The Auditor-General has published her 20 page report into spending from Phil Heatley’s Ministerial Office.
We found that a total of $1,402 of Mr Heatley’s expenditure – $608 in Vote Ministerial Services and $794 in Vote Parliamentary Service – was outside the rules. In all cases, Mr Heatley thought that the expenditure was within the rules, but he did not understand the rules correctly. In the case of the expenditure in Vote Parliamentary Service, the Parliamentary Service was also administering a rule incorrectly for members of Parliament, and Mr Heatley is not the only member who will have been affected.
That is significant. There may be a few more reimbursements to come.
We found that Mr Heatley generally took care to account for his expenditure appropriately. His Senior Private Secretary took her responsibilities seriously in managing the ministerial office expenditure. On occasion, Mr Heatley’s ministerial office received a reminder from Ministerial Services to submit a late reconciliation of his expenses or invoices or receipts; these were standard reminders that are sent by Ministerial Services to many ministerial offices. The problematic expenditure that we discuss in this report was approved by the relevant officials and was never queried with Mr Heatley or his Senior Private Secretary. For some items of expenditure, it was not clear from the supporting documentation provided that it was outside the
rules, but it was for others.
As in the UK, there has been a culture of parliamentary officials not questioning claims.
We accept that the expenditure outside the rules was not deliberate on the part of Mr Heatley or his ministerial office, and that he had repaid a sum of money before we started our inquiry. He has also personally paid for expenses that are allowed under the rules.
And to be fair to MPs, many of them pay for stuff they could claim, but do not bother to.
Heatley has repaid $2,852, and the AG has ruled that only $1,402 was outside the rules. But
Notwithstanding deficiencies in rules or the systems for administering them, everyone spending public money – in this case Mr Heatley – has a personal responsibility to manage their expenditure appropriately with good judgement. In our view, even though Mr Heatley was sometimes operating under an incorrect understanding of the rules – for example, when his wife and family accompanied him on ministerial business – a more conservative approach that took greater account of how others might perceive his use of public money would have served him better.
I think that is a fair point.
They found five instances of spending outside the rules:
- $287 out of $929 spent travelling to Auckland And Queenstown accompanied by family
- $251 out of $2,677 spent travelling to Picton and Kaikoura
- $70 for wine out of $425 spent attending the National Party Conference
- $692 for a child’s travel between Wgtn and Queenstown
- $102 for a child’s train and ferry travel between Wellington and Kaikoura
This is a total of $1,402. Note a total of $2,852 has been repaid.
The OAG has clarified that a spouse’s meal and accommodation expenses should only be paid for, if they are attending official functions or meetings with the Minister, but not if they are just accompanying him. This soudns reasonable to me.
For the National Party conference, they ruled that accommodation and meal costs are legitimate expenses as that is part of the parliamentary role of an MP. There was no need to refund the meal. The wine explanation is:
He later wrote “food and beverage” on the eftpos receipt. This was his usual practice when it was not lunch or dinner – it was not necessarily a payment for food and beverage; merely his way of categorising food and beverage-related costs that were not technically lunch or dinner. His Senior Private Secretary assumed that the costs were for dinner and wrote “Minister and spouse – dinner” on the credit card reconciliation form. Mr Heatley certified this form as the card-holder. His Senior Private Secretary told us that there was no intention to misrepresent the situation on the reconciliation form – she had assumed that it was for dinner from what he had written and she did not check it with him. Mr Heatley told us that hedid not read the form carefully before he signed it and that it was a careless rather than dishonest act. …
From our review of Mr Heatley’s expenditure documentation, we can confirm his practice of categorising expenditure on his receipts as “food and beverage” when they were only for beverages such as coffee. However, in our view, Mr Heatley should have taken greater care in ensuring that the description of his expenditure was accurate.
The conclusion seems to be the description was inaccurate but not designed to be misleading.
As for the wine itself:
In our view, the two bottles of wine that Mr Heatley purchased for his table were more in the nature of entertainment costs incurred in the course of parliamentary business. We therefore concluded that the cost of the wine should not have been charged to Vote Ministerial Services. It would have been better to regard it as covered by the expense allowance.
Again I think this is a reasonable approach. This is partly what the expense allowance is for.
Notwithstanding deficiencies in rules or the systems for administering them, everyone spending public money – in this case, Mr Heatley – has a personal responsibility to manage their expenditure appropriately with good judgement. In our view, even though Mr Heatley was operating under an incorrect understanding of the rules when his wife and family accompanied him on ministerial business, a more conservative approach that took greater account of how others might perceive his use of public money would have served him better.
And that sentence is why it is unlikely, in my opinion, Phil will return to Cabinet immediately, or indeed probably this term.
UPDATE: I was wrong. Phil has been reappointed. While I am pleased for him personally, I actually think it is the wrong decision. The thing people hated about Labour was the revolving door nature of Ministerial stand downs.