation.



An approach to Dame Margaret by the Weekend Herald on Wednesday for an explanation for the delay was referred by staff to Alison Timms, who had yet to reply by yesterday afternoon despite written and verbal inquiries.



The firefighters' union is also annoyed that a copy of minutes of a commission meeting released under the Official Information Act to State Services Minister Trevor Mallard is more explicit than a version it received. Expunged from a copy released to the union was a passage recording concern that a report provided by Mrs Martin may have caused the commission to give "inappropriate information ... regarding fire outcomes" to its own minister and a parliamentary committee.



Personal information sought under the Privacy Act is free when held by public agencies, but private sector organisations can require that charges be stipulated case by case by Mr Slane.