26 September 2023

NEW ZEALAND: PS head ‘takes ownership’ of abuse crisis

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New Zealand’s top Public Servant has apologised unreservedly to abuse survivors for failings at the Ministry for Social Development under his leadership.

Now head of the Public Service, Peter Hughes led the Ministry for a decade.

He told the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care that actions of his Ministry caused further harm and distress.

Mr Hughes (pictured) also took ownership for the failings of the Public Service as a whole while speaking on the final day of the inquiry’s State Response hearing.

His acknowledgements were in regards to three survivors in particular, including Keith Wiffin, who was at the hearing.

Mr Wiffin was put into care at Epuni Boys’ Home in Wellington in 1970; he faced abuse from the age of 11.

In 2006, Mr Wiffin filed a claim with the High Court, in regards to what he suffered.

The following year he received an assurance from Mr Hughes that it would be settled fairly.

“The Commission found that Crown Law and the Ministry of Social Development, which I led, through their actions and inactions, lost sight of the human beings at the centre of the claims and caused them further harm and distress,” Mr Hughes said.

“What happened to Mr Wiffin, Mr Paul White and Mr Earl White, should not have happened and I deeply regret it.”

Mr Wiffin said: “It feels like the culmination of 20 years struggle.”

Mr Hughes told Commissioners: “I accept the Commission’s findings in relation to those cases in full.

“I apologised to each of them at the time for the failure of the State to protect them from abuse while in care, and for the further harm the Ministry of Social Development caused them in managing their claims.”

Mr Hughes said owning, fixing and learning within the Public Service had to start with him.

“So I am happy to own all the failings have been identified over the course of the Commission and I am committed to leading the change,” he said.

However, Chief Executive of West Auckland Māori service provider Te Whānau o Waipareira, John Tamihere said apologies by Crown Agencies to the Royal Commission rang hollow.

Mr Tamihere said the current leaders of the Public Service were the people who oversaw the abuse, and it was not good enough for them to say sorry and walk away.

“I sat with this bloke, Peter Hughes when he was the head of the Ministry, and he did nothing when we pointed it out to him in his office down there in Bowen Street,” Mr Tamihere said.

“I remember it to this day,” he said.

He said bureaucrats “feasted off Māori failure” rather than fixing a broken system, and it was only through protests by survivors and Māori that a door had been opened to resolution.

Wellington, 27 August 2022

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