28 Oct 2016

Meth test misuse 'tearing families apart' - Turia

10:20 am on 28 October 2016

Families are being torn apart by Housing New Zealand's deliberate misuse of methamphetamine testing, former Māori Party co-leader Dame Tariana Turia says.

Workers at a contaminated site.

Workers at a contaminated site. Photo: Contaminated Site Solutions

Dame Tariana said she became involved in a Housing New Zealand (HNZ) meth testing case this year after the home of a close family friend was tested near Auckland.

Although traces of meth were detected, Dame Tariana said the parents were adamant they'd never used the drug.

"From what we could gather the house had had not been tested before they moved into it," she said.

"As a result of them testing it and despite being told that the family's daughter had had a 21st birthday the week before, which could have resulted in anything taking place there ... they not only punished the family, they also reported them to Child Youth and Family and their two children were removed from their care."

Ministry of Health director Stewart Jessamine yesterday told RNZ the Ministry had repeatedly told HNZ that its meth testing guidelines were only suitable for former meth labs - where the drug is cooked.

Tariana Turia.

Dame Tariana Turia says HNZ is trying to criminalise the people it was established to house. Photo: RNZ

They were not designed to determine the safety of homes where the drug had been smoked, she said.

But the housing agency has continued using the guidelines to evict tenants from homes where the drug was thought to have been smoked, and sought enormous decontamination costs from them.

No one from HNZ was willing to be interviewed, but in a statement the agency said it had never received any advice that it was misusing the meth guidelines.

It was appalling the agency was deliberately trying to criminalise the people it was established to house, Dame Tariana said.

"It is negligent of a Crown agency where you've got the Ministry of Health, another Crown agency, who had warned them insistently that they were taking the wrong approach to this issue."

That was unacceptable and the government needed to address the issue at the highest level of HNZ, she said.

Labour Party housing spokesperson Phil Twyford said Housing Minister Paula Bennett should step up and take responsibility over the scandal.

He told Morning Report the agency has repeatedly misunderstood and misapplied the guidelines.

He said the issue had all the hallmarks of HNZ having been caught up in a "moral panic" and doing massive financial and social damage in the process.

"I've heard nothing from Housing New Zealand that suggests that they have realised the error of their ways and that they have actually stopped doing this - as far as we know they're continuing to apply this policy."

'We usually have an innocent until proven guilty standard'

Meanwhile, the Law Society described HNZ's eviction of tenants over the tiny traces of methamphetamine as overkill and disappointing.

Joanna Pidgeon from the Law Society said all the affected tenants should have their cases reviewed.

"So we've seen an industry be led, I guess, by the testers who have a financial incentive if they are remediating as well," she said.

"In the end under tenancy laws the tenant is responsible for their invitees as well, however these people have been charged more than they should have been charged to remediate properties."

She said the Tenancy Tribunal had previously said landlords should have a baseline test done before any testing commenced.

"In our society we usually have an innocent until proven guilty standard.

"It would be unusual without establishing that they caused that damage that they should be held responsible for that damage, because the onus should be on the landlord to prove that they caused that damage."

Housing New Zealand leaving reputations in 'tatters' - Mangere Budgeting

Mangere Budgeting and Family Support Service chief executive Darryl Evans told RNZ many Mangere families said they had been falsely accused of using meth by HNZ.

He said while tenancies changed frequently, traces of meth stayed behind.

"That means the current tenant can be blamed for using meth when in actual fact they may never have used drugs in their entire life, whereas the previous tenant has."

"Now that to me is simply unfair," Mr Evans said.

HNZ's conduct was leaving people in fear, and reputations in tatters.

"I've heard of families that truly do feel that it has broken up the family and caused no end of harm - and it very often takes a long time to repair that harm, if in fact you ever can repair it."

Yesterday, the Auckland Law Society called on HNZ to review every case in which it has evicted a tenant because of methamphetamine contamination.

Housing New Zealand Minister Bill English was not available to be interviewed.

Earlier this year he acknowledged the meth testing guidelines Housing New Zealand used to evict tenants from homes, where the drug was thought to have been smoked, were not fit for purpose.

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