Brownlee: No evidence VIP get priority

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 14:50 13/03/2014

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Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee doesn't know if he is regarded as a VIP by EQC.

Training documents released under the Official Information Act show EQC staff were told to flag VIPs as a special category under sensitive claims in the Claims Management System.

Brownlee told reporters today he did not know if he or other Members of Parliament were recorded as VIPs under the system because he hadn't asked.

He had not known about the special VIP category before the release of the information to the Wider Earthquake Communities Action Network last week but he was confident no-one had been treated preferentially.

He said he would be very disappointed and surprised if that was not the case.

The opposition's Earthquake Commission (EQC) spokesman said this morning that Brownlee had "serious questions" to answer over why claims made by high-profile VIPs were being tracked by the Earthquake Commission.

Clayton Cosgrove said Brownlee needed to explain: why the high profile category was created, what information was collected, what the reporting purposes were, who the information was reported to, whether this included information on political opponents, and on whose instructions the commission acted.

"Just days after Mr Brownlee admitted he was unaware of at least 85 cases involving vulnerable elderly residents . . . we now learn so-called 'high profilers', including journalists, television personalities, sports stars, and presumably others were flagged for reporting purposes," said Cosgrove.

"Every person affected by the earthquakes should be treated as a VIP and priority status should be given to the most vulnerable, like 85-year-old Dot Boyd."

EQC's training document advises staff to collect "what information you can" and then to flag the claimant's VIP status.

It tells staff the information is not for prioritising the claim.

Other special categories classed as sensitive claims were those covered in the media, those where threats were made to staff, allegations of fraud, claims of imminent bankruptcy, and non-English speaking.

EQC national customer and claims manager Gail Kettle said the "sensitive" categories referred to in the training material were to enable better tracking of vulnerable claims.

No specific activity was triggered by the mere existence of the flags.

"As the training material notes, the High Profile/VIP information was used for reporting purposes and not for prioritisation unless used in conjunction with other sensitive criteria."

VIP flags were largely "placeholders", with the thought they could become useful in future.

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While staff could "tick the box" if they saw it as relevant, no activity resulted from doing so.

In all, the "high profile" flag has been marked only 36 times for claims, predominantly from 2010-2011.

"Settlement is not complete on 16 of those claims and another 10 remain open while administrative work is completed," Kettle said.

Brent Cairns, spokesman for Wider Earthquake Communities Action Network (WECAN), which made the Official Information Act request, said the organisation was left wondering why the VIP category was created if the claimants were not to be given preferential treatment.

"Why is it important to look after a TV or sports star over someone that has a broken home on a low income, or a large family living in one room of their home.

"It is outrageous that they would be included in a document that categorises the vulnerable . . . unless VIPs are there because EQC are concerned more about their profile or brand," Cairns said.

- The Press

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