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Estimations: Vote Customs

Estimations with Scoop's Kevin List

Department of Vote Customs of Evidence 24 June 2004

The Minister of Customs, Rick Barker, faced a moderate grilling during the hearing of evidence for the Customs Estimates. Taking the floor early on, Barker stressed that border security was the priority issue for Customs. He assured committee members that under his watch all ships arriving in New Zealand would now be searched. The number of Customs staff was also growing with over 1000 staff now situated in 16 locations. Of priority to the minister was getting the right sort of staff, and training those staff well. The minister considered that the calibre of the staff recently employed was high.

Whilst Barker was at ease in making general statements, his ability to locate facts and figures was found wanting by National's Shane Ardern. In response to questions regarding the breakdown of various figures the Minister was left offering to profer the figures at a later date. This inability to inform the committee also infuriated Ardern's National colleague Simon Power, who suggested the Minister consult the phalanx of officials seated behind him. And once the oar was passed to the officials life became both easier for Barker, and more illuminating for the committee.

Green MP Keith Locke expressed concern over the possibility traveller's details were being passed on to foreign governments. Locke seemed particularly concerned that the foreign government might be the United States. The Minister attempted flattery by stating he had listened to Locke's speech on the topic the previous evening, and assured Locke that the issue was being looked into. The new Privacy Commissioner, Marie Shroff, is working with Customs on the issue.

The calibre of Customs staff was next investigated by Progressive MP, Matt Robson. Robson brought up the criticism's of Customs initial handling of detained refugee, Ahmed Zaoui. The Refugee Status Appeals Authority had criticised Customs in their 213 page decision granting refugee status to Zaoui. The part of the RSAA decision dealing with Customs expressed concerns specifically over Zaoui's questioning by Customs officer A B Tuapolo.

Officer Tuapolo, who had no training in dealing with questioning immigration suspects, had supposedly elicited Zaoui's admission of belonging to a terrorist organisation (the GIA). Robson accused Colin Smith of the anti-terrorist unit of priming Officer Tuapolo with his questions to Zaoui and asked Barker what had been done.

Barker assured his coalition governmental colleague that Customs had thoroughly read the RSAA decision. The Minister pointed out that Customs did not entirely agree with all of the criticisms levelled at the service by the RSAA without going into specifics. Whilst Robson was concerned that Zaoui may have spent 10 months in virtual solitary confinement due to Officer Tuapolo's discredited questioning, the Minister seemed concerned Customs had not been prescient enough to give Officer Tuapolo a lawyer during his testimony to the RSAA.

Regarding why there was no interpreter (Officer Tuapolo used hand gestures during his questioning) the Minister pointed out to the committee that Zaoui was not being 'interviewed' under immigration procedures, he was being questioned under the Customs And Excise Act. However according to the RSAA during Mr Zaoui's questioning under the Customs and Excise Act he was asked questions regarding military service and political and terrorist organisations.

The Minister did admit that there were areas in which the process could have been better handled.

Barker stated that new procedural changes were being implemented to clarify the occasional blurring of the lines between Customs and Immigration officials, and their respective duties. In future, rather than going through Customs, then being processed by Immigration. and then back to Customs, new arrivals would be processed completely through Customs and then by Immigration.

Robson also brought up another case that was concerning him. This case involved a businessman who had been given a black mark on his file. The man had discovered the note and efforts had been made to clear up any relevant issues. Despite the fact that the case had been brought to the current Minister's attention, the file note had not been removed, and difficulties at the airport had continued. Despite just spending the past 10 minutes discussing the Zaoui case, Barker decided that he could not comment on the case other than to say that he was concerned and was doing something about it.

In regard to security issues resulting from the huge growth of passengers at Auckland Airport, the Minister assured the committee that Customs was working closely with the Auckland International Airport Company to resolve any difficulties.

**** ENDS ****

Estimations will be an occasional news column by Scoop Chief Reporter Kevin List in which he relates events which occur during the annual round of Estimates Hearings in the NZ Parliament's Select Committees. Estimates Hearings are hearings of evidence from departmental and ministry officials relating to the annual estimates. The estimates form the greater part of the budget documentation, and outline what the various arms of Government plan to spend in the coming year.

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