29 Jun 2023

Jan Tinetti made error of judgement that misled Parliament, Privileges committee finds

1:39 pm on 29 June 2023
Minister Jan Tinetti.

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The Privileges Committee has found Education Minister Jan Tinetti did mislead Parliament due to a "high degree of negligence" but is not guilty of contempt.

In its report on the matter released on Thursday, the committee recommended Tinetti be required to apologise to the House.

She did so briefly as the House began sitting on Thursday afternoon.

"I have seen the report of the privileges committee titled Question of privilege concerning the time taken by the Minister of Education to correct a misleading statement to the House," she said. "I accept the committee's findings and I apologise to the House."

The problem arose after Tinetti responded to questions from her National Party counterpart Erica Stanford in February, saying she was not responsible for the release of school attendance data.

It later emerged she had been told by staff later that day that was an error but she failed to correct the record until early May, after it was raised with her by the speaker of the House.

Speaker Adrian Rurawhe referred the matter to the Privileges Committee in May. The committee of senior MPs rules on matters of privilege - the powers and immunities which ensure Parliament is independent of the Crown and the courts.

Under questioning by the committee, Tinetti said she did not think she needed to correct her statement because she did not know about correspondence between her office's staff and the Ministry of Education when she gave her answer, and that correspondence was not sent under her direction.

The committee found she had or could have made reasonable inquiries to find out the truth, and "the fact that she did not do so caused the House to be misled for close to 10 weeks, or 13 sitting days".

However, it said that on the balance of probabilities this was not intentional - a key element in determining whether she deliberately misled the House.

"Based on the evidence before us, we do not believe that the minister deliberately misled the House by failing to correct her misleading statement," the report said.

"Although some of us find parts of her evidence unconvincing, all members of the committee accept that there is an appropriately high bar for making a finding of intent to mislead, which is not met in this case."

The report said her actions had impeded the performance of Parliament's functions however, and could be considered a contempt but in this case instead reflected "a high degree of negligence on her part, rather than any ill intention".

"It is reasonable to expect ministers to make sound judgements and appropriate inquiries when they are informed of facts that may render their statements inaccurate or misleading. That did not occur in this case."

The committee said Tinetti should be required to apologise to the House.

"Her actions and the impact of them on the House's operations are serious and it is for that reason we consider that the minister should be required to formally apologise to the House."

The report noted Tinetti accepted she had made an error of judgement that she deeply regretted, and had changed her practices to now review video and Hansard of oral questions.

National's shadow leader of the House Michael Woodhouse said it begged the question of whether she was fit for the role.

"The committee had to grapple with this - we talk about things like recklessness, deliberate misleading, contempt and we were breaking new ground here where we really had to deal with the gross negligence of a minister who should have known better," he said.

"Parliament matters and we are considered to have a privilege in this place to speak our minds but that comes with an incumbent responsibility to be honest in our dealings and where we realise we've made a mistake to fix that. Minister Tinetti didn't know that she had to do that and that's extraordinary.

"I think she does now and this is a very harsh lesson for her to learn because her reputation has been severely damaged - but more broadly than that I really fear for the future of our young if this is the standard of the minister of education and her ministry."

He could "scarcely believe that anybody could be that ignorant of her obligations" and said it had taken some time for the committee to reach a consensus on the evidence she had given.

Parliament is set to debate the matter when the house next sits during the week of 18 July.

Speaking to media during his trip to China, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said it was a "regrettable set of circumstances".

"I think it's appropriate that Jan's owned that mistake," he said. "I haven't been there but I understand that she's now issued an apology to the House. I think that that was the appropriate thing to do.

Hipkins has been having to deal with a string of recent ministerial missteps, which he said was "certainly not helpful".

However, he said he still had confidence in all his ministers.

"I expect all ministers to be focused on making sure that they are doing the best job possible for New Zealanders ... I believe they absolutely know what my expectations are."

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