Axe to fall on soaring ministry travel costs

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 31/08/2014

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Skyrocketing staff travel costs at the Ministry of Justice have led to drastic cost-cutting measures.

Travel spending at the ministry rose from $5 million in 2010/2011 to $7.28m in the past financial year, documents released under the Official Information Act reveal.

An internal letter in February, from the ministry's chief executive Andrew Bridgman and chief financial officer Thor Gudjonsson, says the spending on staff travel is growing at a "rapid and unsustainable" pace.

The letter said previous attempts to clamp down on spending had failed.

"We note that this is a crude instrument to achieve containment of travel expenses, but in the absence of any ready alternatives, this measure is needed to guarantee a predictable travel spend for the year."

A cap of $6m was proposed, through drastic cuts to all areas of the ministry travel fund.

"Please note that the intent of this action is to cap and reduce expenditure on staff travel. We expect this intent to be clearly transmitted through the ministry," the letter stated.

"We do not expect to find any ‘creative' attempts to operate above this cap, for example by coding travel with any external course fees."

In March, business groups within the ministry responded to the proposed cuts requesting they be relaxed, but were told their alternative budgets were not lean enough and were asked to again review all non-essential face-to-face meetings.

Eventually they agree to a new cap of $7.37m.

The ministry refused an interview request, but in a written statement Audrey Sonerson, deputy secretary of organisational development and support, said immediate steps had been taken to address the overspend as soon as it became apparent.

These included placing a cap on travel expenditure both for the ministry as a whole and for individual business units, while a significantly lower spending cap had also been set for the current financial year.

The ministry operated at more than 100 locations across New Zealand and spending reflected the significant work, including changes in the court and family justice systems, it had been undertaking.

Work towards using secure audio-visual technology was ongoing, as services such as Skype and Google hangouts did not provide an adequate level of security, she said.

Public Service Association national secretary Richard Wagstaff said the travel blowout was of serious concern.

The issue had been raised with the ministry, who were under real budget pressure in all areas and were trying to find efficiencies by the "slow-filling" of vacancies.

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It was understood the travel spend was largely management-related and with new technologies reducing the need for face-to-face meetings it was worrying that spending had increased rather than declined, he said.

Labour's state services spokeswoman Maryan Street said she had long held concerns about the ministry and its budget.

"The Ministry of Justice has been in trouble with its finances for the last couple of years.

"They have had a whole restructuring process to do and I understand that has taken a lot more resources than expected."

MINISTRY OF JUSTICE TRAVEL SPEND

2010/11 – $5m

2011/12 – $6.2m

2012/13 – $7.4m

2013/14 – $7.28m 

- Sunday Star Times

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