16 Mar 2018

SSC appoints senior public servant to investigate spying allegations

6:55 pm on 16 March 2018

The State Services Commissioner has appointed a senior public servant, Doug Martin, to investigate a government agency accused of spying on customers.

Protestors outside the Southern Response offices.

Homeowners with unresolved claims have been criticising Southern Response for years. Photo: RNZ

Mr Martin is a senior public servant and was one of the main architects of the State Sector Act.

The state agency, Southern Response, hired the security company Thompson and Clark to assess risks faced by its staff after the Christchurch earthquakes, but it has also been accused of following and intimidating customers.

Doug Martin will investigate the agency's use of external security consultants and whether it breached the State Services Standards of Integrity and Conduct.

The review won't look into any specific insurance claims.

Mr Martin has also been asked to consider whether the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment should be included in the investigation after it was revealed it too used Thompson and Clark.

Christchurch man Cameron Preston, who was allegedly spied on by the agency, said Southern Response was 'very evasive' when he asked it what was going on, and he welcomed the investigation.

"It's up to them (SSC) to decide ... but there's nothing like a bit of sunlight as a disinfectant for any activities that perhaps shouldn't have been going on."

Greenpeace said it had received official documents showing the MBIE had been in contact with Thompson and Clark for many years.

"It is clear that MBIE has also been assisting the spy agency to obtain commercial contracts by passing on contact details for mining companies that will be arriving in New Zealand in order for [Thompson and Clark] to pitch their services to them," Greenpeace NZ director Russel Norman said.

"This is a taxpayer funded government regulator that we expect to do its job professionally and impartially. Instead, what we've seen feels like MBIE has been acting as little more than an agent for oil companies and their contractors."

Mr Norman was also concerned other state agencies might be operating in the same way and the State Services review should be expanded.

"Thompson and Clark specifically sell themselves on the basis that they will target advocacy groups. That's their pitch," he said.

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said since announcing the inquiry last week, the chief executive of Southern Response had advised him that his staff had received threats and were concerned for their personal safety.

"Our job is to ensure that the inquiry gets to the bottom of the allegations made and establishes the facts of the case," Mr Hughes said.

"However, it is completely unacceptable for state servants to be subjected to threats and abuse simply for doing their job... I expect all government agencies to operate a zero tolerance approach to any such behaviour including referring it to the police if necessary."

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