20 Mar 2012

Shearer calls for inquiry into minister's ACC actions

5:33 pm on 20 March 2012

Labour leader David Shearer is calling for an inquiry into how former ACC Minister Nick Smith wrote a reference for a friend battling the Accident Compensation Corporation.

Prime Minister John Key has already accepted an apology from Dr Smith, who is now the Environment and Local Government minister, saying he does not believe the minister breached Cabinet rules when he wrote the letter.

But Mr Shearer says that is not the end of the matter, and while he is not yet calling for Dr Smith's resignation from Cabinet, he wants to know more about what happened.

Labour's ACC spokesperson, Andrew Little, says Dr Smith breached the Cabinet Manual when he wrote the reference, and it looks like a serious breach of conflict-of-interest rules.

Mr Little adds however that any judgment on Dr Smith's future should wait until all the details of the case are known.

Written under ministerial letterhead

In August last year, Auckland woman Bronwyn Pullar was mistakenly emailed details of thousands of confidential ACC claims by an ACC staff member.

The corporation has claimed Ms Pullar threatened to go to the media about the breach unless she was guaranteed a benefit for two years. Ms Pullar has denied the claim.


In July last year, before the accidental emailing occurred, Dr Smith wrote the reference letter for Ms Pullar - whom he describes as a friend - on paper with a ministerial letterhead.

In it, he states it would be inappropriate for him as ACC minister to comment on her ACC claim issues, but goes on to say that before her accident, she was well, capable and worked hard.

Dr Smith says he sent the letter so that Ms Pullar could help her medical assessor assess her current state of health.

"It was an error of judgment," Dr Smith says, "particularly putting the letter on a ministerial letterhead. But I stand by the fact that I have never interfered as ACC Minister in her claimant issues."

Mr Key says Dr Smith managed his conflict of interest well - right up until the point he wrote the reference.

"In writing a reference - even though we all have friends - as ministers of the Crown that's an error of judgment. In this particular case, I've accepted his apology for that."

Mr Key says he is sure Dr Smith has learnt from the experience and will handle any similar situation differently in future.

Privacy investigation planned

ACC Minister Judith Collins says terms of reference are being drawn up in conjunction with the Privacy Commissioner for a full investigation into how details of claims were sent to a member of the public.

Ms Collins says ACC will cooperate fully with the Privacy Commissioner.

The corporation says it will put in place processes to try to ensure that such a breach does not happen again.