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MSD accepts Privacy Commissioner's recommendations

The Ministry of Social Development has made changes in its approach to cases of high risk fraud investigations.

Deputy Chief Executive for Service Delivery Viv Rickard says the Ministry has accepted recommendations from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) into how it uses a section of the Social Security Act.

"Questions have been raised around the nearly 2,300 serious high risk fraud investigations undertaken by our MSD fraud investigators where we ask for information from third parties, and the breadth of information we collect. These high risk investigations are about 17 percent of the 13,250 allegations we get every year.

"The small number of cases we investigate using this measure are at the high end of the spectrum where there are serious, often multiple, allegations of fraud over a significant period of time, usually involving large sums of money.

"The allegations often relate to people who on the face of it have set out to deliberately mislead in order to receive benefits they’re not entitled to.

"We recognise we have to balance clients’ privacy rights alongside our responsibility to taxpayers to investigate serious fraud in a timely way, and to establish the facts.

"In 71 percent of these investigations the person has to pay money back and/or their benefit changes. When we do prosecute, 96 percent of the cases are successful."

The current practice was introduced publicly in 2012 under the approach the Government of the day had to taking a harder line on benefit fraud and speeding up investigations.

"95 percent of the time people didn’t provide the necessary information when we asked them directly, meaning we had to go to third parties anyway, delaying investigations."

The Ministry has made changes in line with the OPC’s current views, including:

- Amending our processes ensuring staff make a case-by-case decision on whether to first go to the client, or to a third party and to make sure the right amount of information is collected.

- Suspending all requests for information to telecommunications companies and Police, pending review of the Code of Conduct.

- A commitment to review the Code of Conduct that applies to the section and continuing to work with the OPC.

- Commissioning an independent assessment of fraud practices and policies.

"We take a prevention-first approach, using conversations with clients and data matching agreements to detect and stop anomalies early. We don’t investigate lightly.

"We will need to continue to go directly to outside parties for information without going to the client first, where we believe there is a risk of collusion, evidence tampering, witness intimidation, or we can’t locate the client.

"We will also be working with the Government Chief Privacy Officer to ensure the implementation of the OPC’s recommendations is in line with best practice across government agencies," Mr Rickard says.


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