The Privacy Commissioner has launched an inquiry under the Privacy Act 1993 into the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD) investigative practises. This comes almost a month after Auckland Action Against Poverty released an OIA report which highlighted MSD’s invasive investigation practises, that allows the Ministry to pry into people’s sex life. People on the benefit who were being investigated by MSD reported that investigators would approach third parties to ask sensitive questions about their personal life without even being notified they were under investigation. Auckland Action Against Poverty welcomes the Privacy Commissioner Inquiry into MSD and calls on the Ministry to end its cruel and invasive investigation practises.
“The inquiry by the Privacy Commissioner is an acknowledgement of the concerns advocacy groups have regarding the Ministry of Social Development’s toxic culture and abusive approach to investigations”, says Ricardo Menéndez March, Auckland Action Against Poverty Coordinator.
“Nearly 6,000 benefit fraud investigations were made in the year to March 2017, with over 3,000 regarding allegations to the person on the benefit being in a “relationship in the nature of marriage”. Out of the investigations completed, overpayments were established in 1,800 with 431 successful prosecutions. Many of these investigations were be initiated from anonymous tip-off calls, with the Ministry receiving over 11,000 of these calls in that same year.
“The investigations carried out by the Ministry of Social Development have the potential to destroy people’s lives, with investigators having the ability to reach out to the beneficiary’s family members, friends and acquaintances to ask incredibly sensitive questions regarding relationships and sex life. The beneficiary is often unaware they are being investigated while the Ministry contacts these people in their life to obtain information.
“Several of these investigations would have started because vindictive ex-partners anonymously call the dedicated tip-off line to accuse the beneficiary of being in a relationship. Instead of contacting third parties to assess the validity of these claims, the Ministry should have the decency to contact the person being accused to clarify the nature of the accusation.
“Investigations can be initiated by MSD due to legislation that can consider two people to be in a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ because they may be dating, sharing accommodation, or engaging in sexual activity. This is draconian and an overreach by government into the private lives of some of our most vulnerable people.
“People considered to be in a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ by Work and Income lose their individual benefit entitlements, as their income is calculated jointly. By doing this, Work and Income forces people on the benefit to be fully financially dependent on who they consider to be their partner.
“We hope the inquiry by the Privacy Commissioner results in putting an immediate end to these investigations. Ultimately, this needs to be compounded with the Government ammending legislation to treat adults in the benefit system as individuals without penalizing them for being in a partnership.
“It is ill-fitting for the Labour-led Government to talk about being a compassionate Government while allowing thousands of people to undergo invasive investigations by the Ministry of Social Development, with many losing their benefit because of anonymous tip-off calls.
“We look forward to contributing to the inquiry in hope we put an end to these cruel investigation practices.”