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Questions And Answers - Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Questions And Answers - Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Questions to Ministers

Benefits—Unemployment

1. RUSSELL FAIRBROTHER (Labour) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: What reports has she received regarding the number of New Zealanders receiving an unemployment benefit?

Hon RUTH DYSON (Minister for Social Development and Employment): I am delighted to report to the House that the number of New Zealanders receiving an unemployment benefit is at its lowest since 1979. Our Government has invested in New Zealanders. We have rebuilt the tax credit system to make work pay and we are providing active support to help people find jobs. More than 141,000 people have come off an unemployment benefit since 1999, which is a decrease of 88 percent.

Russell Fairbrother: What progress has been made in reducing the number of young people receiving the unemployment benefit for long periods of time?

Hon RUTH DYSON: Great progress. Five years ago our Government made a commitment with the Mayors Task Force for Jobs to ensure that all young New Zealanders are on a clear pathway to economic independence and well-being. That collaborative effort has resulted in a tremendous achievement. This week, fewer than 250 18 and 19-year-olds have been on an unemployment benefit for longer than 13 weeks. That is a drop of 97 percent since December 1999. This afternoon my colleagues and I will meet with the Mayors Task Force for Jobs to look at our next challenge.

Russell Fairbrother: Are people leaving the unemployment benefit only by simply transferring to sickness or invalids benefits?

Hon RUTH DYSON: The answer is no. The reason that most people leave the unemployment benefit is to enter paid employment.

Madam SPEAKER: It is impossible to hear the Minister’s reply. I ask the Hon Ruth Dyson to please start again.

Hon RUTH DYSON: The answer is no. Most people leave the unemployment benefit to enter paid work. Only 8.5 percent of all unemployment benefit cancellations between September 1999 and September of this year have been as a result of transfers to sickness benefit. Over the same period, 60,000 people went the other way. That makes a net transfer of 31,000. One-third of 1 percent of unemployment benefit cancellations over the same period were as a result of a transfer to an invalids benefit; and over the same period 450 went the other way. That makes a net transfer of just 2,850. The combination of those two factors is nothing like the 141,000 people who are no longer dependent on the unemployment benefit.

Electoral Finance Bill—New Zealand Herald Coverage

2. JOHN KEY (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Does she stand by her statements, in relation to the New Zealand Herald’s coverage of the Electoral Finance Bill, that “There have been weeks, if not months, with full-blooded attacks, front-page headlines, editorials, attack stories, cartoons, you name it.”, and that complaining to the Press Council “just doesn’t get you anywhere”; if so, why?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN (Deputy Prime Minister) on behalf of the Prime Minister: Yes; because that is the case.

John Key: What does it say about the Government’s confidence in its own bill that in the face of criticism the Prime Minister cannot argue about the specific points journalists are raising but can only smear those journalists as being shallow, error-prone, and making major gaffes because of their limited knowledge?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The Prime Minister was speaking to a group of journalists and journalism students in relation to the nature of parliamentary reporting. On that occasion, of course, she was not talking specifically about the debate around the details of the Electoral Finance Bill; she was talking about the fact that we have a robust media in this country that is sometimes—not always—highly accurate.

John Key: Is it not the case that the Electoral Finance Bill has been widely criticised by almost every other newspaper in the country, by the Law Society, by the Human Rights Commission, and by New Zealand Bill of Rights Act specialists, and does the Prime Minister consider that those people and organisations are wrong in their analysis, as well as the New Zealand Herald?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: There was a great deal of criticism of the bill as it originally entered the select committee. A very large number of changes were made in the select committee, and, indeed, a large number of changes were made during the Committee of the whole House. That, of course, means that there is now quite a different bill from the one that went into the select committee.

John Key: Does the Prime Minister, by mentioning a possible complaint to the Press Council, mean that in her opinion the New Zealand Herald has not been fair and balanced in its coverage of the Electoral Finance Bill, and in fact has deliberately misled or misinformed its readers; if not, what other grounds does she have for even considering a complaint to the Press Council?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Clearly, the Prime Minister was not considering a complaint to the Press Council, because she says “there was little point in complaining to the print media’s self-regulatory watchdog, the Press Council.” She was pointing out that the New Zealand Herald has run a campaign. Clearly, it has. A front-page editorial that says “our view” and “their view”, and where “their view” is simply other newspapers saying the same thing as the New Zealand Herald, is scarcely a balanced coverage.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Could the Prime Minister confirm that one of New Zealand’s primary concerns in the Pacific is to remove the influence of foreign interests in national elections in various countries in the Pacific; and what reports has she seen to advise that it is both a sound policy abroad and one to be encouraged back here in New Zealand?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: That is indeed the New Zealand Government’s position within the Pacific, and of course it is very interesting to see, when one reads The Hollow Men, the very clear evidence of external influence being brought to bear on New Zealand’s electoral process via the National Party.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Has the Prime Minister noted that the Business Roundtable’s John Boscawen paid $9,000 to get a Canadian call centre to make automated calls to 82,000 Aucklanders, urging them to join his rally against the Electoral Finance Bill; and is she concerned that this kind of activity could herald the way in which electoral campaigns could be bought and sold in future?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Indeed, I have seen reports suggesting that Mr Boscawen has spent considerable sums on hiring outside agencies to conduct what has been described as a phone scam. But the fact that Mr Boscawen has also paid for extraordinarily badly put together newspaper advertisements, which no one would have got past the first 235 words of, is neither here nor there.

John Key: Does the Prime Minister agree with the key principles of the Press Council that “a publication is entitled to adopt a forthright stance and advocate a position on any issue”; and has not the New Zealand Herald simply been doing that?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The media are certainly entitled to take a forthright stance. Sometimes some of them have difficulty understanding that politicians—on both sides of the House—are entitled to take a forthright stance in response. That is called being in a democracy.

John Key: Is it not becoming a hallmark of this Government that it simply attacks the motives of people and organisations that dare to disagree with or challenge the Government—just as the Government did when it did not like what the Auditor-General had to say, just as it did when the Minister of Finance tried to say that the only reason journalists reported tax cuts was that they were for their own benefit, and just as it has now when the New Zealand Herald has been running a fair and balanced campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill; and do we not all know, on this side of the House, that it is the beginning of the end when the messenger starts to be shot because the Government cannot win the argument?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: That obvious and robust defence of the New Zealand Herald suggests that the member might well be described as the New Zealand Herald’s page-boy from now on.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Does the Prime Minister recall the New Zealand Herald’s very neutral stance on Peter Shirtcliffe and the Campaign for Better Government—which comprised only three family members and campaigned back in 1993—its 57 editorials attacking anyone who questioned Fay and Richwhite, or, on the question of the Airways Corporation board, its attack on some member of Parliament who had attacked the board chairman, even though the board chairman chaired the board of the New Zealand Herald—and if it was not prepared to disclose that interest, why does he expect it to disclose something now?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Well, many things! I recall the New Zealand Herald launching a very similar campaign against the abolition of the right to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which it said would mean the end of our legal system. But one must be fair: one also recollects the New Zealand Herald stating in one editorial that the National Party was doing very well, until Mr Key started to announce policy.

John Key: Has it dawned on the Prime Minister that it is not necessarily the New Zealand Herald that is wrong, that it is not necessarily the millions of New Zealanders who are opposed to this bill who are wrong, and that every organisation around this country that thinks this legislation is wrong is not necessarily wrong itself; has it ever dawned on the Government that for once in its life it is wrong, so why does it not just scrap the bill, as we suggested 6 months ago?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: I suspect that the Government has been wrong more than once in some 8 years of Government; it would be rather surprising if we had not been. I am equally confident, however, that this is not one of those occasions. But the member should not be afraid of robust debate; some day he may want to be able to engage in robust debate with the media.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Does the Prime Minister personally agree that the involvement of ordinary citizens in the review mechanisms for the Electoral Finance Bill should consist of more than just the usual chance to make submissions?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: It is always very difficult to ensure that there is a proper canvassing of opinion from the public at large—particularly on complex issues like electoral law, where there is obviously not a simple yes or no answer around a whole range of matters. I think working through how best to engage in a review that incorporates public participation that is as wide as possible is a difficult matter, and is one that we need to give more time and consideration to.

Tertiary Education Strategy—University Equity Obligations

3. Dr PITA SHARPLES (Co-Leader—Māori Party) to the Minister for Tertiary Education: Is he satisfied that New Zealand universities are fulfilling their equity obligations under the tertiary education strategy; if so, what response does he have to the situation at Auckland University, which one newspaper today summarised as: “Fears held for poor, Maori and Pacific Islanders”?

Hon PETE HODGSON (Minister for Tertiary Education): The member asks an important question. The answer is yes, mainly because there will be more university places next year than this year, and more places still the following year. There is an increase in access to universities in this country.

Dr Pita Sharples: What action will the Minister take to ensure Māori students are not being disproportionately disadvantaged by the restricted entry policy of Auckland University?

Hon PETE HODGSON: The member may not be aware that every university is required to show how it will increase participation and achievement of under-represented groups, including Māori and Pacific Island students, in its investment plan. Every university does so.

Dr Ashraf Choudhary: Has the Minister seen any reports on the increases in student numbers and in funding to New Zealand universities?

Hon PETE HODGSON: The funding increase over the past couple of years has been about 18 percent or 19 percent. The increase in student numbers from last year until next is forecast at somewhere about 4 percent or 5 percent. So the number of full-time students will increase, it is thought, from about 107,000 to 112,000.

Judy Turner: Is the Minister satisfied with the direction of the tertiary education strategy for regional polytechnics, and will he assure the House that the strategy will not suck young people out of the regions into major cities, increasing the unlikelihood they will ever return?

Hon PETE HODGSON: I think if there is any trend at all in the way the polytech funding and plans are going, it would be to increase the amount of in-region activity, not to decrease it. So, all other things being equal, that would see the opposite effect to the one the member suggests.

Dr Pita Sharples: Given the response to my question, how then will the Government honour its commitments in it tertiary education strategy to support affordable, equitable access to tertiary education across the sector?

Hon PETE HODGSON: The member will be aware of 8 years of activity to increase the affordability of education for New Zealanders. In the case of university students, the number of Māori students has increased in recent years—it is now up at around 13,000; it used to be 12,000 or thereabouts a few years ago. For Pacific Islanders the increase has been even greater. It has gone from about 6,000 in 2000, to about 9,000 now. These are useful increases. I am not for a minute suggesting that they are sufficient increases, but certainly the increase in Māori and Pacific Island participation is something this House can be very proud of.

Dr Pita Sharples: What response does the Minister have to Efeso Collins, who believes that students from poorer backgrounds would be excluded under the new regime at Auckland University, describing the outcome of the actions as creating “an underclass”—an analysis confirmed by both the Auckland University Students Association and Dr Bedggood, a member of the Association of University Staff of New Zealand?

Hon PETE HODGSON: I think what has happened is that a number of these commentators have made an understandable mistake in thinking that the number of places in our universities or polytechnics are somehow being capped at their current level and that, therefore, because of an increase in demand some students would be excluded who otherwise would not be. The truth is a little different. The truth is that we are moving from unplanned and open-ended growth, to planned and managed growth but growth nonetheless, and as a result of that we will see more students in polytechnics and universities next year than we have in this year.

Hon Georgina te Heuheu: More underclasses.

Hon PETE HODGSON: I am not sure what that prattle from the other side of the House has to say, but I can assure the member that we will have an increase in participation in our tertiary education, not a decrease.

Environment, Minister—Confidence

4. JOHN KEY (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Does she have confidence in the Minister for the Environment; if so, why?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN (Deputy Prime Minister) on behalf of the Prime Minister: Yes; because he is a hard-working and conscientious Minister.

John Key: Should Trevor Mallard apologise for his attack on Erin Leigh in this House; if not, why not?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The Prime Minister awaits the report of the State Services Commission.

John Key: What reason has Mr Mallard given the Prime Minister for refusing to apologise in the House at this point?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: Mr Mallard and the Prime Minister are both awaiting the report of the State Services Commission.

John Key: Is the reason Trevor Mallard will not apologise that Mr Mallard did not rely just on the briefing note when he defamed Erin Leigh in this House but he also relied on other information, that information came from two other people, David Parker and Heather Simpson, and that proves more than anything else that the Public Service is now politicised under Labour?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: No. I am advised the Minister did not talk to either of those people before giving the answer in the House.

John Key: Well, why then will the Minister for the Environment not apologise for something that the ministry itself is apologising for?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The ministry, of course, has apologised to the Minister for giving information that the head of the ministry now considers to be inadequate.

John Key: Does the Prime Minister think that Trevor Mallard’s actions in the last few months live up to her promise that “The Labour Government will set new standards, both in terms of behaviour and performance, so that we will govern for the people and be accountable to them”; if so, how is that the case?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: The Prime Minister has a clear record of operating sanctions against Ministers who have not performed up to the required standard, unlike the member opposite, because, of course, when Dr Nick Smith was found guilty of contempt of court, his colleagues welcomed him back with applause and no sanction occurred. When Mr Tau Henare was engaged in the altercation with Mr Mallard, nothing happened to him.

Madam SPEAKER: It is very difficult to hear.

John Key: Is it not just the case that Mr Mallard has completely lost objectivity, that he no longer is in control of his own actions in this House, and that he is wrong, the Government is wrong, and the ministry is embarrassed by the spin that Mr Mallard has put on this; and why does the Prime Minister not just put Mr Mallard out of his misery before the New Zealand public do so in 10 months’ time?

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN: If the member really believes in the rule of law and of standards, then he will await the full inquiry report before rushing to judgment.

Prisoners—Numbers

5. Hon PAUL SWAIN (Labour—Rimutaka) to the Minister of Corrections: What reports has he received on prison numbers?

Hon PHIL GOFF (Minister of Corrections): I am advised by the Department of Corrections that the prison muster as of yesterday was 7,828. That means that current spare capacity in the prison system yesterday was 1,122 spare beds. I compare that with just over 100 spare beds during the prison crisis under the previous National Government in 1999. That utterly contradicts Simon Power’s claims that the prison numbers are out of control and have reached crisis level. [Interruption] Mr Power has got it wrong again and Mr Ryall, who is interjecting, should know that there are no prisoners in court cells at the present time.

Hon Paul Swain: Can the Minister advise whether, notwithstanding the efforts of previous hardworking and conscientious Labour Ministers of Corrections, current prison numbers are consistent with the Ministry of Justice forecast in 2006?

Hon PHIL GOFF: Although for much of the year prison numbers were tracking way above the 2006 Ministry of Justice forecast, the figures for early December are practically identical to the total number forecast for that period and numbers appear to be currently tracking very closely to those predicted.

Simon Power: Can the Minister confirm his department’s briefing released on Friday, which states that the peak prison muster in September was 8,457, when the latest forecast predicted those numbers would not be reached until 2011; can he also confirm the department’s view that this muster crisis is due to an increase in violent crime, which has increased by 32 percent since Labour came into office, and that “average sentence lengths have not changed significantly”?

Hon PHIL GOFF: On the very last point, although a gutless National Government never put in serious penalties for serious violent offenders, Labour has increased the minimum non-parole period for serious offenders from 10 to 17 years—Bell, for example, got 30 years—which was something the National Government never did. In fact, the National Government released serious violent offenders automatically after they had completed two-thirds of their sentence regardless of the risk assessment by the Department of Corrections. I can confirm for the member that numbers have tracked down steadily from those quoted by the member. There is no crisis and, contrary to the member’s allegations that the Effective Interventions programme by the Labour Government is not working, clearly it is.

Judy Turner: Considering that re-offending substantially feeds prison muster numbers, is the Minister happy with how his department is supporting inmates to reintegrate through literacy and numeracy programmes, drug and alcohol treatment, and resettlement options; if not, what plans has he to better support the thousands of inmates due for release in the next 12 months, or do we need them to justify all the new prisons we are building?

Hon PHIL GOFF: There are a range of programmes designed to assist rehabilitation. Some of them are working extraordinarily well, such as the offender programmes Kia Mārama and Te Piriti for child sex offenders. There are now much higher numbers of people in work in prison getting work skills, work experience, and work habits, which are proven to be related to offending. There is much more being done in terms of drug and alcohol rehabilitation—in fact my predecessor, Damien O’Connor, ensured that we are on track to having six drug rehabilitation programmes—and there is much greater emphasis on training and education skills, which the member mentioned. In fact, the number of inmates doing New Zealand Qualifications Authority units has gone up quite dramatically and is at a very high level.

Hon Paul Swain: Has Labour’s Effective Interventions programme been an effective intervention?

Hon PHIL GOFF: Yes. Simon Power gets it wrong and then entrenches himself in that position. He said it was not having an impact.

Simon Power: This was the Minister who was opposed to it.

Hon PHIL GOFF: If the member wants to ask a question, he should rise to his feet and ask it, instead of interjecting across the House. Yes, the programme has clearly been effective in ensuring that although the worst and serious violent offenders are now spending much longer in prison, those that are there for short-term sentences, where the focus should be on preventing reoffending, are being dealt with in more effective ways at much less cost to the community.

Simon Power: Why was the Minister previously opposed to electronic bail and to the introduction of the Sentencing Council, both of which are crucial parts of the Effective Interventions package?

Hon PHIL GOFF: At the time I was Minister of Justice and the paper was first looked at, electronic monitoring had not proceeded to the level of effectiveness that it has now—and it has. This is a modern, new-age Government. We take advantage of new technology. Electronic monitoring is working well. I am in favour of a Sentencing Council that ensures that there is consistency in sentencing. When I see that sentences in Auckland for identical offences to sentences in Invercargill bear no logical relationship to the other, I see that there is a need for sentencing guidelines and a Sentencing Council.

Electoral Finance Bill—Interpretation of Clause 80(d)

6. Hon BILL ENGLISH (Deputy Leader—National) to the Minister of Justice: Does she stand by her assurance that before the Electoral Finance Bill is passed she will give the House an interpretation of clause 80(d), so that members know how to comply with the law; if so, when will she be giving this interpretation?

Hon ANNETTE KING (Minister of Justice): I stand by my assurance.

Hon Bill English: What does the Minister think was wrong with the interpretation she has already given to the House?

Hon ANNETTE KING: The interpretation I gave was my view. Since I gave that view, others have raised a number of issues—some in a sensible manner; some in a very verbally abusive manner. But I am prepared to listen to all of them.

Charles Chauvel: Does section 213 of the Electoral Act 1993, which deals with activity in a member’s capacity as a member of Parliament, re-enact a provision that has been in force in our law since 1956, and would the Electoral Finance Bill re-enact this provision in clause 80?

Hon ANNETTE KING: Yes. I thank the member for his constructive contributions to the debate during the Committee stage. They were unlike some of the other contributions we have had, which have been designed more to hinder than to help.

Hon Bill English: Can the Minister answer the two questions I have already put to her: what was wrong with the interpretation of clause 80(d) she originally gave the House, and when will she give another one?

Hon ANNETTE KING: Before the bill is passed.

Hon Bill English: Can she understand people’s frustrations that even today, despite the fact that she said she was wrong in her interpretation she cannot say how, and that when the bill is passed, officials, MPs, public servants, and the public will have precisely 2 working days to work out what this law means before it comes into practice?

Hon ANNETTE KING: I understand the member’s frustration. However, I believe it is nothing more than crocodile tears. He has been a member of this House for many, many years and he has a pretty good idea of what an MP does, even if he does not spend much time in his electorate carrying out those duties.

Hon Bill English: Given that the process the Government has put this bill through will give the New Zealand public, politicians, and officials 2 working days to understand what its many and vague provisions mean, will the Government support National’s amendment to put back the date of commencement of this bill to 1 April 2008 in order to give people the opportunity to understand how the law works?

Hon ANNETTE KING: No. I believe that most people who will be working with the bill are faster learners than the member opposite.

Hon Dr Michael Cullen: Assuming, or given—whichever word we wish to use—that the bill is passed next Tuesday, will people be allowed to think on other days than working days, and are there actually 8 working days between that time and 1 January?

Hon ANNETTE KING: The Minister of Finance is absolutely right, of course. That is why he is a successful Minister of Finance, unlike the person who has been asking the questions, who was an abject failure in that role.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Has the Minister received any reports on the propensity in some political parties to seek to interfere with the democratic process, as best evidenced by the seething cauldron in Rakaia right now, where the headquarters of the National Party are supporting David Carter against all other good, competent, and able candidates?

Madam SPEAKER: The last bit is not in order.

Hon ANNETTE KING: I am sorry I cannot comment on the example because I have not seen it, but I would not be at all surprised by it.

Hon Bill English: Can the Minister confirm that as of today on one provision that applies to MPs the Minister of Justice does not know how the law is going to be applied, so how can she rely on the rest of the community understanding the other dozens of complex provisions in time to comply with the law by 1 January?

Hon ANNETTE KING: I will not confirm that. I believe that the member is quite incorrect, but then, he has become a peddler of malicious fabrications. He is also the person who claimed last week that debate on the bill had finished. That is what he said last week, and it did remind me of John Key when he said that the war in Iraq was over.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Can the Minister confirm that the intent behind the legislation and its interpretation is to ensure that people can arrive at free and fair democratic decisions without the duress or coercion of privilege and money and a small clique at the top, which is what is happening right now in the Rakaia electorate? Ask Mr Connell, he knows what I am talking about. Look at the choice they are going to have: David Carter, of all people.

Hon ANNETTE KING: In the number of spurious questions that we have received from the National Party they have lost the reason why this bill was introduced, but, certainly, members who are supporting it have not lost why it is being introduced, and neither have the public. They know what the National Party got up to in 2005, and they know it attempted to buy the election. It will not be buying the next one.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Has the Minister heard of a recent example where there were five nominees for a democratic position in New Zealand, but the party hierarchy came in and heavied the other four out of standing, and is that the kind of—

Hon Dr Nick Smith: It’s not true!

Rt Hon Winston Peters: It is true, all right. I will table the documents to prove it is true. Is that the kind of thing we want to be happening at the local or national level in New Zealand politics?

Madam SPEAKER: The Minister is responsible for answering questions within her ministerial responsibility. As long as there is no reference to any particular instance and if it is a reference generally to the law in her response, then that is fine.

Hon ANNETTE KING: I think that most members of the House, certainly those on this side of the House and in support parties, support a democratic, open process where everybody gets a fair go. I think the member is giving an example of some party or other that does not give its members a fair go.

Capital and Coast District Health Board—Patient Deaths

7. HEATHER ROY (Deputy Leader—ACT) to the Minister of Health: Has he been advised of any deaths of patients from other district health boards requiring tertiary surgery at Capital and Coast District Health Board; if so, on what date was he advised?

Hon JIM ANDERTON (Associate Minister of Health) on behalf of the Minister of Health: The Minister receives a number of allegations about health issues on a regular basis, the most recent being the statement by Ms Roy in the House on 6 December about a so-called “killer hospital”. These allegations are always followed up, but, on examination, many are found to be without foundation. I am advised that the member herself has not provided any information to authenticate her allegations. I am further advised that the Capital and Coast District Health Board contacted her on three separate occasions to request that she provide the information she had, but she has not done so. On the contrary, just yesterday she made an Official Information Act request for information the hospital has on these incidents, and that would suggest to me that she does not have any information.

Heather Roy: How can there be any confidence in a Minister who just 5 weeks ago was “running this show”, who 1 week ago was dodging questions about patient deaths at Capital and Coast District Health Board, who yesterday was shooting the messenger, and who now has gone from being the new sheriff in town to appointing a monitor to solve the crisis at Capital and Coast District Health Board?

Hon JIM ANDERTON: I think that if the member is questioning the credibility of the Minister, she should look in the mirror and provide any information she has on this serious matter so that she can retain whatever credibility she has left.

Hon Marian Hobbs: Is the Minister aware of any professional bodies raising concerns about comments on staff performance at Capital and Coast District Health Board?

Hon JIM ANDERTON: Yes. I am aware that the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists—not known to be a supporter of this Government—has labelled Heather Roy’s attack on clinical staff working at Capital and Coast District Health Board as “disgraceful, untrue, unfair, and unprincipled” and called upon her to apologise. I am also aware that clinical staff at Wairarapa Hospital have spoken out in support of the care given by their colleagues at Wellington Hospital, saying: “Despite all the bad press that Wellington Hospital is getting at the present time, we experience the support from teams of dedicated and hardworking professionals, who are always there when we need their services.” I think most members would endorse those sentiments.

Barbara Stewart: Can he assure us that overall bed numbers at Wellington Hospital will not be reduced by up to 30 percent in order to fit into the new regional hospital; if not, why not?

Hon JIM ANDERTON: I do not have any advice on that matter, but I would find it very difficult to understand how one could go into a rebuilding programme and reduce the number of beds by 30 percent. It does not seem right to me.

Heather Roy: Does he stand by his statement in this House on 7 November that “I am running this show.”?

Hon JIM ANDERTON: I think that the Minister was indicating that he was going to take responsibility for the position he held as Minister. As far as I can see, he is doing just that, and very well.

Heather Roy: I seek leave to table the Hansard of question of the day No. 2 on 7 November 2007.

Madam SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table that document. Is there any objection? Yes, there is objection.

Heather Roy: I seek leave to table the front page of Saturday’s Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper, saying that three deaths on—

Madam SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table that document. Is there any objection? Yes, there is objection.

Corrections, Department—Confidence

8. SIMON POWER (National—Rangitikei) to the Minister of Corrections: Does he have confidence in his department; if so, why?

Hon PHIL GOFF (Minister of Corrections): Yes, much more than I would have had 10 years ago. Why? Well, I will give the member just three out of many reasons. Firstly, prison escapes per 100 prisoners are just one-sixth of the escape number 10 years ago under a National Government. That means the escape rate has fallen by 84 percent. Secondly, drug taking in prisons is less than half what it was when the National Party left office; fewer inmates are giving positive drug tests. Thirdly, much more is being done in positive areas to prevent reoffending, such as greater provision of work, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes—factors that are associated very closely with offending levels.

Simon Power: Can he give this House an assurance that high-profile, serious offenders in Pāremoremo prison are not getting special treatment, and why did his department refuse to answer written questions from me earlier this year, about whether William Bell and others were getting special treatment, in order to “protect the privacy” of these inmates?

Hon PHIL GOFF: I can tell the member that I have been absolutely assured by the Department of Corrections that William Bell was not getting special treatment. I know that the member is fond of saying that inmates at the maximum security block at Pāremoremo prison are in a holiday camp, but it is a holiday camp where people are locked in their cells from 5 at night till 8 in the morning, and it is a holiday camp where very spartan conditions apply, quite properly—I make no apology for that; I believe that these inmates are a serious risk to the community, and they deserve the close personal supervision and monitoring that they get every hour of the day. One thing I can tell the member is that, unlike when National was in Government and the Minister said the perimeter fence at Pāremoremo prison was not to stop the prisoners from escaping but just to slow them down, we have now got proper security in that prison, and, unlike when under National, inmates do not escape from it.

H V Ross Robertson: What has the Labour-led Government done to reduce the number of escapees so dramatically?

Madam SPEAKER: It is very difficult to hear. I will be asking some members to leave, if the noise continues at this level.

Hon PHIL GOFF: In the 1990s prison escapes were as high as 154 inmates escaping a year. In the last 4 years the figure has been under 20. It has come down from as high as 154 to under 20. Why has it come down? Well, I mentioned that in my answer to the last question; one of the reasons is that we have put in 17 kilometres of perimeter fencing, and it is much harder for people to get out. Unlike at the prison close to Mr Power’s electorate, one does not have to cross just a 6-wire fence to get to the prison; one now has to cross a perimeter fence. There is electronic monitoring. There is much better monitoring and supervision of inmates and the factors that lead to escapes. That record is a record to be proud of. It is one of the lowest escape rates of any country in the Western World.

Simon Power: Why did his department move a convicted murderer to within 300 metres of the workplace of his victim’s daughter, after it had already placed him next door to where she lives, or does he not recall his stating in 2003 that his new laws would make that sort of mistake a thing of the past?

Hon PHIL GOFF: I absolutely recall that. Regrettably, the murder the member is referring to happened in 1992. At that time there was no Victims’ Rights Act in New Zealand. It was only in 2002 that we brought in the right for every person registered on the notification list to be advised of any plans for release or parole. Unfortunately, the victim whom the member is referring to was not on the victim notification register—unfortunately. Three members of her family were. The Parole Board, as a result of that, ensured that a condition of release was that the particular offender would not live within 50 kilometres of the three people who were on the victim notification register. The family of the victim has now been contacted by the police. They are now on the register, and, as a result, the Department of Corrections not only has recalled the inmate—it moved the inmate within 24 hours of being notified that the inmate was living next to one of the family of the victim—but also has now asked the Parole Board, which has the authority in this area, not to release that inmate, at the point that he might be released again, in the vicinity of anyone on the victim notification register. If the National Government, instead of doing nothing on victims’ rights for 10 years, had brought in the Victims’ Rights Act before that murder, this problem would not have arisen.

David Benson-Pope: What action has been taken to reduce access by inmates to contraband such as drugs and cellphones?

Hon PHIL GOFF: It was very clear that there was a major problem with both drugs and cellphones in prisons. We have taken effective action against that. As I have noted, we have halved the rate of positive drug tests in prison. We are doing more in a bill that is currently on the Table before the House. With cellphones, we have also had much closer searching, but we are now in the process of putting jamming devices in every prison, so that if any cellphone is smuggled in, it will not work anyway.

Simon Power: How does the Minister respond to the brother of the young woman whose mother’s murderer was placed next door to her, and then near her workplace, who said: “What annoys me most is how Corrections and its Minister have misled the public and purported to have systems in place that they clearly have not, and that the Minister has just ‘shrugged off’ my family’s case in a dismissive one-liner ‘She wasn’t on the register’ ”?

Hon PHIL GOFF: I have already answered that question at length and I will not repeat what I have already said. But in that article it was also suggested by that person that the victim whom the offender was placed next to had not gone on the victim notification register—she did not want to be on it. Fortunately, the police have approached her and she is now on that register, and we can ensure that that situation will not happen again, because the system does work as long as people register.

Simon Power: Does the Minister have confidence in his department when, in addition to these botch-ups, the last 2 weeks have seen four offenders escape, including a convicted murderer; a twelfth guard suspended from Rimutaka Prison this year; and an alleged head-butting incident and brawl involving Manawatū Prison staff, at a Palmerston North hotel?

Hon PHIL GOFF: How many times does the member have to be told that if he wants to talk about escapes, he should know that escapes are at a rate one-sixth of the level they were when his party was in Government, and he sat behind, and was an apologist for, the National Minister of Corrections. Yes, from time to time there will be incidents. I cannot say that all corrections officers at a party will behave better than National members behave at their private parties. I deplore the way that that particular corrections officer behaved, but it was totally outside the jurisdiction of the prison, it was not on prison property, and it was not in prison time. I am not sure how the member expects the Department of Corrections to act in that regard.

I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. Mr Power is on record in the New Zealand Herald this morning as saying that he was going to ask a totally different set of questions. Perhaps he would like to take the opportunity to do what he promised to do.

Madam SPEAKER: That is not a point of order.

Simon Power: I seek leave to ask the Minister a further question, in addition to my allocation.

Madam SPEAKER: Leave is sought. Is there any objection? Yes, there is objection. [Interruption] Would the House please settle and show some respect to the next questioner.

Road Toll—Trucking

9. JEANETTE FITZSIMONS (Co-Leader—Green) to the Minister of Transport: How does the Government expect to meet a road safety target of no more than 200 fatalities a year by 2040 while simultaneously allowing bigger trucks on our roads, given that deaths from crashes involving trucks make up around 20 percent of the total road toll, even though only 6 percent of the total distance travelled on New Zealand roads is travelled by trucks?

Hon ANNETTE KING (Minister of Transport): As the member knows following the briefing I gave her last week, no decision has been made to allow bigger trucks on New Zealand roads. Cabinet has agreed to further work on developing a controlled permit system to allow heavier vehicles on specified routes. The Ministry of Transport, in conjunction with key stakeholders, is crafting a sensible permit system for heavy vehicles, and I expect a trial to begin next year. A key feature of it will be road safety.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: When the Minister said that roads will be safer with bigger trucks, is she saying that children who will be walking to Maramarua School down State Highway 2 now that their bus service has gone will be safer because the trucks will be bigger and heavier, and what evidence can she offer to support this?

Hon ANNETTE KING: I am saying two things. The first is that the trial is for a permit system to allow trucks that are capable of carrying 50 tonnes to be able to load up to 50 tonnes. By doing that—if we take the example of Fonterra, which says it will take 58 trucks off the road—fewer trucks will be going past the school the member mentioned. The second thing is that over the last 15 years the number of fatal truck crashes that occur for every 100 million kilometres driven by trucks has halved—down from about six fatal crashes per 100 million kilometres to three fatal crashes. So the trend in terms of accidents with trucks has been going down, not up.

Peter Brown: Will the Minister acknowledge that truck drivers are not always to blame in truck crashes, and will she further acknowledge that if we had built better roads when materials were cheaper—that is, concrete, steel, and bitumen—instead of siphoning off the money into the Crown account, as the National Party did when it was in Government—

Hon Member: Get over it!

Peter Brown: The member says “Get over it!” Will the Minister acknowledge that if we had done all that, there would be people alive today who were killed on our roads?

Hon ANNETTE KING: The member makes two very good points. Obviously, better roads make it safer for those on it, including those who are driving trucks. I also agree with the member that trucks are not always the cause of accidents. We do have some drivers in New Zealand who, when they see a truck, feel they have to pass it, and sometimes they make decisions that have fatal consequences.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: How does the Minister plan to design the big truck permit system in a way that does not undermine more sustainable modes of freight transport, such as rail and coastal shipping, recognising that according to the Government’s report on surface, transport costs, and charges trucks currently pay only 56 percent of the costs they cause to the economy while rail pays over 80 percent?

Hon ANNETTE KING: As I explained to the member, the reason for carrying out a trial and doing the work before we have a trial is to ensure that we look at the impact such a system would have on other modes of transport. We are very aware of the need to ensure the use of rail and the growing use of coastal shipping. Part of developing a project like this is to do it carefully and to ensure that all the data is gathered before we decide whether to put this system permanently in place.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: As part of that very thorough study that the Minister proposes, when will she be consulting road users such as cyclists, pedestrians, the Automobile Association, and other ordinary motorists, rather than just the private trucking company stakeholders that form 55 out of the 61 agencies consulted so far?

Hon ANNETTE KING: As I said in my first answer, the Ministry of Transport will be working with a wide range of key stakeholders in the development of this permit system, and I expect that the ministry will consult widely on it. I want the best possible system put in place, with all the safety considerations as well, but I am also very aware that we have to make some progress in this area for economic reasons in New Zealand. We have to balance those two imperatives.

Schools—Children not Enrolled

10. KATHERINE RICH (National) to the Minister of Education: What is the Ministry of Education’s most recent estimate of the number of primary, intermediate, and secondary school aged children under the age of 16 who are not enrolled in any school?

Hon CHRIS CARTER (Minister of Education): I am advised that the Ministry of Education’s new ENROL electronic enrolment register estimates that currently 6,334 students are potentially non-enrolled. This figure will include students who have emigrated before July this year, who may be in the process of shifting to another school, or who may have left school at age 16 without giving the school the proper notification. ENROL has been fully available only since October 2007, and without a full year of records it is not possible to say accurately just how many students are not currently enrolled.

Katherine Rich: Can the Minister confirm that that number is the largest number of non-enrolments this country has ever seen; and that although he is pretending that the issue has arisen only after the implementation of ENROL, the trend has been a disturbing one since 2000 and the number of enrolments has increased, year on year, at the rate of 8 percent each year?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: No, I cannot confirm that, because for the very first time ever we have an accurate system that all schools are on and that is up to date. We have never had that before.

Katherine Rich: Why cannot the Minister confirm that, when that information comes from information supplied by his own officials, who point out that since 2000 the number of non-enrolments under this Government has grown by 8 percent each year and his Government has ignored that trend?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: The member failed to listen to my earlier answer when I said that this is the first time we have ever had an accurate, up-to-date electronic system with everybody on it. Previously we had a paper-based system that was notoriously inaccurate.

Katherine Rich: Why is the Minister’s Government suddenly promising a crack down on truancy now, when it has been well aware that between 2002 and 2006 there was a 41 percent increase in the truancy rate and nothing has been done about it?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: Lots has been done about it. But I remind the House again that for the first time ever we have accurate figures.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: It’s got worse.

Hon CHRIS CARTER: So for the member to suggest that it has got worse is simply not true.

Katherine Rich: Why does the Minister keep saying that this is the first time we have had accurate data, when information from his own officials shows that ever since 2000 the number of non-enrolments—some of those confirmed in parliamentary questions—has grown, year on year, by 8 percent and the ENROL system now shows that things are far worse than anybody ever expected, and these kids are not getting an education?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: What I can say to the House—and, again, I say this is the first time ever—is that we have a completely accurate system that all schools are on, and it is instantaneous. We do not have the duplications we had with the paper system. We do not have schools failing to pass on the data properly, as we had with the paper system. We do not have a system where schools do not keep proper records, which we had with the paper system. Now we have an accurate system. We may potentially have over 6,000 children not enrolled, but that number will have to include of course students who have emigrated, students who have failed to notify a school that they have gone to work, or students whose parents are moving from one district to another. After 1 year we will be able to tell this House, and the country, exactly how many students are not enrolled. We do not want any students not enrolled, and at last we have a tool to find them.

Katherine Rich: How can the Minister stand in the House and wax lyrical about the accuracy of his system, when even if we look at just the gross numbers we know that we are talking about enough kids to fill 25 primary schools and five secondary schools—kids who have somehow fallen between the cracks and who are not getting an education?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: We may or may not be talking about that number. After 1 year we will know. When we have deducted students who have emigrated, students who have moved from one district to another, and students who have gone to work and failed to notify schools, within a year we will know that. The member should be complimenting this Government on the $5.5 million we have spent—the National Government never did that—to set up a system that is accurate, up to date, and enables us to deal with the problem.

Conservation Support—Businesses and Tourism

11. MOANA MACKEY (Labour) to the Minister of Conservation: What reports has she received about businesses and tourism operators supporting conservation?

Hon STEVE CHADWICK (Minister of Conservation): A new conservation trust has just been launched to further protect New Zealand’s busiest national park. The Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust is a new approach where tourism operators contribute to local conservation projects. I applaud this initiative; it is a wonderful example of local businesses supporting the Labour-led Government’s commitment to preserving our unique identity.

Moana Mackey: How will the trust support the Abel Tasman National Park environment?

Hon STEVE CHADWICK: The trust will work to support the preservation of this beautiful and unique park environment by restoring birdlife and expanding pest control. The trust will help to ensure that this park remains one of the best places in the world to visit.

Maramarua School—Bus Services

12. Dr PAUL HUTCHISON (National—Port Waikato) to the Minister of Education: Does the Ministry of Education intend to cut free bus services to the rural Maramarua School; if so, why?

Hon CHRIS CARTER (Minister of Education): No, we do not. A free school bus service will continue to be available for eligible families next year. The Ministry of Education recently reviewed school bus services to the school, and found that some students using the bus were not eligible for a free service. The parents of those children can, of course, elect to pay for their children to continue using the school bus next year, or make alternative arrangements, such as car pooling, to get their children to school—just as parents do all over New Zealand.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Why would the Minister and his ministry even consider cutting bus services to a school on the edge of New Zealand’s most dangerous highway—known as the “highway to hell”—where there are no footpaths, no grass verges, and where children have been killed in the past?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: We are not intending to cut bus services. Some children no longer qualify for a free ride. Their parents can, of course, pay for them to go on the bus, if they want to.

Sue Moroney: What support does the Government provide to assist families to get their children to school?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: In National’s last year in office it spent about $90 million a year on school transport assistance; today the Labour-led Government is spending in excess of $120 million per year—an increase of $30 million. Free buses are available to primary school students who live more than 3.2 kilometres from the nearest school, and to secondary school students who live more than 4.8 kilometres from the nearest school, where an alternative public transport system is not available. These regulations have been in place for many years, under both Labour and National.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Will the Minister give an assurance that full bus services to Maramarua School will remain at least until such time as a four-lane expressway and safe footpaths are built, or does he wish to be recorded—as suggested on Campbell Live last evening—as New Zealand’s most stupid Minister of Education?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: I remind the House for the third time today that we have no intention of cutting bus services to Maramarua School. The parents of children who do not qualify for a free bus ride—and some parents’ children do not qualify—will be able to purchase a place on the bus, if they wish to. These are the same regulations that operated under National. I remind the House again that the Labour-led Government has increased funding for rural school bus services by over $30 million.

Peter Brown: What will the effect be of this school bus carrying non-eligible children, and what will the effect be if they are turfed off the bus—a saving of a few dollars, or a second bus, or what have you? Perhaps the Minister would care to tell the House what he would say to the parents if one of these non-eligible children were killed on the road while walking to school.

Hon CHRIS CARTER: What I will say is that the Government is committed to supporting parents whose children need to get to a school where there is not a public transport system. That is why we have increased funding for rural bus services by $30 million.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Is the Minister prepared to heed the advice of Graeme Smith, the former principal of Maramarua School, who writes: “The thought of children of any age walking even a short distance along this road is mind blowing. I know from personal experience, as I lost a 15-year-old son on that road, near the school.”, or will he risk more children’s lives?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: Everybody would have deep sympathy for anybody who lost a child in a traffic accident. But the bottom line is that there has to be rules about how funding is applied and about which parents qualify. We are not taking any services away from that school. Some children do not qualify for a free ride; others do. There has to be a formula, and the same formula that is used under this Labour Government was used under the National Government. I remind the House again that we have increased funding for rural school bus services by $30 million.

Hon Tony Ryall: Big deal!

Hon CHRIS CARTER: I hear Mr Ryall saying that is a big deal. I bet it is a big deal for his constituents who live in the country, who are grateful for that support.

Dr Paul Hutchison: Why have the Minister and the previous Minister, Steve Maharey, refused, despite four formal requests from me, to give me a briefing on this recklessly dangerous policy, or is this yet another example of his Government’s plan to shut down the democratic process?

Hon CHRIS CARTER: I have never refused to give the member a briefing; if he wants to come with me after question time, I will give him one then.

Dr Paul Hutchison: I seek leave to table a New Zealand Herald article dated 12 November 2007, entitled—

Madam SPEAKER: Leave is sought. Is there any objection? There is.

Questions to Members

Environment, Ministry—Financial Review

1. Hon Dr NICK SMITH (National—Nelson) to the Chairperson of the Local Government and Environment Committee: Has the committee concluded its consideration of the 2006-07 financial review of the Ministry for the Environment; if not, why not?

MOANA MACKEY (Chairperson of the Local Government and Environment Committee): No; if the member had bothered to turn up to last week’s meeting, he would know why.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: What explanation has she or the committee clerks received from the Ministry for the Environment for its failure to respond to the committee’s 14 questions on communications contracts involving Clare Curran and Erin Leigh, for which a response was required by 5 p.m. last Friday—or is the material so embarrassing that the Government intends to hold it until after the last question time, so it does not have to address those issues?

Madam SPEAKER: That moves out of process questions into substantive matters. So the chair has no responsibility for that; the committee does.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: This is a supplementary question—

Madam SPEAKER: No, there are no further supplementary questions.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. My question was: “What explanation has she or the committee clerks received … ” under the agreement? A specific agreement was reached between the committee and the Ministry for the Environment that these answers would be provided by a particular date. The question was quite specific. It was about whether the committee clerk or the chair had received any explanation since that deadline had passed. Surely that is within the Standing Orders in terms of questions that are appropriate to go to chairs of select committees, noting that this is likely to be one of the last question times in the House this year.

Hon Dr Michael Cullen: Unfortunately, of course, the member went on and added a great deal more to the question, including asking something about the Government’s intention. The chair of the select committee has no responsibility for that.

Madam SPEAKER: No. If the question is confined to whether the committee has received a response, then that can be addressed, but nothing else.

MOANA MACKEY: As the member well knows, any correspondence that has been received by the committee is confidential to the committee until it is tabled. I invite the member to grace us with his presence on Thursday, so that we can discuss the matter.

Hon Dr Nick Smith: I seek leave to table the 14 questions from the committee and the email I have received from the committee clerk, stating that no response had been received.

Madam SPEAKER: Leave has been sought. Is there any objection? Yes, there is objection.

ENDS

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