New Zealand’s top civil service agency told to apologise to former diplomat

By on 24/06/2016
New Zealand’s civil service chief, Iain Rennie leaves his post in at the end of June.

New Zealand’s guardian of administrative conduct has told the State Services Commission (SSC) to issue a public apology to former diplomat Derek Leask over the handling of a 2013 investigation which suggested that Leask had acted unprofessionally.

A report by Ombudsman Ron Paterson published on Tuesday also recommends that the SSC – the central government agency responsible for overseeing, managing, and improving the performance of government organisations, which instigated the 2013 investigation should reimburse Leask “for actual and reasonable expenses, compensate him for harm to reputation and review its guidance for future inquiries.”

But Iain Rennie, who leads the SSC, said that, while he accepted that the way in which the investigation dealt with Mr Leask “could have been better,” he added he did not “agree with all elements of the Ombudsman’s findings.”

Rennie launched an investigation into unauthorised disclosure of information relating to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) documents in 2012 following a series of leaks.

The leaks which occurred in early 2012 led to several media articles being published about a planned restructure of MFAT, including one story which set out details about expected changes to civil service pay before MFAT staff were notified.

The inquiry was led by Dame Paula Rebstock, who together with an investigation team, conducted more than 200 interviews.

The investigation’s final report was published in December 2013 and concluded that there was a “a strong suspicion” the leaks had been made by a temporary staff member working within the SSC.

The final report also contained a number of criticisms about Leask, who was New Zealand’s high commissioner to the UK at the time, including that he together with other senior officials “created a perception that it was acceptable to leak information.”

However, Paterson in his report this week said he did “not consider that there is a logical evidential basis” for this.

Given that Leask was not found to be responsible for the leaks, Paterson said that “it is difficult to see how any other issues relating to Mr Leask’s conduct were relevant to the factual context of the leak of the Cabinet papers” and argues that the SSC went outside its terms of reference focusing on Leask’s behaviour.

He also said that Leask, who was interviewed three times, had been treated unfairly by the investigations team because he had not been made aware that his behaviour would be the subject of the probe and because he was not given enough opportunity to respond to criticisms directed at him before the report was published.

Prior to the final report, Paterson said in his report, Leask “had not been referred to the applicable parts of the MFAT and SSC’s codes of conduct against which his behaviour was being measured”, such as the requirement to be impartial, responsible and trustworthy.

Though Leask was never named in the SSC report, it was widely understood when a reference to him was made.

Leask told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that he would not reveal his legal costs or say what he was seeking in compensation but noted that he had needed extensive legal advice during the drawn-out battle with the Commission.

“In the face of what I regarded as very high-level and aggressive onslaught, I have had to employ good counsel for four years, and I’ve had a QC for a large chunk of that period.

“That means that this was not a cheap exercise.”

Rennie, who is resigning from the civil service next week, said in a statement released yesterday: “I am pleased that this report has been released.

“However, I’m very disappointed that some details have appeared in the news media when the Ombudsman’s final report had been provided under embargo and with an expectation of confidence.

“I initiated the original investigation because I need to be able to assure ministers and the public that information will be kept confidential when necessary and public servants will behave with the highest levels of integrity.

“I appointed Dame Paula Rebstock as an independent investigator who is highly regarded and very capable, with extensive governance and senior leadership experience in both the private and public sectors.

“Dame Paula’s investigation covered a broader range of issues, including the conduct of public servants and the secure handling of information. From my perspective those findings have not been called into question”.

“I also accept that the way in which the investigation dealt with Mr Leask could have been better.

“I don’t agree with all elements of the Ombudsman’s findings, in particular that in making findings relating to Mr Leask the investigation was outside its terms of reference.”

“I disagree with the Ombudsman on this point.

“Terms of reference for investigations need to be specific enough to give clarity to all involved, while giving enough scope for the investigator to pursue information and lines of inquiry that present themselves during an investigation.

“Notwithstanding our reservations, the points made by the Ombudsman will be considered during the development of any future terms of reference and we will strengthen our guidance in this area.

The Ombudsman also found that a statement made by Mr Rennie in a radio interview on the day of the report’s release that implied two senior officials leaked information was unreasonable.

Rennie said: “This comment was made during a longer radio news interview and I accept it was incorrect.

“It was not intentional and I have apologised in writing to Mr Leask for this statement. I am happy to reiterate my apology here.”

The Ombudsman has recommended SSC make three types of redress for the issues he identified, involving financial compensation and a public apology.

“The Ombudsman’s recommendations provide a pragmatic way for both parties to move forward,” he said “The issues here took place some years ago and I hope that we can now quickly reach a resolution”.

“Discussions on potential redress with Mr Leask are ongoing and therefore no further comment is appropriate at this time,” Mr Rennie said.

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See also:

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Female public servants in New Zealand ‘working for free’ until July, due to pay gap

Research tracks gender equality among G20 officials

Katrina Casey announced as new acting chief executive of New Zealand’s education department

New Zealand prime minister John Key announces new top civil service post

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Interview: Jane Halton, Secretary, Department of Finance, Australia

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Interview: Gabriel Makhlouf, Treasury, New Zealand

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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