Five months to answer OIA questions

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 13/03/2013

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Frustrated Cantabrians hunting for information on their broken homes have swamped EQC with thousands of Official Information Act requests, pushing the 20-day response deadline out to an unprecedented five months.

Christchurch homeowners say waiting almost half a year for crucial information on their properties is "inexcusable" and the chief ombudsman says the current waiting list is "not satisfactory".

The Earthquake Commission (EQC) has received more than 4000 Official Information Act requests since the Canterbury earthquakes, and more than 1000 are active.

EQC received only 27 requests in the three years before the September 2010 quake.

According to an EQC template leaked to The Press, an official Information Act request filed in December would be responded to by the commission in late May.

EQC's website says current requests face a four-month delay.

Christchurch homeowner Sarah O'Brien has filed seven Official Information Act requests with EQC and said waiting months for a response was "horrific".

"We are 2 years down the track and this is inexcusable. It is extremely stressful because you can't go forward in your life until you have the answers," she said.

The first time O'Brien filed an Official Information Act request to EQC was in March 2011. She received an automated receipt from EQC, but was never sent a written response or any information from her request.

After waiting five months, she sent another request and finally received a response two months later.

Another frustrated homeowner, Andrea Laws, said it had "felt like forever" waiting for a response on an Official Information Act request from EQC.

She filed her first request in early August 2012 and said she received only part of the information in mid-September.

EQC refused to send Laws any more information for months until she complained to the ombudsman, she said.

"They really didn't want to do the OIA. I had to ask them two or three times where my response was and when it came through there was email correspondence that said: ‘Do not provide the claimant with information or time frames'," she said.

While Laws was waiting for the information on her Phillipstown property, the house was "slowly getting worse" and her two young children have had a cold for the past year.

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem sympathised with homeowners and said she was "continuing to oversee the matter". The five-month waiting list was not satisfactory but it was also not unexpected, given the circumstances, she said.

"It is an extraordinarily long time for an extension but this is an unusual and unwieldy situation."

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The Office of the Ombudsman has received about 900 complaints or inquiries relating to EQC since the September 2010 quake. "I can't recall anything of this magnitude with these numbers. It certainly is the busiest it has ever been."

Under the Official Information Act, Government bodies are required to release information within 20 working days, unless there are grounds for withholding it. The 20-day deadline may be extended under section 15A of the act.

EQC national customer and claims manager Gail Kettle said the commission "strives to meet its statutory obligation under the OIA".

"While EQC acknowledges that it is unable to meet the statutory 20-working-day time frame for responding to requests in many instances, it believes every effort is being made to manage requests fairly and efficiently," she said.

The commission had "taken reasonable steps" to increase its capacity to respond.

COMPLAINTS TO EQC

Delays in processing claims

EQC unable to provide time frames

Conflicting information

Apportionment decisions

Requests for scope of work assessments

Assessments of damage

Disability issues – eg deaf complainants asked to call EQC

- The Press

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