15 Aug 2012

Bennett 'would consider another privacy breach'

6:55 pm on 15 August 2012

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is denying she breached a beneficiary's privacy despite an official finding otherwise - and says she would consider doing it again.

The director of Human Rights Proceedings has found Ms Bennett was wrong to release details about Natasha Fuller's benefit to the media, after Ms Fuller opposed government cuts to a tertiary training allowance in 2010.

But while Robert Hesketh says it was a privacy breach he is not taking the matter further, saying all parties are satisfied it has now been resolved.

The statement from the commission's Office of Human Rights Proceedings on Wednesday attached a letter from Ms Bennett, saying it speaks for itself.

In it, Ms Bennett says she thought it was appropriate to provide information relevant to the public debate on the changes to policy on the training allowance and that she was shocked by the unpleasant and hurtful comments about Ms Fuller that emerged in response.

However, Ms Bennett does not believe that she breached Ms Fuller's privacy.

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

The minister was asked on Wednesday whether she would do the same thing again. Ms Bennett replied it would depend on the circumstances, but would not make a judgement on what may or may not happen and it would be a decision she would make at the time.

Attitude unacceptable, says opposition

The minister's response has outraged the Green and Labour parties.

Labour leader David Shearer says Paula Bennett bullied Ms Fuller and should apologise to her.

"Can you imagine how people feel now. They're own personal details can be accessed, can be brought out in the public and they can be abused for that minister's political gain. That's terribly wrong."

Mr Shearer says Prime Minister John Key needs to pull Ms Bennett up on the matter.

"How can he assure New Zealanders that their files aren't going to be accessed and their private details are not going to be spread around the country through the media?"

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei says Ms Bennett's attitude is unacceptable and all beneficiaries are at risk of the minister using their personal information to attack them in public.

"We've already had ACC breaches of privacy that the minister and this Government has refused to accept were legitimate under any circumstances.

"Why this should be legitimate is an absolute mystery - especially as the Human Rights Commission has shown it was a direct breach of this woman's privacy."

Ms Turei also says the Prime Minister needs to instruct Ms Bennett to act in accordance with the Privacy Act.

PM supportive, says Bennett

However according to Paula Bennett, Prime Minister John Key has backed her actions.

"I'm not going to paraphrase something that the Prime Minister might have said three years ago, because I can't remember exactly as the truth.

"But what I can tell you, is he has always been supportive of me and in this particular incidences and we've just been going through the processes we needed to."

Acting Prime Minister Bill English says he doesn't know whether the matter has set a precedent on ministers releasing private information.

"I think everyone's learnt something from it. People who enter into public debate are welcome to do so ... and they should provide their full information to the public.

"This has been something of a politically motivated complaint, but it's settled and as far as the Government's concerned, that's the end of the matter."

Robert Hesketh, the director of Human Rights Proceedings at the Human Rights Commission, would not answer questions from Radio New Zealand about why he decided there was a privacy breach but was not willing to take proceedings against Paula Bennett.