Bennett won't rule out releasing beneficiary details

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 14:58 15/08/2012
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett
NATASHA MARTIN/Fairfax NZ
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett

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Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is not ruling out revealing private details of beneficiaries in the future.

It follows the Human Rights Commission telling Bennett that she breached the privacy of Natasha Fuller when she disclosed details of the solo mother's benefit to media.

The Commission released a letter from Bennett in which she acknowledged it considered she had done the wrong thing and recognised the personal cost the resulting public debate had on Fuller.

The findings by the Director of Human Rights Proceedings Robert Hesketh released today does not constitute a "finding" because it is a negotiated settlement.

Bennett said today it was Hesketh's "opinion" that she had breached Fuller's privacy but the two women had come to an agreement and proceedings wouldn't be taken against her.

"I do not believe I have breached privacy."

Asked if she would do the same thing again, Bennett said "it would depend on the circumstances".

"I'm four years in the job now, I'd have another look at it based on what the recommendations and rules are around privacy."

Labour leader David Shearer called on the minister to apologise, but Bennett said she would not say sorry.

"It's three years later, the letter has been done, we've all decided to move on," she said. "I certainly respect her request for privacy now and that the media aren't hounding her. So I want to show a degree of respect for that."

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei said it was a serious concern for Prime Minister John Key that Bennett was refusing to apologise or rule out releasing private details in the future.

"Beneficiaries have a right to privacy, they are entitled to their personal dignity and they shouldn't have a minister who is prepared to breach that and to interfere with their dignity just because she disagrees with what she says."

All beneficiaries were now at risk if they spoke out, she said.

"Paula Bennett will go into your personal files and use that information to attack you in public."

Saying the Commission had made an opinion was "just weasel words".

Shearer said Fuller was abused by Bennett.

"It was wrong, she should apologise, not just say she regrets it."

Fuller had come to an agreement with Bennett because she had been "damaged and hurt" and wanted the situation to go away, he said.

Key should demand assurances from Bennett that she wouldn't release private details again.

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"This is completely unacceptable. I would certainly not sanction this type of behaviour. My ministers would be held to a higher account than what John Key is holding his ministers to right now."

In the letter Bennett wrote: "I acknowledge that you consider that I was wrong to do so and that this resulted in a breach of Ms Fuller's privacy. As you also know, I do not accept that view."

But she said the purpose of her letter was to acknowledge the personal cost the resulting public debate had on Fuller.

"I am personally shocked and concerned by the unpleasant, hurtful and personal comments some members of the public made about Ms Fuller."

She was also distressed the comments had been repeated after media reports of Fuller's complaint.

"I strongly support the rights of individuals to participate in and comment on government decisions. It is essential in a functioning democracy," Bennett said.

She was "pleased Ms Fuller took the opportunity to express her opinions on the Government's policy changes".

But she took the view it was appropriate for her to repsond to some of Fuller's comments "in order to provide what I considered to be information relevant to the public debate".

In late 2010 Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff closed her investigation into the privacy complaint and referred the matter to Hesketh.

Fuller laid the complaint after Bennett released her benefit details to news media when she complained about cuts to her training incentive allowance.

Shroff said at the time the parties were unable to reach a settlement over the complaint.

In the letter Bennett wished Fuller all the best for the future.

Bennett said she had expressed on previous occasions through her lawyer and to Fuller in person her regret at the personal cost the incident had caused her.

"The purpose of this letter is to formally convey that."

- Stuff

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