State services commissioner should consider MSD chief's position, says lawyer
The fitness for office of Ministry of Social Development boss Brendan Boyle should be reviewed, in the wake of revelations that benefit review decisions were being issued under fake names, a lawyer says.
Boyle has said it was to protect staff who sit on committees to review benefit decisions in cases involving about 80 "volatile" clients.
The Social Security Appeal Authority, which hears appeals from the committees, had ruled committee members could not be "faceless", let alone have their decisions issued under fake names and signatures.
It said it received a personal undertaking from chief executive Brendan Boyle that the practice would stop, but it continued.
In a statement, Boyle denied giving an undertaking. "I refute any claim that a personal undertaking was given to discontinue the use of pseudonyms."
Boyle said MSD was considering its legal position in light of the authority's decision.
The decision recorded that, after an earlier decision, Boyle gave his personal assurance that he was required by law to "forthwith take all necessary steps to carry into law the decision of the authority".
The authority had such grave concerns about the continuing subterfuge over names that it referred one of its decisions, issued on September 15, to Solicitor-General Una Jagose, QC.
The authority gave its decision in the case of a woman, whose name was suppressed, who wanted to appeal against seven benefit review committee decisions.
Her lawyer, Tony Ellis, said it looked like extraordinary misbehaviour by the chief executive.
Ellis has now written to State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes, who oversees the employment, supervision and dismissal of senior government department executives, suggesting he investigate Boyle.
Boyle was quoted as standing by his decision, which raised concerns about whether he was abiding the rule of law, given a ruling on using committee members names, Ellis said.
If Boyle disagreed with the authority's ruling he should have appealed against it, or asked a judge to review it, Ellis said.
It at least raised questions about Boyle's fitness for office, he said.
Ellis pointed out that the commissioner, with the agreement of the governor-general, had the power to remove Boyle from the position.
In any event, it was clear from police advice to the ministry that the woman he represented was not dangerous. "I think it's just hype."
The authority had decided the woman could create embarrassment, was highly likely to be offensive, but that was slight when weighed against the right to open justice, the authority said.
The woman was already planning a High Court action claiming compensation for breach of her rights, when the latest Social Security Appeal Authority decision was received. She is now considering her other legal options.
In September 2014 two ministry employees were shot dead at the Ashburton office by disgruntled benefit-seeker Russell Tully, who had been trespassed from the office.
The ministry was later convicted of failing to keep the workers safe by exposing them to violent clients.
The deaths of the two women, and health and safety conviction against the ministry, were included in the reasons for using "pseudonyms" for benefit review committee members.
The ministry has released figures for security incidents involving its staff. It said in 2016 staff were involved in 468 incidents reported as serious or critical, and nearly 3500 moderate incidents.
Staff had reported 242 threats, which included bomb threats, and threats to kill. Twelve staff were assaulted, which included spitting, and incidents ranging from attempts to injure up to serious injury.
The ministry issued 1345 warning letters, trespassed 303 people, and involved police in 792 incidents.
The figures for incidents reported since 2012 had dropped for minor incidents and increased in the most serious category of "critical".