Annual Report 2019/20
The pandemic which swept the world in 2020 is undoubtedly the defining event of the past year. It has further defined the role of Ombudsman.
Transparency, accountability, openness, and fairness are never more important than in a time of crisis. Providing confidence that people are being treated fairly, and holding government to account, helps to engender the public trust that is so crucial to us working together as a nation to combat COVID-19. I therefore did not resile from the need to provide independent oversight and report to Parliament on the impact of the extraordinary measures being put in place.
That I was able to continue to operate seamlessly for the most part during this period is an immense credit to my staff. Their professionalism, dedication, and hard work through the whole reporting year, but particularly the last few months, make me hugely proud to lead such a professional group of people. My sincere thanks to them all.
The Government’s response to the pandemic required me to quickly change my focus in some areas. It rightly confirmed my oversight role as an essential service, and within three weeks into the Level 4 lockdown, I announced my intention to commence COVID-19 focused inspections of private sector aged care facilities. I also changed my inspections programme for prisons and mental health facilities to have a focus on the new reality of the pandemic, and I began planning inspections of the managed isolation and quarantine facilities for people arriving from overseas.
My inspections of mental health facilities found a good balance is possible between protecting people and preserving human rights. I found that while prisons were taking positive steps to keep coronavirus out and had responded to the pandemic in a balanced and efficient manner, this had, in some instances, come at the expense of some prisoners’ rights. I also identified good practices, but some improvements were needed in aged care facilities, particularly in relation to the definition of ‘bubble’ and complaint handling practices.
I dealt with a large number of complaints and enquiries raising new issues as a result of COVID-19, including concerns about the handling of applications for border entry exceptions and exemptions from managed isolation and quarantine. I also published guidance on dealing with official information requests during lockdown, and liaised with various government agencies in an effort to ensure effective administrative practices were being put in place as new policies and processes were developed rapidly as part of the Government’s response and management of COVID-19.
A milestone report I published with my partners monitoring the Disability Convention, Making Disability Rights Real, Whakatūturu Ngā Tika Hauātanga highlighted the need for decisive government action, including stronger laws, to protect the rights of disabled people.
It noted that disabled people remain far from enjoying the full range of human rights and fundamental freedoms included in the Disability Convention, and that eliminating these huge disparities requires a quantum leap.
I also commenced work with my monitoring partners, the Human Rights Commission and the Disabled People’s Organisations, on a report on the experiences of disabled people during COVID-19.
It would be easy to focus solely on the second half of the reporting year and the impact of the pandemic, but in reality, I had a very successful 12 months across many existing and new mandates. I met almost all my key performance measures across all work areas, with some exceptions mainly where I needed to re-prioritise work in response to COVID-19.
I mentioned in last year’s report that a top priority was to improve my relationship with tangata whenua. Significant progress has been made in this area. I established Pūhara Mana Tangata, an advisory panel made up of senior and rangatahi leaders from throughout te ao Māori, to guide me on my engagement with Māori.
But that guidance needs to be translated into action, and it was my pleasure during the year to attend several regional hui about strengthening oversight of the children in care system, alongside the Independent Children’s Monitor and the Children’s Commissioner. These hui were vital for me as I begin to prepare for my enhanced oversight role in this area. Further afield, I also met with several iwi across the country.
Integral to ongoing development has been my international development and engagement programme. My former colleagues have a long history of supporting the development of international Ombudsman institutions, and in the past year this work has ramped up significantly. Indeed one of the benefits of the pandemic has been the necessity to use technologies in different ways when face-to-face interaction is impossible.
Prior to lockdown, I hosted an investigator training workshop for Pacific Ombudsmen, as well as the inaugural Pacific Ombudsman Leadership Forum. In lockdown, I switched to electronic means to network with my Pacific peers and colleagues around the world, and I have held several virtual workshops since attended by participants from a wide range of countries.
Crucially, the public awareness of my role continues to grow. Why is this important? Having integrity institutions is fundamental to human rights and transparency. But if the public are not aware of them or how they access them, their impact is diluted and my ability to provide comprehensive oversight of the actions of those in power constrained.
The increasing public awareness helps both communities and agencies, and makes fair decision making, respect for human rights, and freedom of information an integral part of society rather than an add-on. Aotearoa should be rightfully pleased that our public sector integrity sits atop the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index alongside Denmark.
The impact of COVID-19 will be with us all for many years to come and will manifest itself in many different ways. What I am committed to is ensuring that all work across the public sector and beyond is carried out transparently and with accountability, to ensure fairness for all is achieved.