A report by the Privacy Commissioner on the Ministry of Social Development’s investigative practices into benefit fraud has found the Government agency to be unjustifiably breaching people’s privacy. The report suggests that the Ministry of Social Development breached The Bill of Rights 1990, unnecessarily collected intimate text messages of beneficiaries, and failed to ask people on the benefit investigated information before seeking it from third parties. Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) met with the Privacy Commissioner office in 2018 to highlight concerns held by the organisation for years. AAAP supports the findings of the report and makes the following demands based on its findings:
– An apology from Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni and Deputy Chief Executive for Service Delivery Viv Rickard to the thousands of beneficiaries whose privacy was unjustifiably breached.
– A review of all overpayments established by the Ministry of Social Development following a high-risk benefit fraud investigation in which the Ministry investigators may have breached its Code of Conduct.
– Legislative changes to ensure that the Social Security Act reflects modern relationships and individualises benefit entitlements, which would stop people on the benefit from being investigated over their relationship status.
“The Privacy Commissioner report is a sobering picture from years of attacks to people on the benefit by the Ministry in the form of invasive investigations and refusal to update its practices since 2012. It is a shame that it took the Privacy Commissioner for the Ministry of Social Development to act on the concerns raised by advocacy groups for years around its investigative practices. The Ministry of Social Development has a toxic culture, treating the people it is meant to support with contempt and suspicion”, says Ricardo Menendez March.
“Thousands of people each year have been subjected to having their intimate lives meticulously pried upon by the Ministry in order to determine whether they are in a ‘marriage type relationship’. This is the result of legislation which punishes people for being in a relationship by forcing them into financial dependence and does not clearly define what a ‘marriage type relationship’ is, leaving it up to MSD staff to arbitrarily determine.
“The Government was due and failed to review the Ministry’s investigative practices twice in 2015 and 2018, despite ongoing concerns by advocacy groups and the Privacy Commissioner. The failure to review the investigative practices, despite continuous media stories and public concerns from advocacy groups about the damage benefit fraud investigations were causing, speaks to negligence by Government agencies.
“We are calling for an apology by Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni and Deputy Chief Executive for Service Delivery Viv Rickard to the thousands of beneficiaries whose privacy was unjustifiably breached. We are also calling on the Government to review all overpayments established as a result of alleged benefit fraud where a high-risk investigation may have taken place, due to the report’s findings that the Ministry was wrongfully interpreting the law and likely to be breaching the Bill of Rights 1990. The misuse of Section 11 of the Social Security Act meant thousands of beneficiaries a year were put through humiliating investigative interviews where things intimate pictures and text messages were unnecessarily used to try and establish people’s relationship status.
“The report should also be a wake-up call for the Government to amend the Social Security Act and stop punishing people in the welfare system for being in a relationship. Currently the married benefit rate is lower than two individual benefit rates, and people on the benefit in a relationship with someone who earns above a certain threshold are expected to forgo all financial independence as they lose their benefit entitlements.
“The Privacy Commissioner found that most of the investigations by the Ministry of Social Development were initiated due to external tip-offs through a dedicated tip-off line, with most investigations concerning the relationship status of the beneficiary. Auckland Action Against Poverty suggests moving towards individualising benefit entitlements, as suggested by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, to avoid the Government having an excuse to pry into people’s intimate life in the first place.
“The response by the Ministry of Social Development to the Privacy Commissioner’s Report needs to go beyond a mild acceptance of the recommendations by the commissioner and deliver justice for the thousands of people whose privacy was unlawfully breached by the Government.