Bennett and the Privacy Act

The Herald reports:

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is facing a complaint under the Privacy Act for disclosing the amounts two solo mothers have received in benefits – but last night she remained unrepentant.

One of the mothers said she will complain to the Privacy Commissioner after Ms Bennett provided the Herald with details of the state support she and another had received. The Labour Party also plans to lodge a complaint with the commissioner.

Ms Bennett disclosed the women’s weekly incomes after the pair – Natasha Fuller and Jennifer Johnston – objected to the Government’s decision to stop the Training Incentive Allowance for solo parents doing tertiary level study.

The statement that Fuller and Johnston merely “objected” to the decision doesn’t cover in fact what they were doing. This was not a case where they just gave their views for a newpaper story. I’ll return to this later. First what does the Privacy Commissioner say:

By releasing a large amount of personal information to the media, the individual is taking the risk that unfavourable publicity could result. If the Minister releases only information which is relevant to the issues raised by the individual, that person may not be able to claim that any particular harm was caused by the Minister’s disclosure rather than by the individual’s own disclosure. If the individual is not harmed, there would not be an interference with the individual’s privacy under section 66 of the Privacy Act.

So had Fuller and Johnston merely stated their view on the TIA decision, or were they putting out there a lot of personal informtion about themselves.

First there was the fullpage spread in the HoS. One quote is:

“The DPB is a living, for which my children and I have been very grateful. But it does not afford an ability to save for these sorts of extra expenses.

How can the public judge whether or not there is an ability to save, unless you know how much welfare is being paid to the person. This was a clear opening of the door. But there is more.

And Labour in the House opened the door also:

Darien Fenton: What does the Minister say to sole parent Natasha Fuller, who says her dreams of becoming an early childhood teacher have been squashed by the Government’s decision, and who feels that all the efforts she has put into training so far have been for nothing, because she cannot afford to further her studies without the assistance of the training incentive allowance?

A clear statement that study was unaffordable (even with interest free student loans). Again this opens the door.

We also have these statements from Fuller on the well read Trade Me Forums. She is the Happy Hocker and said:

no o stirer, im a fellow dpb mum, if u read the link its me they are talking about, I was shocked when this came up today as i get disabilty allowance and max in our area of $110 accom supplement and a very very long wayyyyy off $1000, wanted to send this thread to bennat as proof, and a few other mps that are very supportive

So Fuller is openly talking about her personal informaton such as getting a disability allowance and how much her accom supplement is. And as it happens in terms of gross income it transpires she is almost getting $1,000 a week.

And again she talks about her income and costs here:

i bet thats because they pay high rents, mine is $110 and i pay $280 rent but in cambridge, so its really not like its free cash its eatine up, considering my standard benifit with 3 kids is $260 then i get wff and $30 disability which would barly cover the costs of my meds, hospital trips etc

Here she clearly suggests she is getting only $400 a week plus WFF. In fact it is $715 a week. So again this is not the case of someone having their circumstance revealed just because they got interviewed in a newspaper and said they did not like the decision.

There was also a Facebook campaign page set up, which is now hidden from view. But there is also this campaign website.

Now I should make clear that I think it is a good think the two women want to access tertiary education and have a path off the benefit. Good on them. But with interest free student loans and childcare subsidies, it is not a given that it is impossible to undertake study while on welfare. And if they claim it is impossible for them to do so, then the public (who fund both their welfare payments and their tertiary studies) are entitled to have relevant information to assess that claim.

And an equivalent annual gross income of $46,700 for an adult and three kids, while not comfortable, is probably more than many tertiary students could imagine having while studying.

And if one is going to put yourself out as not receiving enough support from the state, it is also relevant to have revealed that just two years ago you gained a $9560 enterprise grant.

Anyway that is my view. What do others say. The NZ Herald editorial says Bennett was right:

The crux of this issue is whether the information now released by Ms Bennett is relevant to their case, or merely an attempt to intimidate, as critics say. The two women claim genuine financial hardship is thwarting their prospects of escaping the benefit and building a career. The total amount they receive from the state must, therefore, be relevant.

Absolutely. And they conclude:

The upshot will not be that people stop speaking out or that the Government escapes criticism. It will be that all information relevant to an issue is more likely to be put before the public at the outset.

Labour seem determined to stand up for the right of peopel to demand more money from taxpayers without revealing all relevant information.

John Armstrong notes Bennett’s strong performance in the House:

In recent months, however, the self-proclaimed Westie has undergone a Pygmalion-like transformation from a rough-around-the-edges ministerial tyro to a more assured, informed and more confident parliamentary performer who is now much more to grips with her vast Social Development portfolio.

One journalist even reported a while back that Bennett often came off better than Annette King in their encounters. And King is a parliamentary veteran.

In Parliament yesterday, Bennett cited the Privacy Commissioner’s guidelines. She said those showed it could be the case that people going to the media were giving ministers “implied” consent to discuss their personal circumstances. But she added defensively: “This is not something we will be making a practice of.”

The reply drew scorn from Labour MPs. A liberal interpretation of the guidelines, however, might suggest Bennett may be right.

Colin Espiner blogs:

But Bennett’s office has been getting increasingly frustrated that the coverage the women have been getting in the media hasn’t included exactly what the pair already receive courtesy of the taxpayer.

Now, the usual way of dealing with this is to quietly slip the details out to a friendly journalist, or suggest someone ask a question that would reveal the information. Let’s be clear here that Labour did this all the time. It’s standard practice.

A useful reminder.

But Bennett went the more open route. She had her staff release the information openly. So for the record, Fuller gets $715 after tax a week from the Government, and Johnston $554. Both are receiving an allowance for pre-degree study.

Fuller also got $9560 under an enterprise allowance to start a cleaning business, which failed because of illness.

The point of releasing the women’s details was to show that they’re already getting pretty hefty benefits – probably more than many working families.

But Colin warns:

I can understand Bennett’s frustration. She’s getting boxed about the ears by a couple who clearly haven’t been telling the full story about their personal situations.

HOWEVER. Ministers have to be extremely careful about using the power of their office to come down on pesky complainants like a tonne of bricks. Bennett has extraordinary access to beneficiaries’ private lives through the Ministry of Social Development.

The concern with something like this is that it sends the message that if you criticise the Government, it will hit you back 10 times as hard. And while I think actually that this information WAS relevant in this case, I’m not sure it was up to the minister’s office to release it.

Personally I would have asked the two women to reveal the info themselves, and then consider releasing it if they don’t – or if they continue to only put part of the story out there.

I also would have had a lawyer give me a written opinion that the release was within the law. It looks like it is, but I am very risk averse and would want it in writing beforehand.

Bill Ralston also blogs:

Bennett, unimpressed by their arguments that she considered selectively left out some valuable financial facts, published figures showing their full income from the state including benefits and allowances.

Cue roars of outrage. Ms Fuller was “astonished”. Ms Johnston was “flabbergasted”. Green MP Sue Bradford called it “beneficiary bashing”. How dare Minister Bennett make public their financial information without getting their permission?

Hang on.

Johnston and Fuller had already taken some of their financial information public when they talked to the media, established a website and blogged about it.

In other words, they did open the door.

The rules are simple and Ms Johnston and Ms Fuller need to understand them.

* (1) If you stand up in public and make a statement, be prepared to have someone contradict you. That’s democracy.

* (2) If you stick your nose into a political fight, someone is likely to bloody it.

* (3) The public, to which you have just appealed, has the right to hear all the facts, not just the ones you chose to reveal.

He concludes:

These two women chose to exercise their democratic right and criticise the Government. Good on them. But to expect the Government not to criticise them back is just plain stupid.

If someone starts a debate they should expect there to be facts and arguments produced that may be detrimental to their position. Once again, that’s what happens in a democracy.

No one is trying to demean the women. I applaud their feisty response to the Government’s cuts but they can hardly expect to be treated with kid gloves by the media if they deliberately enter a partisan political argument.

Tracy Watkins thinks however Bennett has opened a can of worms:

Paula Bennett has opened a can of worms. By releasing the income details of women who spoke out against cuts to the Training Incentive Allowance she has backed herself into a corner.

Ministers have always been able to shelter behind the defence that they do not comment on individual cases. Neither Bennett – nor any other minister for that matter – can offer that as a credible response from now on. A precedent has been set.

That may be a good or a bad precedent!

This morning, Bennett reacted to the furore by releasing advice from the Privacy Commissioner on the circumstances in which a minister is justified in releasing personal information. My reading of it suggests that Bennett breached the rules though that is probably debateable.

The Commissioner will rule in due course no doubt. If she does rule there was a breach, then Bennett will get considerable stick, and of course have to apologise.

I think the extra information they were putting out on the Internet about their circumstances means it was justified, but again it is the Privacy Commissioner’s decision that counts.

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