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Sharples: Notices of Motion

Notices of Motion: that a respectful address be presented to His Excellency the Governor-General commending to His Excellency the alterations to the appropriations for the 2007/08 financial year in respect of Vote Ombudsmen and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the appropriations and information for the 2008/09 financial year in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and Offices of Parliament.

Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Maori Party

Tuesday 15 April 2008

The Maori Party is pleased to support the Notice of Motion with respect to Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and Offices of Parliament.

Our comments are focused on the alterations to the 2007/08 appropriations for Vote Ombudsmen.

We support the increases in the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s legislative authority to accommodate new remuneration rates.

We support also the changes made to respond to the Commissioner’s proposal to create a more collegial culture through the desire for open-plan office arrangements.

I was interested in the proposal to develop an open plan environment to use space and resources more effectively, and to improve staff management and communications.

While we understand the intentions we know that there are other factors that can emerge from the open-plan trend, such as:

- the distraction and lack of privacy from other employees;

- noise from office equipment;

- furniture and cubicle design that is not appropriate for the job;

- poor air quality or uncomfortable temperatures.

We wonder, given it is the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that is putting forward this proposal, what thought has gone into the environmental advantages of open plan.

It would be interesting to know the scale of the costs and benefits attached with open plan arrangements, particularly when it comes to the impacts of employees being sick, dissatisfied or distracted.

Another key set of recommendations from this Notice of Motion was related to the budget report for Audit and Assurance Services, which again was related to office relocations, salary and remuneration movements; as well as costs attributable to international financial reporting and accounting standards conversion audits, which we were told were larger than forecast.

The explanation that these costs were unanticipated and that the office faced resource constrains are accepted.

The key focus for our interest in this Notice of Motion is, however, related to the Office of the Ombudsmen and in particular our support for their proposal to have an expanded role in prisons.

The first item of importance in the budget report related to the review of the Criminal Justice Sector which was tabled in the House on 5th December last year.

I want to spend some time refreshing our institutional memory about this review, as I believe it to be critically important in this Election Year, as we consider its implications in the debate around law and order matters.

The Ombudsman, Mel Smith, distinguished between two prevailing idealogies – penal populism and soft liberalism.

Penal populism, Smith suggested, is manipulated by political firebrands who will promote whatever hot issue is in the public arena to advance the cause of getting tough on crime.

Gangs, P, child abuse, violence all become fodder to the champions of penal populism, to bolster support for longer sentences – and more.

Soft liberalism, meanwhile, is supposedly favoured by criminal justice administrators and academics, and puts the needs of the criminal as paramount.

Smith draws out trends in both of these approaches as having influenced current justice sector legislation, describing the changes in the sector over the past decade as extraordinary rapid.

And in a debating chamber which salivates over the way in which the numbers add up, it bears remembering these numbers for the penal population rise over the last decade:

- 4940 in December 1996;

- 8056 in November 2007.

Are we really proud as a nation that we have experienced such a massive increase in the prison muster?

Mel Smith provides the answer in no uncertain terms and I quote:

“The increase in the prison muster is undesirable both in view of the impact of prison on offenders and their families, and in view of its demand for increased government expenditure on new prisons and their operations.

Moreover it is has been undesirable as there is little evidence that the changes have made us feel safer or increased our confidence in the criminal justice system”.

These three factors – the impact on families; the expenditure explosion; and the failure to restore public confidence demonstrate to me the absolute value of the independent ombudsmen function.

The Ombudsmen’s report last December, reinforced the need to promote the view that imprisonment is a last resort and should only be used as the place for those who engage in the most serious acts of crime.

A burgeoning imprisonment rate placates those who subscribe to the Penal Populist cause, but does little to increase and restore public confidence in the system.

Probably the most extreme example of this is in the area of longstanding concern related to the ridiculously high over-representation of Maori and Pasifika peoples in the criminal justice system.

The Ombudsman recommended that more work needs to be done promptly to investigate the root causes as well as to work with the appropriate specialist organisations who are working in the area of support, rehabilitation, reintegration, restorative justice and other such programmes.

But if we are looking for ways to restore public confidence in the justice system work programme, Mel Smith’s report is again disturbing when he describes the way in which the agencies worked – or didn’t, with Te Puni Kokiri on addressing the over-representation of Maori.

Mr Smith put it out there in black and white, and I quote:

“I have been advised of differences of view between the Ministry of Justice and Te Puni Kokiri. I accept that the approaches of these departments may differ but it grieves me that these differences have been allowed to impede the formulation of plans to deal with one of the more unsatisfactory aspects of our criminal justice system.

Some resolution of these differences would be a major step forward”.

Madam Speaker, the conclusions that the Ombudsman was able to present in his independent inquiry, particularly his concerns regarding the massive increase in prison muster and the issues impact on justice sector capability, are issues that we must respond to.

Of course there were many other concerns raised, including the significant challenge that Greater Auckland poses in terms of the resource constraints and increasing demands placed upon quality justice services in my electorate.

The Ombudsman was able to present his views in a frank and candid manner, exactly the quality of advice that we would expect of this role. We need more of such advice in this Parliament, and what’s more, we need to be doing something about the very serious concerns that are raised, not just in the December report, but consistently and with particular value from the reports they furnish regarding their role in prisons.

The Maori Party will certainly support the Notice of Motion and believes it to be a thoroughly worthwhile investment.


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