No Bennett apology to beneficiaries

18:55, Aug 04 2009
Paula Bennett
PAULA BENNETT: 'It has been an absolutely horrific debate'.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett refuses to back down over the release of personal information about two beneficiaries, despite saying she regrets the outcry it has caused.

Bennett tried to soothe the waters yesterday after a public row with several domestic purposes beneficiaries who took her to task for axing an allowance to help those on welfare into tertiary study.

Bennett authorised the release of information showing Cambridge woman Natasha Fuller received $715 a week as a domestic purposes beneficiary and Jennifer Johnston, of Invercargill, $554 a week. Fuller had also received $9500 from the state for a business venture that failed.

Talkback radio and media websites were yesterday inundated with messages from people angry at the level of benefits paid to the women.

"The only regrets I have is that in some quarters I think it has been an absolutely horrific debate that has been very personalised and ugly, and I certainly don't support that," Bennett said.

"I think that's horrific, quite frankly, and obviously not something this Government or myself agrees with at all. If there's anything I do regret it is that the argument has turned to that in some quarters."

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Fuller will complain to the Privacy Commissioner against Bennett, but Johnston spoke to Bennett yesterday and said she would not take the matter further.

Bennett said the pair had a long conversation.

"She certainly put her viewpoint forward on how hard it will be for her to study next year. She had a compelling argument actually," Bennett said. "She's invited me around for coffee next time I am in Invercargill, and I said I will take her up on that."

Bennett said she was "not particularly" concerned about the privacy complaint and did not believe she had overstepped the mark.

She was attacked by Labour in Parliament, with social development spokeswoman Annette King accusing her of trying to intimidate people against criticising the Government.

Labour claims that besides breaching the Privacy Act, Bennett may have broken ministry protocols by accessing personal information on the women on the ministry's computer system.

Bennett said she had asked ministry staff seconded to her office to look up the computer records, which they were entitled to do.

She said she had not told the chief executive of her department, Peter Hughes, until after she had released the information.

Bennett said 12,700 people received the Tertiary Incentive Allowance of up to $93 a week, and they could continue to receive it until they had finished their course.

Only new applications were affected, she said.

The last minister to be found guilty of breaching the Privacy Act was former National health minister Jenny Shipley, who the commissioner ruled had disclosed private details of a patient's medical condition during a television interview in 1995. Shipley apologised to the man.

The Press