20 Dec 2018

Bridges on Thompson and Clark spying: 'I never had anything to do with this'

2:09 pm on 20 December 2018

Former National Party ministers are being forced to defend the activities of private investigators under their watch, saying they didn't know about any unethical activity.

Inquiry head Doug Martin (centre), Simon Mount QC (left) and State Service Commissioner Peter Hughes.

From left, Simon Mount QC, inquiry head Doug Martin, and State Service Commissioner Peter Hughes. Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton

The State Services Commission delivered a damning report into the use of companies like Thompson and Clark to carry out surveillance on protestors, activists and other members of the public, as well as inappropriately close relationship between investigators and some public servants.

The Commissioner described the way some agencies allowed some New Zealanders to be targeted by investigators as an affront to democracy.

The report has already claimed its first casualty.

Ross Butler quit as chair of the government insurance agency Southern Response last night before his meeting with the Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Megan Woods.

The insurer broke its code of conduct, and possibly the law, when it used security firm Thompson and Clark to secretly record meetings of earthquake victims.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked if more heads would roll across the broader public service.

"This has happened over a period of ten years, there has been considerable movement in some cases in each of those areas so we need to make sure we put in place, yes, accountability for the those who are still able to be held to account and prevent it from happening in the future."

Gerry Brownlee

Gerry Brownlee has taken issue with the report. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

National MP and former Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the departure of the Southern Response chair was a disgrace.

He also took issue with the report.

"It's written in a way that has a degree of inflammatory language that's designed to make the big cost of it more palatable and I think it's just a great tragedy that a great gentleman like Mr Butler has been treated in the way he has."

But Minister Megan Woods said Mr Brownlee himself should take some responsibility as he knew about Southern Response's use of private investigators - as shown through his answers to written questions in 2016.

"Nobody is questioning the right of Southern Response to protect its staff at the beginning, the way this work began," she said.

"Where it ended up is not something any minister should tolerate; Mr Brownlee when he was minister knew about the use of Thompson and Clark in 2016."

Simon Bridges.

Simon Bridges is distancing himself from the issue. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Two agencies for which National Party leader Simon Bridges had ministerial responsibility in the last government featured in the report - the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Transport Agency.

It found Thompson and Clark was portraying so-called "issue motivated groups" including Greenpeace, the Green Party and iwi groups, as security threats.

And the Transport Agency has tightened controls on the motor vehicle and driver licence registers, following serious breaches.

Thompson and Clark did more than 4,000 number-plate searches targeting Greenpeace over a six-year period.

Mr Bridges said he had no knowledge of any unethical behaviour under his watch.

"I never had anything to do with this. My sole focus was on growing our economy, our export opportunities... all of that stuff was opertaional. But if anyone should be answering it, it's Peter Hughes."

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes has set new guidelines for how agencies gather information for compliance and enforcement, with the clear expectation the public service should be fully compliant by next April.

He has laid a complaint with the police regarding to the potentially illegal recording of meetings by Thompson and Clark, and a complaint about the company's conduct with the Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority.

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