30 May 2018

Paula Bennett: HNZ too cautious on meth testing

From Checkpoint, 5:09 pm on 30 May 2018

Paula Bennett says Housing New Zealand should apologise to tenants kicked out over meth contamination, despite welcoming the agency's zero-tolerance stance when she was social housing minister.

Ms Bennett was the relevant minister between 2014 and 2016, when hundreds of tenants were evicted from state houses after traces of methamphetamine were found, sometimes at levels now known to constitute no risk.

Yesterday, a report by the Prime Minister's chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman found there had never been a documented case of someone getting sick from third-hand exposure to meth.

Sir Peter said a moral panic around meth itself was effectively behind meth testing rules, which he said were flawed and heavy-handed.

Ms Bennett said she welcomed the report and told Checkpoint that Housing New Zealand should re-evalute the cases of people who were evicted from their homes, in light of the new information.

"If I was the minister … I would certainly be wanting to look at it all and see individual cases and make sure that actually [the process] has been fair and reasonable," Ms Bennett said.

When asked if some tenants should be compensated, she said they should.

Ms Bennett defended her views at the time she was minister, saying she herself had raised concerns about the testing limits at the time.

"I've always had concerns... I just didn't think that the 0.5 [microgram limit] sounded right," she said.

"I questioned [the Health Ministry] in particular who had set that standard, questioned Housing NZ numerous times, got the Standards Authority involved."

Despite her concerns, Ms Bennett said she could not refute the evidence she was given or stand in the way of Housing New Zealand to impose a different set of standards.

"In those early days ... I got advice that there was potential danger, to particularly children who might be prone to asthma or skin infections, I was told that," she said.

"[I] was horrified that people might be smoking P in houses, I'm not going to shy away from that.

"Then I started seeing reports and I remember one in particular from an expert - he said, 'You can just about get more P residue off a $5 note than you could have at some of these houses with 0.5 micrograms' and so that raised alarm bells for me," she said.

"But ... then who am I to be standing in and saying at what level I felt that [the limit] should be?

"They were genuinely concerned about the health of the people in those homes. In their view, there was potentially more risk for people to be in homes that were contaminated and now we find out that the level was so low that it may not have been dangerous but they eered on the side of caution."

Govt should put things right for evicted tenants - Greens

Greens Party co-leader Marama Davidson demanded the government put things right for people who fell victim to what she described as a meth hysteria scandal.

"I am completely outraged and I want to see a total end to the cowboy industry of testing, [which] in my opinion was a total rort," Ms Davidson said.

Families were uprooted from hundreds of state homes on the basis of shoddy regulations, she said.

"I'm asking the [Housing] Minister, do we have an idea of what has happened to those tenants?

"How many were simply the innocent bystanders of a shocking testing regime?"

Former social housing minister Dame Tariana Turia said earlier today the way tenants had been treated was "a form of abuse" and they should receive compensation.

However, housing minister Phil Twyford said the government had no plans to provide compensation to tenants evicted from their homes for meth contamination.

Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton said the insurance industry had incurred considerable costs because of New Zealand's ultra-conservative rules.

"We had an unregulated environment where people who were testing and at the same time remediating, so totally commercially conflicted, were allowed to continue on in this environment where people feared they would be having their health put at risk," he said.   

Housing New Zealand chief executive Andrew McKenzie refused to be interviewed today. 

Mr McKenzie has consistently refused to be interviewed on his agency's meth policy and eviction campaign.