Social Development minister and department dismiss Northland lockdown questions on false grounds

In 2019, Things first published the Redacted series exploring issues in official information law. Three years later, we are reviewing it to see if anything has changed.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni declined to answer questions about Northland’s Covid-19 lockdown, saying it was still under active police investigation. But that was not the case.

At the same time, his agency claimed to have no information on the four people who have been granted an exemption to travel to the area since the Auckland Delta lockdown. In fact, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) had approved the request.

The government faced a barrage of criticism after it emerged in July that Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins had made false claims, repeated by Sepuloni, about the women who sparked the closing of $23 million in October 2021, and had failed to correct the record. Two women were publicly vilified.

Now Things can reveal that Sepuloni and the Ministry of Social Development also made misleading statements when responding to official National Party requests for information.

The opposition filed a series of demands with the agency and the minister’s office in November. A response was only received at the beginning of March 2022, well beyond the legal deadline of 20 days.

Sepuloni declined to answer. In response to seven detailed questions requesting information, documents and correspondence, she said: “New Zealand Police have informed me that this matter is still under active investigation and that no further information cannot be provided.”

She withheld the information citing a clause in the legislation that protects the maintenance of the law, including the prevention, investigation and detection of offences, and the right to a fair trial.

Carmel Sepuloni is now the subject of a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman.

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

Carmel Sepuloni is now the subject of a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman.

However, according to his colleague, former police minister Poto Williams, the investigation was already closed. Williams learned on February 22 that he was finished and answered a written parliamentary question saying“Police conducted an investigation and determined there was no evidence to support a prosecution.”

A spokesman for Sepuloni said the answer to the parliamentary question “was provided on the advice of the New Zealand Police”.

Police said they told MSD on Feb. 18 that the investigation was ongoing, then updated that notice on March 3 to say it was complete.

“Unfortunately” by the time the written response to the parliamentary question – stating that the investigation was complete – had been approved in the week of February 21, the response to Sepuloni’s OIA query (confirming that the investigation was ongoing) had already been dispatched on February 18, a police spokesman said.

Louise Upston, National's social development spokeswoman, said MSD and its minister tried to cover up mistakes during Northland's lockdown last year.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Louise Upston, National’s social development spokeswoman, said MSD and its minister tried to cover up mistakes during Northland’s lockdown last year.

Northland moved to Alert Level 3 on October 8, after an Auckland woman traveling in the area returned a positive test result. At a press conference that evening, Hipkins claimed the 40-year-old had provided “false information” to cross the regional border.

Two days later, police revealed they were looking for her 34-year-old travel companion. False claims that they were sex workers and linked to gangs have been circulating – none have been denied by the government.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called them “irresponsible”, “dangerous” and “extraordinarily frustrating” for claiming they refused to cooperate with authorities.

Last month, after several requests for the OIA by journalists, it emerged that a government employee had mistakenly approved the request. The police investigation also revealed “no offence” or deception in obtaining travel documents.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins have both publicly criticized the women who triggered Northland's lockdown.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins have both publicly criticized the women who triggered Northland’s lockdown.

National also posed questions to MSD in November. Aware of speculation that there were more than two people involved, they requested information on anyone else linked to the exemption.

As with the request to Sepuloni, the response was delayed until March. In a letter, Deputy Chief Executive Marama Edwards denied that part of the request, writing: “The ministry has no information as to whether any other individuals are linked to the travel app…the ministry has no reason to believe that the information is held by another department or Minister of the Crown or organization”.

But that was wrong – it was an MSD staff member who approved the exemption on social services grounds, after it was first rejected by the Department of Business, Innovation and Employment.

And documents released by another government agency – the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Minister (DPMC) – also showed MSD was aware that four people had been approved for the travel exemption.

DPMC put together a detailed timeline which showed that on October 1, 2021, at 9:16 a.m., the MSD staff member opened and “erroneously approved” the exemption. “The applicant and three other people issued travel documents via system generation,” the timeline says.

When preparing the schedule in December 2021, DPMC corresponded with the office of MSD Chief Executive Debbie Power. This contradicts MSD’s reasons for denial – he knew of other applicants because he had approved the exemption, and he was told the information was held by another department.

In 2019, Stuff first published the Redacted series exploring issues with the Official Information Act.  Three years later, we are reviewing it to see if anything has changed.

Sungmi Kim / Stuff

In 2019, Stuff first published the Redacted series exploring issues with the Official Information Act. Three years later, we are reviewing it to see if anything has changed.

Edwards said Things the department had reviewed the response “and can see that it contained an oversight”.

“At the time of the request, the department had the names of four individuals subject to the request. If this detail had not been overlooked, this part of the request would have been refused under section 9(2)(a) of the Act in order to protect their privacy.

She said the delay in responding to the initial request was to allow time to consult with other parties.

National’s Louise Upston has now lodged a complaint with Parliament’s watchdog, the Office of the Ombudsman.

The actions of the agency and the minister were “outrageous”, Upston said. Officials and ministers should have admitted the mistake much earlier, she said.

“I accept that officials make mistakes,” Upston said. “But don’t try to cover it up after the fact and don’t expect the public to put up with the heat. Be open and open when information is sought to get to the bottom of what happened.

The Prime Minister and Cabinet Department corresponded with the office of Debbie Power, chief executive of the Department of Social Development.

Provided

The Prime Minister and Cabinet Department corresponded with the office of Debbie Power, chief executive of the Department of Social Development.

Upston said there was a tendency for the government to allow private citizens to become scapegoats for the mistakes of officials, citing the examples of pregnant journalist Charlotte Bellis and Case L, a KFC employee accused of having breaks the isolation rules.

“If you think about that time, New Zealanders were asked to do a lot,” she said. “And they were doing it on the trust of the government.

“Finding out that this happened, and then asking a minister to withhold information in an official legal request, is appalling. At one time they should have been the most open and transparent ever.

Upston was not satisfied with either the Minister’s or MSD’s explanation. She pointed out that National did not ask for the names of the contestants, but asked for other details. And she accused Sepuloni of “apologizing and pointing the finger at the police.”

The Ombudsman’s Office declined to comment while the matter was under investigation.

Joel C. Hicks