EQC woes swamp Ombudsmen

22:23, Sep 27 2012

The Earthquake Commission (EQC) is under the magnifying glass of the Office of the Ombudsmen after a steep increase in the number of complaints lodged against the organisation.

The office, which is an independent authority set up to help the community deal with Government agencies, has been swamped with 443 official complaints and inquiries in relation to EQC in the past financial year, up from only 77 the previous year, its annual report said.

Of the 443 complaints, 389 were lodged under the Ombudsman Act and 54 were under the Official Information Act.

It was the "highest ever number of complaints" concerning state sector agencies the ombudsmen's office had received, yesterday's report said. The climb in complaints stretched resources and forced the ombudsmen to redeploy staff to meet the demand.

The figures come after The Press revealed last week that EQC experts had generated a spate of complaints, including to the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand.

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem said a rise in EQC complaints had been expected after the Christchurch earthquakes, but the current increase was significant enough to spark concern.

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The ombudsmen's office would be "keeping a watching brief" on the commission.

Delays, communication issues and an "inadequate" EQC complaints process had sparked most of complaints, Wakem said. Despite "grappling with a growing workload", the ombudsmen had prioritised EQC complaints because of the "urgency required to help people in the region", she said. The organisation had helped EQC to develop an internal complaint handling service and would closely watch "to determine whether it would be appropriate to take wider action".

Christchurch resident Sarah O'Brien lodged a complaint against EQC with the ombudsmen in March. She went through the official channel because EQC had "purposely" withheld information she requested under the Official Information Act, she said.

O'Brien also complained to the Instutution of Professional Engineers over "incompetent EQC assessors who had admitted to having a maximum five days of training" and because she wanted to dispute her house being deemed under-cap.

Since she lodged the official complaints, her house had been "pushed over-cap" by EQC, she said.

Canterbury Community Earthquake Recovery Network spokeswoman Leanne Curtis did not believe the figures accurately reflected the pain in the city.

"Cantabrians are not good at complaining officially because we are quite quiet people who are relatively apathetic. I don't think the figures represent how many people would have wanted to complain."

The official channels were often "daunting" and residents were reluctant to complain against EQC through "fear they will go to the bottom of the list".

Parklands TC3 Residents' Group spokeswoman Kiri Hider said "desperation and frustration" was driving the increase in complaints.

EQC general manager of customer services Bruce Emson was "not surprised" at the increase in complaints, given the "inevitable pressure of work on EQC as a result of the Canterbury earthquakes".

He said EQC had acknowledged the issues brought to the ombudsmen's attention and was making improvements, including realigning call centres to deliver better customer outcomes.

The Press