MSD investigators 'not well equipped to make sound decisions'

Last updated 21:11 06/10/2017

Coroner Anna Tutton said some of the training was unhelpful to staff and inconsistent with prosecution guidelines.

Former MSD investigator Nabjeet Singh appearing in the Wellington District Court on fraud charges.

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Investigators at the Ministry of Social Development had such a lack of understanding about the rules of prosecuting benefit cheats, that they were "not well equipped to make sound and appropriate decisions", a coroner has found. 

Coroner Anna Tutton​ released her findings on Monday after the inquest into the 2011 death of Wendy Shoebridge in Lower Hutt, north of Wellington.

Tutton concluded Shoebridge died by suicide, but the coroner's report was subject to wide-ranging suppressions. 

Shoebridge died the day after receiving a letter from the ministry informing her she would be prosecuted for $22,000 benefit fraud. After her death, that amount was reduced to $5000, and then to nothing.

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In the finding, the coroner stated that the ministry's management was not advised Shoebridge was at risk of suicide. 

The ministry had developed training which was unhelpful to staff and "inconsistent with some of the content of the prosecution guidelines", the findings stated. 

All government agencies with prosecution functions will maintain decision making structures to ensure prosecution decisions are in accordance with the prosecution guidelines 2010, she wrote.

"Given the lack of knowledge of prosecution guidelines among the MSD staff witnesses and the lack of uniformity between prosecution guidelines and MSD materials relating to the test for prosecution, it does not appear that was so within the Porirua office of the MSD at the time of Ms Shoebridge's death," the coroner said.

The MSD is one of the country's most aggressive prosecutors, behind only police and Corrections.

Figures provided to the Attorney-General earlier this year raised questions about whether the ministry is being too tough on benefit fraudsters, compared with the actions of agencies such as ACC, or Inland Revenue's targeting of white-collar tax avoidance.

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The figures released by Crown Law show the ministry made 670 prosecutions in the year to March 2015, while ACC made only four in the same period.

Crown Law wrote: "An interesting comparison is emerging between ACC and MSD, both of which investigate comparable offences ... but appear to have very different approaches to the decision to prosecute."

The coroner's findings come after further revelations of the MSD's internal problems. Last week, a court heard that decisions by MSD's benefits review committees have been issued under fake names and signatures.

The deception was exposed when a woman appealed against seven decisions on her case, and a MSD manager disclosed the falsity to the Social Security Appeal Authority that was to hear them. The woman's lawyer, Tony Ellis, called it "extraordinary misbehaviour". 

The ministry said the use of pseudonyms protected staff dealing with volatile clients from being identified and being potentially placed at greater risk of harassment, threats or even violence.

Earlier this month a former employee of MSD's fraud team was found to have fraudulently claimed up to $358,866 of benefits while he was employed as a fraud investigator. 

Nabjeet Singh was sentenced to two years and nine months jail, for creating fake identities and claiming benefits for 12 years.

- Stuff

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