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Questions & Answers for Oral Answer - 27 July 2004

( Uncorrected transcript—subject to correction and further editing. For corrected transcripts, please visit: http://www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz/hansard )

Tuesday, 27 July 2004
Questions for Oral Answer
Questions to Ministers

1. Economy—Reports
2. Sickness Benefit—Invalids Benefit
3. Sickness Benefit—Unemployment Benefit
4. Foreshore and Seabed Bill—Veto Powers
5. Food Safety—Contaminated Cornflour
6. Tertiary Education Commission—Growth and Innovation
Question No. 7 to Minister
7. Police—Staffing
8. Timberlands Forests—Management as Conservation Land
Question No. 7 to Minister
9. Sentencing—Reparation
10. Chief Justice—Comments
11. Family Support Services—Development
12. Canterbury District Health Board—Elective Surgery

Questions for Oral Answer
Questions to Ministers

Questions for Oral Answer
Economy—Reports

1. CLAYTON COSGROVE (Labour—Waimakariri) to the Minister of Finance: What recent reports has he received on the state of the New Zealand economy?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN (Minister of Finance): The latest international Economic Freedom Report ranked New Zealand the third freest economy in the world, equal with Switzerland, Britain, and the United States, and behind only Hong Kong and Singapore. The ACT party recently described New Zealand’s economic performance as “truly outstanding”, which I think is a fair reflection of how things are going.

Clayton Cosgrove: What risks, if any, are there to New Zealand’s growth prospects?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The biggest economic risks in the short term are continuing volatility around oil prices and the stronger than expected slow-down in migration. The biggest risk in the medium term is the possibility of an irresponsible fiscal stance being adopted by any future Government, and I note that certainly some people are promising simultaneously to cut taxes and substantially increase spending on defence and law and order. I am sure a previous Reserve Bank governor would have condemned such approaches by a major party.

Dr Don Brash: Did the Minister get any reports at all from his official economic advisers in Treasury that the Holidays Act or the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill would improve the outlook for the economy, or did they, like the recent OECD report on the New Zealand economy, warn of the dangers of reregulating the labour market?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: There have been some complaints around the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill. They come from the very same people who told us that the Employment Relations Act would lead to not a single new job being created in New Zealand. Unemployment is now down to just over 4 percent—not counting, of course, those on the Opposition benches who are underemployed.

Dr Don Brash: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister did not answer the question I asked, at all.

Mr SPEAKER: While a point of order is being heard I will hear it in silence. That is the only warning today. Please restate the point of order.

Dr Don Brash: I asked whether the Minister had had any reports from his own economic advisers that those two pieces of legislation would improve the outlook for the New Zealand economy, or whether they instead warned, like the OECD report on the New Zealand economy, that that legislation would damage the outlook for the New Zealand economy.

Mr SPEAKER: The member should expand a little.

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: As I recollect the official advice, it was not likely to make very much difference to the economy at all. Given the fact that nearly all Treasury staff are on 4 weeks’ holiday already, I am sure that is true.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I ask the Minister whether it is correct that, for example, Ireland, which has a similar population to New Zealand, exports 5 times more than New Zealand, or that Singapore exports more than 6 times per capita than our population; is that not profound evidence of a significant failure in the economic direction this country has taken in the last 20 years?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: It is also true that Ireland imports nearly 5 times as much as New Zealand. That is the nature of the Irish economy. The United States exports significantly less than New Zealand as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP). I would be very happy if our GDP per capita figures were the same as theirs.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Will the Minister give us details of the comparative spending power of, for example, every Singaporean and Irish person, as opposed—[Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: There will be no comments from anyone other than a member of Parliament, or that person will be removed. I ask the member to restate his question.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I ask the Minister to give us the comparative figures, in terms of spending power, of every Singaporean and every Irish person as opposed to every New Zealander; again, is that comparison not compelling evidence of our economic failure?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The GDP per capita in both Ireland and Singapore is now above New Zealand’s. This can scarcely be pointed to as a success for a pure free-market approach. Singapore has only recently taken its first tentative steps to deregulating the importation of chewing gum, for example.

Sickness Benefit—Invalids Benefit

2. KATHERINE RICH (National) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: As of today, how many New Zealanders are receiving the sickness and invalids benefits, and what percentage change does that represent from the numbers receiving the same benefits in 1999?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY (Minister for Social Development and Employment): Consistent with the long-term rising trend in the number of sickness and invalids beneficiaries, as at the end of June 2004, 44,128 New Zealanders were receiving the sickness benefit—an increase of 34 percent on the 33,022 receiving that benefit at the end of June 1999. The comparable figures for the invalids benefit are 72,342, 41 percent, and 51,173. This increase compares with increases of 69 percent in the number of sickness beneficiaries and 84 percent in the number of invalids beneficiaries between 1990 and 1999.

Katherine Rich: Can the Minister tell the House how his Government’s policy changes have contributed to a 34 percent increase in sickness benefit numbers since December 1999, when in the 2 years prior to his Government coming to office the numbers were steadily in decline?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: As the member knows, the underlying reasons for the rise in numbers of sickness and invalids beneficiaries are no different in this country from others—for example, the ageing population. But this Government, in April this year, against the backdrop of the lowest unemployment rate for 20 years, launched a sickness and invalids benefits strategy, which will assist more people off those benefits and back into paid employment.

Moana Mackey: What is the Government doing to support sick and disabled people working to the extent that they are able?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: As I said, in April this year the Government launched its sickness and invalids benefits strategy to step up assistance to people who are sick or have a disability. It includes a pilot programme paying for health treatment where it will assist the return to work; enhanced case management by lowering the number of active cases for each case manager; specialist work brokers to support clients and employers; and allowing invalids beneficiaries to trial working 15 hours or more without losing their benefit. The Government wants to ensure that it harnesses the skills of these people, because we have the lowest unemployment rate in around 20 years, and they are needed in the workforce if they are able to be there.

Sue Bradford: To what extent does the Government believe that people being forced off accident compensation and into the benefit system is adding to the numbers of people on the sickness and invalids benefits?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: I think, from memory, about 17,000 over the last 5 years.

Dr Muriel Newman: In light of the increase in sickness benefit numbers by over a third since he has been the Minister, at an annual cost of almost $500 million a year, can he explain why the proposal to address this surge in numbers that was prepared by his Ministry of Social Development has been withdrawn until 2006, in spite of strong advice from Treasury stating: “Due to the large fiscal growth in this area there is a pressing need for reform options before 2006.”?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: We agree with Treasury. That is why, in April this year, we launched a major new strategy that means we will do everything we possibly can to remove barriers between a person being on a benefit and going back to work. For example, we are willing to go as far as buying an operation for a person, if it will return that person to work.

Judy Turner: Does the Minister stand by his claim on National Radio this morning that the increase in the number of sickness beneficiaries is a result of an ageing population, when the number of people under 20 years on the sickness and invalids benefits has also jumped by a third since the year 2000?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: Yes, of course I stand by that; it is one of the reasons that drive these benefits worldwide. But the member has raised another reason why we are seeing an increase in this area. There are a number of reasons why we are seeing more people on a sickness benefit or an invalids benefit. There are many reasons and they are complex.

Katherine Rich: Why does the Minister continue to use an ageing population as an excuse for rising sickness benefit and invalids benefit numbers, when a report from his own ministry in 2003 states: “Ageing populations played little role in benefit growth over the last 30 years.”?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: Perhaps it is because I am getting older myself—I do not know. But I would say that my department has consistently reported the ageing population in New Zealand—particularly amongst people of European origin—as one of the reasons that we are seeing more people on these benefits, and that is for the very logical reason that age often goes with a condition that may mean that a person cannot go to work.

Judy Turner: Can the Minister confirm that of the 60,000 people who have transferred from the dole to the sickness benefit since 1999, stress and depression have been the second and third most popular reasons for transferring, with both doubling in number in that time; and what possible explanation does he have for that pattern of behaviour?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: It is one of the features of systems around the world that we are seeing psychological conditions such as stress and depression being the reason for people seeking income support because they are unable to go to work. It is one of the reasons why that is a key feature of the sickness and invalids benefits strategy that I have been speaking about today.

xxxfo I will just correct the member: since 1999 to now, about 73,000 people have moved from the unemployment benefit to the sickness benefit, and 42,000 have moved from the sickness benefit back to the unemployment benefit. Therefore, a net number of about 31,000 people remain on the sickness benefit.

Katherine Rich: When a 2003 report from his own ministry on the subject of the rising number of sickness benefits and invalids benefits confirms that by international standards the New Zealand sickness and invalids benefit systems are “passive”, and that, once beneficiaries are in the system, “little is done to attempt to rehabilitate them into employment”, why should the House believe that the Minister is on top of the problem of the rising number of invalids benefits and sickness benefits?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: Because of that report, in April this year—and I stress that to the member—we launched the sickness and invalids benefits strategy, which is a very active approach to ensuring that people are able to go to work, against a backdrop of the lowest unemployment rate in 20 years and the fourth-lowest rate in the OECD.

Judy Turner: Can the Minister confirm that sickness beneficiaries and invalids beneficiaries are not required to undertake treatment programmes as a requirement of their benefit; if so, can he tell us why that should be the case?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: Of course, a case manager is not a person with a medical qualification. For sickness and invalids beneficiaries, we rely on the opinion of a qualified designated doctor, a specialist, or a general practitioner, who will thereby prescribe treatment.

Katherine Rich: As between 1993 and 1999 about 50 additional people joined the sickness benefit queue per month, can the Minister explain why, under Labour, more than 250 extra people per month have joined the sickness benefit queue, when variables other than Government policy have remained largely unchanged?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: As the member knows from the figures I read out before, during the 1990s we saw an increase in the numbers of both those benefits of between 60 and 80-plus percent. The member therefore knows that the reasons that lie behind those benefit increases are consistent, and she therefore should applaud the fact that, finally, a Government has decided that it will do something about this matter, against a backdrop of very low unemployment.

Dr Muriel Newman: I seek leave to table an official information briefing paper that states that the major reform proposal by the Ministry of Social Development has been withdrawn.

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Sickness Benefit—Unemployment Benefit

3. Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS (Leader—NZ First) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: Does he still dismiss suggestions that Work and Income had a policy of transferring hard-to-employ people from unemployment to sickness benefits; if so, why?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY (Minister for Social Development and Employment): Yes, because there is, and has been, no such policy.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: How can the Minister blatantly dismiss any such suggestion, when we have had a circumstance, as proven by a written question to his colleague Mr Barker last year on 31 October, that revealed that over 36.1 percent of those on sickness benefits were in receipt of the unemployment benefit immediately prior to being placed on a sickness benefit, and how does he answer those sorts of facts?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: The original question from the member concerned a policy that might see the transfer of hard-to-employ people from the unemployment benefit to a sickness benefit. I am giving him an unequivocal guarantee that there is no such policy, and that this Government is committed to ensuring that people who are on those benefits are put in a position whereby they can undertake work where that is possible. We are very actively following that policy.

Georgina Beyer: How does the number of people transferring from the unemployment benefit to a sickness benefit compare to the total number of people leaving the unemployment benefit?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: Over the last 6 years a total of 1.1 million people have left the unemployment benefit. To assist the member’s understanding of that, I will explain it means that the same person can go back and forwards off the benefit, either through cancellation of a benefit or transfer to another benefit. Of those people, 73,000, or less than 7 percent, have transferred to the sickness benefit. Over the same period 52,000 people have transferred from the sickness benefit to the unemployment benefit, meaning a net transfer of 21,000 from the sickness benefit to the unemployment benefit.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Does the Minister seriously expect any sort of integrity to attract to his name when he tries to explain away the fact that over 36 percent of the people on the unemployment benefit fell sick, and then went on to a sickness benefit; what fools does he think the people of New Zealand are?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: I think the people of New Zealand are extraordinarily wise. I guess that is why we are the Government. I do not have that figure in front of me, and all I can say to the member is that the figures I have just read out show that over the period of this Government 73,000 people have moved from the unemployment benefit to a sickness benefit and 52,000 people have gone the other way.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I seek leave to table an answer given by Rick Barker in October of last year that sets out that over 36 percent of the people on the unemployment benefit fell sick, and another answer from the same Minister that details the sickness benefit application numbers.

Documents, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Foreshore and Seabed Bill—Veto Powers

4. GERRY BROWNLEE (Deputy Leader—National) to the Deputy Prime Minister: Does he stand by his response on the Agenda programme of 24 April 2004 when asked if an effect of the Foreshore and Seabed Bill will be to create veto powers effectively allowing Mâori to refuse consent unless they are reimbursed, thereby creating a charging regime, that, “If we’re talking about a customary usage right that could be the case”; if so, why?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN (Deputy Prime Minister): Yes, the Government has always said that customary rights are property rights, and as such will have legal protection under the law. The power to prevent a development will only arise when the relevant regional council has ruled that such a development would have a severe adverse impact on the ability to exercise the recognised customary right.

Gerry Brownlee: How does the Seabed and Foreshore Bill’s legitimising of the koha-for-consent practice sit with this Government’s claims to want to reduce the cost and time of Resource Management Act consents?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: As I said, where a customary right exists and a regional council rules it would have a severe adverse impact for a development to occur, then a property right is being adversely affected. The fact that that property right is held by Mâori should not mean it is treated any differently from the property rights held by Pâkehâ.

Russell Fairbrother: What test does the Foreshore and Seabed Bill apply to customary rights?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The test is a high one. They must be applied for through either the Mâori Land Court in the case of Mâori or the High Court in the case of non-Mâori. Applicant groups must be able to demonstrate that the use or activity is integral to their culture and has been practised substantially uninterrupted since 1840. It is expected therefore that those rights, when they are established, will be specific in nature and discrete.

Dail Jones: Is the koha-for-consent process referred to in the supplementary question asked by the deputy leader of the Opposition something that came into being as a result of the Resource Management Act passed by National when it was in office?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The so-called koha-for-consent process is certainly a result of the Resource Management Act passed under the previous National Government. But, of course, similar payments are made to Pâkehâ; they are just not called koha in that case.

Hon Ken Shirley: In developing the foreshore and seabed legislation did the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues give consideration to including a clause to limit the potential for stand-over fees and charges for approving consents to be included; if not, why not?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: That issue should arise in the context of a general review of the Resource Management Act. But a party that stands by property rights as being the basis on which the entire civilisation rests, as does the ACT party, I think will be very careful about interfering with the capacity to be compensated for the loss of the use of those property rights.

Hon Peter Dunne: With regard to the interface between the foreshore and seabed legislation and other enactments such as the Resource Management Act in respect of the issue of customary rights, is the Deputy Prime Minister satisfied at the level of public understanding of the concept in terms of what is being proposed in the foreshore and seabed legislation, and if he is not satisfied what steps will the Government take between now and the implementation of that legislation to ensure that those concepts are widely understood, so that there can be no potential confusion or feeling after the event that what people got was not what they expected?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: No, I am certainly not satisfied, and I think that the nature of much of the public debate on this issue demonstrates the reason for that lack of satisfaction. But I am sure that if the Government was to engage in a major campaign of education on this matter we would have screaming headlines with various Opposition members’ names attached to them. I am confident that when the Act is in place people will notice remarkably small change in what they are doing now legitimately, and that will probably be the best proof of the Act’s operation.

Tariana Turia: Whom do customary rights flow from, and what assurances can the Government give that the foreshore and seabed will not be sold by Governments of the future?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Customary rights flow from the exercise of common law rights, which predate therefore the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi; indeed, the English version of the treaty states in article 2 the current, then, understanding of what customary rights were at the transfer of sovereignty. I am sorry, but the second part of the question was—

Hon MemberHon Member: What security?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Parliament is sovereign. The best security therefore is not to elect Governments that believe in selling State assets, whatever they are.

Gerry Brownlee: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. That answer is totally unsatisfactory. It clearly did not address the question. To go off and say that the safe way to protect the foreshore and seabed is to elect a Government that would not sell State assets hardly addresses the issue that was raised by the member asking the question.

Mr SPEAKER: I thought it did.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. With the jeering and catcalling from the Government benches, I missed the answer. I thought I heard Mr Cullen decrying those who would sell State assets, but I might have got him wrong. Can you confirm that he said that?

Mr SPEAKER: That was the impression that I gained too, as Speaker, when I was listening to the answer.

Gerry Brownlee: Did the Government consider any advice in preparing the Foreshore and Seabed Bill that raised the issue that the selling of consents into areas of customary use could lead to future treaty grievance and a liability on the wider New Zealand community?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Actions undertaken by Mâori on a willing buyer, willing seller basis have never been the grounds for successful treaty grievances. Treaty grievances related often in the past to an unwilling seller basis.

Food Safety—Contaminated Cornflour

5. SUE KEDGLEY (Green) to the Minister for Food Safety: Why has she not used her powers under section 40 of the Food Act 1981 to issue a mandatory recall of all food products that contained cornflour that was contaminated with lead 100 times above the maximum level accepted under New Zealand standards?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR (Acting Minister for Food Safety): There is no need. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has worked closely with the companies involved, and where it has been necessary product recalls have been effected. There has been complete cooperation from the companies.

Sue Kedgley: Is the Minister aware of recent research such as the 2003 definitive study in the New England Journal of Medicine that concludes that any lead exposure whatsoever may lead to irreversible intellectual impairment in children, and why, therefore, is the so-called Food Safety Authority falsely telling New Zealanders that there are no short or long-term effects from consuming cornflour contaminated with lead?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: The Food Safety Authority is not misleading New Zealanders in any way at all. It is undertaking tests of a number of food products—approximately 30—to identify whether there are any excessive levels of lead contaminant. Where there are identified levels above that accepted in New Zealand or in Australia, those products are being recalled.

Steve Chadwick: Would country-of-origin labelling have helped this situation?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: No. This cornflour was a product made in New Zealand; the cornflour being generally milled from New Zealand corn, and imported corn being used only when New Zealand corn was not available. Country-of-origin labelling for every ingredient, particularly minor ones, is impractical and costly, and that cost would eventually be passed on to the consumer.

Sue Kedgley: Does the Minister dispute the statement made by Hutt Valley medical health officer, Stephen Palmer, that: “Lead is a really hazardous substance, especially for small children. Relatively low doses can, in very young children, affect the neurological system and slow development. It shouldn’t be in food.”; if not, why did the Minister claim, in a statement made today, that for any lasting damage people would need to have an ongoing intake of high levels of lead?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: In response to the second part of the question, because that is the truth. We do realise the potential danger from excessive and prolonged exposure to lead. I am very pleased to say, though, that between 1982 and 1998 dietary lead exposure decreased by over 95 percent in the diet of the average New Zealander. We are very aware of the potential danger. That is why the Food Safety Authority is moving quickly on this issue.

Sue Kedgley: What advice does the Minister have for the father who phoned me last night, worried sick because his daughter has glycogen storage disease, which requires her to eat corn maize every 2 hours, and for other parents who are desperately worried because their children had consumed large amounts of this recalled product—Robinson’s Step Up Egg Custard—over the last 6 months?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: While it is very hard, not being an expert, to give specific advice on that issue, I suggest that every parent in the country should give their children a balanced diet, and consuming a large number of packets of egg custard is probably not healthy in any way, for any child.

Sue Kedgley: What confidence can the public have in the Food Safety Authority, when it found this significant contamination only by accident, and then set about downplaying the dangers to the public, in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: The Food Safety Authority has not downplayed the danger. It has acted swiftly on this issue. It has exposed through normal monitoring, through the Total Diet Survey in this country, something that this country does at world’s best practice—that is, assessing the intake of the average New Zealander’s diet. We have done this well. We have exposed a problem, and we are moving on it quickly.

Rod Donald: Does the minister agree with the statement made by the Food Safety Authority’s director of domestic and imported food, Tim Knox, in today’s Christchurch Press: “The rapid growth in food imports since 1996 exposed the country to new risks.”; if so, why does his Government continue to oppose country-of-origin labelling of food and why does he continue to deny New Zealand consumers the right to know where their food comes from, so they can decide for themselves what level of risk they are willing to bear when they buy overseas-produced food?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: As I pointed out in answer to the first supplementary question, country-of-origin labelling would not necessarily ensure that we knew where every product came from, if some of that food was manufactured in this country. That is accepted as international practice around country-of-origin labelling. The most important thing is that the Food Safety Authority has a robust system of ensuring that every New Zealander has access to safe food, and that wherever we expose some problems, we act on that promptly. We are doing so now.

Sue Kedgley: I seek leave to table from the New England Journal of Medicine a recent definitive study showing that intellectual impairment of children can occur even with extremely infinitesimal amounts of lead.

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Gerry Brownlee: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is naturally a topic that I take a great deal of interest in. I am wondering whether the member will give us some assurance that the member for New Lynn is not currently demonstrating with his hair colour an excessive consumption of lead.

Mr SPEAKER: This is one of those rare occasions when I am completely lost for words.

Tertiary Education Commission—Growth and Innovation

6. LYNNE PILLAY (Labour—Waitakere) to the Associate Minister of Education (Tertiary Education): How is the Tertiary Education Commission assisting the tertiary education sector to support growth and innovation?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY (Associate Minister of Education (Tertiary Education)): Consistent with the more strategic approach to investing in tertiary education, the Tertiary Education Commission recently provided funding of nearly $1 million for projects to foster entrepreneurial relationships between Auckland University and industry; a consortium to establish post-graduate qualifications of advanced engineering, technical, and business skills; development of in-work training within the biotechnology sector; and $1.8 million for information and communications technology at Canterbury University to fund a project to identify and meet current and future skill demands in that region. We will announce more of these innovations in the near future.

Lynne Pillay: How were these wonderful initiatives funded?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: These wonderful initiatives have been funded through money from the Tertiary Education Commission’s contestable strategic fund, in particular the growth pilot initiative. The Government provided the Tertiary Education Commission with money for this as part of its response to the growth and innovation industry task forces. This shows the importance of a more strategic approach to tertiary education, implemented by an arms-length body that can make independent funding decisions of benefit to the country and tertiary education.

Hon Bill English: Has the Minister seen a letter from the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors Committee that states: “What is the point of laboriously putting in place charters and profiles, and a raft of other accountability measures, when the system is haemorrhaging dollars right before your very eyes?”, and that: “The end result of this neglect and mismanagement of obvious problems is that the mainstream needs of tertiary education institutions will be postponed.”; and what comment does he have to make on this?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: No, I have not read the letter. But if I had I would probably say to the vice-chancellors that the funding situation in the 1990s, when it was being cut year on year by the National Government, has been massively improved by this Government and that they know they are the beneficiaries, for example, of the grants that I read out today, which would have been simply impossible under the National Government.

Question No. 7 to Minister

BRIAN CONNELL (National—Rakaia): I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I notice that the Minister of Police is not in the House. I believe that only he would have the information to answer the questions that I would pose. I seek the leave of the House to have my questions carried over until the Minister of Police is in the House to answer my questions.

Mr SPEAKER: The first comment is irrelevant because it is not a point of order. Leave is sought to postpone this question. Is there any objection? There is. Please ask the question.

Police—Staffing

7. BRIAN CONNELL (National—Rakaia) to the Minister of Police: Does he stand by his responses to the House to question for oral answer No. 3 on 23 June 2004; if so, why?

Hon PAUL SWAIN (Minister of Labour), on behalf of the Minister of Police: Yes, because they were accurate.

Brian Connell: Could the Minister please explain why he asserted that 90 percent of priority one events are dispatched within 2 minutes; if so, can he explain why an internal memo dated 15 June from the manager of the Southern Communications Centre states that on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of the previous week this requirement was not reached—in fact on the Tuesday only 73 percent of calls were dispatched within 2 minutes?

Hon Paul Swain: As Kath and Kim say, it is quite “ironical” that the member asks that question, because he also asked questions at the time when his question was raised on the issue of the Southern Communications Centre. What the member needs to know is that the 90 percent figure was accurate and, even more importantly now, the number of staff in the communications centre will be increased by 18, with five in the Southern Communications Centre. The situation is getting better.

Brian Connell: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would ask you to reflect on that answer from the Minister. He did not attempt to answer my question at all. I asked him how he could assert that the information was correct when clearly there is information to hand that demonstrates that the answer cannot, in fact, be right.

Mr SPEAKER: I listened to the member’s answer, and the last few words very definitely addressed the question.

Darren Hughes: In terms of meeting the response times that the Minister has outlined, how do police staffing levels and resources compare between December 1999, when this Government took office, and now?

Hon PAUL SWAIN: Extraordinarily well. In December 1999 there were 8,767 police staff; now there are 9,827. The budget at that time was $840 million. Under this Minister it is now over $1 billion. This is a fabulous Minister of Police in a fabulous Labour-led Government.

Brian Connell: When the Minister answered my question on 23 June, did he have in his possession the memorandum from Kieran Kortegast, the manager of the Southern Communications Centre, that warned that priority one levels were not being dispatched to the performance targets of 90 percent, but were in fact as low as 73 percent on some occasions; if not, why not, as I had that information?

Hon PAUL SWAIN: On behalf of the Minister, I am not sure whether he had the information at that time, but I am aware that there were some issues there. That is why the Minister has worked extraordinarily hard to make sure that the numbers have improved down there—going up by five.

Brian Connell: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. We are getting ourselves into a muddle. I specifically asked the Minister whether he had that memorandum in his possession when he answered that question on 23 June.

Mr SPEAKER: The Minister addressed the question. He may not have satisfied the member—

Brian Connell: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker—

Mr SPEAKER: Please be seated. I have not finished. I am getting tired of the member. That is twice he has raised Points of Order that are not Points of Order. The member did address the question. I heard the member.

Brian Connell: Let us get the Hansard, shall we?

Mr SPEAKER: Order! That is the last warning. The member will leave if he interjects while I am on my feet. I say to the member that I heard the Minister Paul Swain say that he did not have the particular information there, but he then added an answer at the end that said that the Minister was aware of the situation and had added five more people to that area. That certainly addressed that question. I am not here to judge the quality of the answer. I am here to see whether the Minister addressed the question. He did.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not wish to contest your ruling, but there is a serious issue here, which is that there is a huge discrepancy between what the Minister told the House, and emerging figures available to the Minister at that time that later on became available to members of Parliament. The Minister was asked how he could explain that. That part he has not explained, and he needs to.

Mr SPEAKER: I heard the Minister address the question. I will have a look at the transcript and I will see whether there is anything that I need to rule on further.

Brian Connell: Does the Minister stand by his statement that sick leave has halved since February; if so, why does information I have received show that 24 days’ sick leave was taken in the week ending 13 June, a significant increase from the weeks ending 31 May and 24 May?

Hon PAUL SWAIN: Yes, I do stand by that, because that is the information that has been provided to me by the police.

Timberlands Forests—Management as Conservation Land

8. DAVID PARKER (Labour—Otago) to the Minister of Conservation: Has he received any reports on the current management of the former Timberlands forests that are now protected as conservation land?

Hon CHRIS CARTER (Minister of Conservation): Yes. My department has reported to me that under Department of Conservation management, the level of pest control in those forests has increased at least fivefold. Three important cave sites in the Charleston Forest have been ranked as internationally significant, threatened species are being actively protected at several sites, weed surveys have been undertaken, and public recreational use of the forest is growing.

David Parker: Has the Minister seen any reports on proposals for the future management of those protected rainforests?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: Yes. I have seen a report that Dr Don Brash would like to see those forests and other conservation areas on the West Coast available for logging. He wants to take New Zealand back to the turmoil of the 1990s, when chainsaws were ripping into our unique, publicly owned rainforests, and the country was in an uproar.

Question No. 7 to Minister

BRIAN CONNELL (National—Rakaia): I apologise to the House—I realise I should have raised this at the time—but I seek leave to table a document from Kieran Kortegast, written on 15 June, which points out that those targets were, in fact, not achieved.

Mr SPEAKER: I will allow the member to seek leave. Is there any objection? There is.

Sentencing—Reparation

9. RON MARK (NZ First) to the Minister of Justice: Will he be reviewing the sentencing laws to ensure that provision for reparation to victims does not buy lighter sentences; if not, why not?

Hon PHIL GOFF (Minister of Justice): Section 12 of the Sentencing Act provides that a judge must order reparation to the victim in every case, unless there are strong reasons not to do so. In relevant cases, this sentence is in addition to, and not in place of, any other sentence that may be appropriate, such as imprisonment. Separate to this, under section 10 of the Act, voluntary offers of amends can be taken into account by the court in sentencing, but only to the extent that the victim accepts the offer, and that it is genuine and is capable of fulfilment. There is no current intention to change those provisions.

Ron Mark: Has the Minister received any feedback from the public surrounding the sentence handed down to Qi Sun, a repeat-offending Chinese national on a work permit, for his part in an illegal casino, where bets of over $1,000 could be made, who was discharged without conviction after paying a paltry $150 donation to the Salvation Army; if so, did the feedback indicate that the public were satisfied with this form of chequebook justice?

Hon PHIL GOFF: No, to the best of my knowledge I have not received any submissions on that case—leastwise, they have not come across my desk if they were received. What I can tell the member is that the judge has a discretion to take into account what he accepts as an offer of amends, and he can impose what he believes to be the appropriate level of reparation. In another case—the Cromie case, in the member’s own region—$380,000 was paid by way of amends, but that did not stop the offender getting 2½ years’ imprisonment, because that was appropriate given the nature of her offending.

Tim Barnett: What rights are accorded to the victim with regard to whether any amends offered by the offender will be regarded as a mitigating factor by the judge at sentencing?

Hon PHIL GOFF: Section 10 states that the court must take into account an offer of amends, but only to the extent that it is genuine, that it is capable of fulfilment, and that it is accepted by the victim as expiating or mitigating the wrong. This, then, will be one mitigating factor that is judged against other factors, including aggravating factors, and it does not reduce the need for the court to sentence in relation to the sentencing purposes of the Act, which are protection of the public, denunciation, and deterrence of offending.

Richard Worth: In the light of the widespread public perception that those with money may, by making reparation payments, secure a lesser sentence, why will the Minister not review the Sentencing Act, so that rich and poor people are punished equally and the rich do not secure an advantage?

Hon PHIL GOFF: Some would say that that is a bit rich. It is important—[Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: I must say that that was a little bit of an overreaction. I heard the Minister make a comment that was out of order, and I was about to chide him for it. He will please answer the question.

Hon PHIL GOFF: It is a fundamental principle in our system of justice that people are treated the same, regardless of their income or status in life, and it is important to uphold that. That is why, when the Act said that amends could be taken into account, it did not state the level of amends, and a judge will obviously take into account what is offered in relation to what the person’s means are. Nor does the Act take into account that there are a variety of other ways in which a person can help to restore the situation he or she has caused for the victim. The member is a lawyer. He should not talk about perceptions; he should talk about realities. As an officer of the court, he knows that the court does not believe in chequebook justice.

Nandor Tanczos: Does the Minister agree that reparations can be an important part of, or an alternative to, sentencing, where agreed between a victim and an offender and, in particular, that in general reparations are preferable to the use of fines—as the money actually goes to the victim, rather than to the State?

Hon PHIL GOFF: I do agree with what the member has said. In the last year alone, over $14 million was paid by offenders to victims, to help set right the losses suffered by those victims. Anybody in the House who would be opposed to that happening needs his or her head read.

Ron Mark: Is the Minister satisfied that his Sentencing Act has been applied by the judiciary as it was intended; if so, was it his intention that foreign criminals be able to claim over $40,000 in legal aid from the taxpayer, and then have the appellants pay $64,000 worth of blood money in exchange for a 3½ year reduction in a sentence?

Hon PHIL GOFF: The member is absolutely factually incorrect in the last statement he made. If he took the time to read the judgment, instead of making things up, he would see precisely why the judge, on appeal, decided to reduce that sentence. The question of amends, not accepted by one half of the family but ultimately accepted by the other half of the family, was only third in line of what the judge said was important in the reduction of the sentence.

Ron Mark: Then what is the Minister’s response to calls from the public indicating a widespread feeling that chequebook justice is alive and well under his Sentencing Act, especially following a recent case where an unlicensed foreign driver killed a 4-year-old girl through his dangerous driving and had his sentence halved on appeal, due to $40,000 worth of blood money being offered to, and declined by, the victim’s family and the victim’s kindergarten?

Hon PHIL GOFF: Repeating something as a fact, and which is factually incorrect, does not make it a fact. The member has his facts wrong on a number of fronts. There is nowhere in the judge’s sentencing notes—and I hope the member has read them—

Ron Mark: Come on.

Hon PHIL GOFF: He has read them? Well, he would know better. I bet he has not read them. The judge made it quite explicit that this was not about chequebook justice, at all. He deplored the accusation of chequebook justice. The reason the sentence was reduced was to bring it into line with other sentences for like offences. It had nothing to do with what the member claims, at all.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: In the interests of disclosing what the law is, in respect of the rich, I seek leave to table a book called The Paradise Conspiracy, which shows that crooks, rather than getting punished, got knighthoods.

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Chief Justice—Comments

10. RODNEY HIDE (Leader—ACT) to the Prime Minister:: Following her advice to judges that they should “stick to the bench”, how does she believe that Chief Justice Sian Elias should pursue her concerns about the “institutional independence of the judiciary as a whole from the Executive.”, given the Chief Justice’s view quoted in the New Zealand Herald that the judges are “very vulnerable on this question of independence”?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK (Prime Minister): The constitutional convention is that the Chief Justice conveys any concerns about the relationship between the judiciary and the executive to the Attorney-General.

Rodney Hide: Does the Prime Minister agree with the Chief Justice, who said before the British Parliament: “I think in a way the executive has beaten up the anti-democratic, unelected angle—in other words, inflamed legislative suspicions of judicial over-aggrandisement.”; if she does not agree with that, does she have full confidence in the top judge of our top court?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: I would find it hard to think how the statement the member has quoted would be substantiated, but if the Chief Judge wishes to come to the Attorney-General and attempt to substantiate it, we would be all ears.

Richard Worth: Would a wise Prime Minister dismiss the views of a concerned and committed Chief Justice as minor, when the issues involve the relevance, significance, and sufficient resourcing of our new and highest court?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: Try as I can, and having read what was said to the select committee in the United Kingdom, I cannot add up issues around the employment of staff, library facilities, information technology, and the security of officers of the court, and make those into a statement about an intolerable pressure on the independence of the judiciary.

Hon Dr Michael Cullen: Could I ask the Prime Minister to confirm that the information technology available to the new Supreme Court judges is significantly superior to that available to either the executive or other members of Parliament?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: I do not have precise information on that, but I am very happy to take the Minister of Finance’s advice on it, as he almost certainly is the one who is paying for it.

Dail Jones: What responsibility will the Prime Minister accept for this unique debate between a Prime Minister and a Chief Justice, and will she acknowledge it is symptomatic of the lack of consultation that surrounded the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council and the establishment of an under-resourced Supreme Court?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: I cannot take responsibility for the Chief Justice initiating a debate with comments before a British select committee. What I have observed is that when a Chief Justice or anybody else from the judiciary makes such comments, it starts a political debate that the judge cannot then continue to pursue—as her own press statement yesterday made clear. I also note that in the evidence to the select committee in the United Kingdom, Justice Gault specifically stated : “At the same time I do not criticise the administrative support the court so far has had, and it has had a great deal because it is the new game on the block and it is getting a lot of attention.”

Nandor Tanczos: Is the Prime Minister of the view that New Zealand’s historical dependence on the Privy Council as our superior court has meant that in the past our judiciary has not been able adequately to maintain its role in the balance of powers, and does she think that the various constitutional debates now being entered into by the Chief Justice indicate a welcome robustness in the relationship and raise important questions?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: I am sure the fact that the top court of appeal for New Zealand has resided 12,000 miles away has had an impact on the development of the judiciary in this country. But, as I said in response to an earlier question, I do find it hard to add up the series of comments around employment of staff, library facilities, information technology, and security of officers to make an intolerable threat to the independence of the judiciary.

Stephen Franks: Following on from the Prime Minister’s answer to the question about what the judges should now do, where the Prime Minister referred them to a discussion with the Attorney-General, does she consider that that is entirely fair, given that when the Chief Justice was asked before the British select committee whether the Attorney-General was independent, she confined herself to saying “Yes, although …”?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: The simple advice I have is that the constitutional convention is that the Chief Justice would raise such concerns with the Attorney-General. Of course, if the Chief Justice felt that she needed to take the matter further, there is always the possibility of appearing before a select committee. One might also expect that, given that the Chief Justice has a warrant from the Governor-General, approaching her might be a course to follow. But I am not convinced that the avenues for discussion of these issues were exhausted. Indeed, those comments were made in May; I understand that further progress on a number of these issues has been made since that time.

Stephen Franks: Does the Prime Minister understand the confusion left after her Deputy Prime Minister castigated activist judges who “express views on what the law should be”, when her Attorney-General had promoted a new Supreme Court expressly so that the judges could “develop an indigenous law for New Zealand”; and in view of her advice to the judges to, in effect, butt out, what is the difference between activism usurping Parliament and judges “developing an indigenous law”?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: The Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on judicial activism have had enthusiastic support in a number of parts of the Chamber—not least, from the member who has just asked the question, who has been heard to opine on that matter in the past. As I infer, the Attorney-General’s comments were directed entirely to the top level of appeal for the judicial system being located here in New Zealand; that, therefore, makes the decisions those entirely of the indigenous law of New Zealand.

Rodney Hide: Is the Prime Minister concerned that our top judges felt the need to fly 12,000 miles—all the way to London—to say things to the British Parliament that they were, clearly, not prepared to share with our Parliament; and what will she do as Prime Minister to ensure that our judges can raise serious concerns here in New Zealand without any fear of executive intimidation or retaliation?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: My understanding is that the reason for the Chief Justice and two others going all the way to the United Kingdom at that time was to attend at least one form of ceremony around the end of New Zealand appeals to the Privy Council; it was thought it was an important symbolic occasion, and there should be high-level representation, which also included the Attorney-General. In addition, the Chief Justice and the two others were asked to appear before a British select committee because Britain is also considering a major change in its top court levels; it was in that context that they gave evidence, presumably under oath, to a select committee. I am sure that if the New Zealand select committee that is relevant to the judiciary would like to invite the judges in, they would similarly answer such questions.

Stephen Franks: Will the Prime Minister in future try to make it easier for the judges to follow her advice and “stay out of the political arena”, by ridding the Government’s legislation of deliberately undefined, politically loaded terms like “principles of the Treaty”, “kaitiakitanga”, “accountability”, “spiritual and intrinsic values”, “tikanga Mâori”, and so many other terms that force the courts into the political arena?

Rt Hon HELEN CLARK: I am astonished that the member thinks the word “accountability” has no place in the law, but, then, I am also astonished that he would think it possible for the law in New Zealand not to have regard to concepts such as the ones he mentioned.

Family Support Services—Development

11. JUDY TURNER (United Future) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: Does he stand by his statement with regard to the development of family support services that “I am confident that MSD’s collaboration with NGOs and other relevant agencies to achieve a more effective and responsive family service sector will not only relieve pressure on CYF but also result in greater practical help for New Zealand families in their communities,”; if not, why not?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY (Minister for Social Development and Employment): Yes, I do.

Judy Turner: What practical help for New Zealand families has emerged from the family services initiative, given that documents obtained under the Official Information Act reveal that all that has happened since the baseline review last year is the creation of 23 new management positions at a national and regional level, a list of non-governmental organisations, and a website?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: I take it that the member is referring to the new section of the Ministry of Social Development that deals with family and community issues. The member will know that perhaps one of the most significant developments in relation to the questions she is raising is the partnership that has been formed between the non-governmental organisation sector that deals with family and community services, and that part of the Ministry of Social Development. She will also know, if she has talked to the non-governmental organisation sector, that it has been extraordinarily positive about that relationship and regards it as one of the most important developments that has taken place in a very long time.

H V Ross Robertson: Can the Minister tell the House what the Government has put in place to take forward its approach to supporting families?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: The Government, of course, over the last 5 years has made children and families one of the major features of its policies. That is why we now have a family and community services group as part of the Ministry of Social Development, and it is why we have a partnership with the non-governmental organisation sector to strengthen family support. We have been doing a large number of practical things to support families, and I point in particular to the Working for Families package, which will benefit nearly 300,000 low to middle income families with children by investing over $1 billion a year, once it is fully in place. That represents the biggest offensive against child poverty in this country in decades.

Katherine Rich: When the Minister talks about creating “a more effective and responsive family service sector”, how effective and responsive is the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services call centre, when in the last 6 months nearly 11,000 New Zealanders ringing the department hung up because they did not get any answer?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: As the member well knows, the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services reports to the Associate Minister Ruth Dyson. But I have sat and listened to questions from that member to Ruth Dyson, and the Minister has outlined her concerns about the call centre and exactly what she has done to improve the centre.

Judy Turner: Is the Minister confident in the ability of family services to complete the mapping of local community needs across 20 sites, given that documents obtained under the Official Information Act reveal that after a 2-year trial, the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services mapping of services at six sites was incomplete and had barely started at one site; does he concede that the major problem with the process is that there is a vague idea only of what the outcome should be, as opposed to the kind of dual-track model for family support services proposed by United Future?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: The local services mapping concept is a very sound one, and I do not think anyone in the House would dispute the bringing together of all family and community services in a local area so that they work together as having anything other than merit. The taking up of that approach by the new family and community services part of the Ministry of Social Development will guarantee that it will move faster. The ministry has vastly more resources available to it for this purpose than the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services did. That is why non-governmental organisations have greeted the new part of the Ministry of Social Development with open arms and why they see it as making more progress.

Judy Turner: Does the Minister agree that, given that the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services reported a 30 percent increase in notifications over the last year—most of which, the department’s staff themselves admit, involve basic family support needs—what our families really need is quality early intervention services and a referral system to community agencies that are already trying to do that work, such as the model proposed by United Future earlier this year; if not, why not?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: I can only continue to applaud the commitment that that member and her party have to children and families in this country, and say that we always take their extraordinarily insightful ideas very seriously and study them very closely. That is partly because they are so close to the ideas of the Government itself.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Speaking about insightful ideas, how can the situation possibly improve when the Families Commission legislation was so loose as to its description of “family” that it would include Black Power, the Mongrel Mob, the Nomads, the Headhunters, the Hells Angels, Highway 61, and the Filthy Few?

Hon STEVE MAHAREY: I thought the Filthy Few had closed down, to be truthful. I point out to the member that that issue was raised during the passage of the bill, and as he will remember, it was dealt with so that those kinds of groups would not qualify as families.

Canterbury District Health Board—Elective Surgery

12. Dr PAUL HUTCHISON (National—Port Waikato) to the Minister of Health: Does she believe the amount of elective surgery currently being performed by the Canterbury District Health Board is meeting the needs of Canterbury residents; if so, why?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR (Acting Minister of Health): As the Canterbury District Health Board said last week, the amount of elective surgery at Christchurch Hospital has gone up this year, not down. The hospital has met its targets and increased the amount of elective surgery it has delivered in the financial year ending 30 June.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Given that the Minister said in 1999 that Labour was committed to implementing a timely elective surgery system, does she accept that a 15-month delay for elderly cataract sufferers in Canterbury is neither timely nor meets their needs?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: In response to the new Opposition spokesperson on health, I am happy to say that we do not like having anyone wait for surgery. However, it is a reality of any health system, and with regard to cataract operations, the Minister of Health has committed to a cataract project to investigate the delays in this area of surgery.

Lianne Dalziel: Can the Minister advise whether Canterbury residents will benefit at all from the extra funding in Vote Health for major orthopaedics operations, which amounts to $30 million for this year and rises to $70 million a year in 4 years’ time; if so, how?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: In response to a member who really cares about Canterbury, yes, Canterbury will be funded for an extra 250 major hip and knee operations this year, at a cost of an extra $3.79 million. By year 4 of the project it will receive an extra $7.6 million a year in sustainable funding for extra hip and knee operations. By then, the rates of intervention in Canterbury will be among the best in the world, dramatically improving the quality of life for thousands of Canterbury people.

Barbara Stewart: Can the Minister explain why many people under the Canterbury District Health Board have to wait longer than 6 months for their first consultation with a specialist?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: As we work through the number of people who are looking to improve their quality of life through elective surgery there will always be pressure points, but I am pleased to say that we have had an increase of 122 in general elective surgery operations, 48 in dental, and 81 in neurology. We are spending billions of dollars more in health, and access to health care for every New Zealander is improving.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Does she accept that patients in Canterbury with cataracts feel there is nothing timely about their waiting lists, or in meeting their needs, given that the number of operations performed has halved, from 1,200 in 1999-2000 under National, to only 600 in 2002-2003?

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: While I do not have the figures in front of me, I do accept there has been a reduction in the cataract area of ophthalmology. The Minister has committed to investigate this very area to make sure that people have better access.

Dr Paul Hutchison: I seek leave to table a copy of an article from the Press of 21 July 2004 titled “Elective Surgery Rates Plummet”, which shows that there were 1,200 cataract operations in 2000 and only 600 in 2002.

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Hon DAMIEN O'CONNOR: I seek leave to table the response put out the day after by the Canterbury District Health Board that refutes the claims made in that article.

Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

Ron Mark: I seek the leave of the House to table written questions that I have put to the Minister of Health on this issue that she simply fobbed off, telling me that this is the district health board’s responsibility.

Mr SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table those written questions. Is there any objection? There is.

End of Questions for Oral Answer

( Uncorrected transcript—subject to correction and further editing. For corrected transcripts, please visit: http://www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz/hansard )

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