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Simon Bradwell: ACC trips over itself

opinion Simon Bradwell

By Simon Bradwell

Published: 1:13PM Friday March 23, 2012

  • Ralph Stewart, ACC chief executive (Source: ONE News)
    Ralph Stewart, ACC chief executive - Source: ONE News

Can ACC claim compo for shooting itself in the foot? It should.

This has been a hugely damaging fortnight for ACC. And I say that with all due respect to the mea culpa of ACC chief executive Ralph Stewart over the whole business.

And what a murky and sorry business it is too. So let me try and shine a light through it for you.

I've spoken to Stewart, to Bronwyn Pullar - the ACC claimant who received the spreadsheet containing details of more than 6000 ACC clients - and, most importantly, I've seen the spreadsheet itself.

It's the blandest looking thing you can imagine. It's like graph paper. It has several pages, each of which contain information.

The first three or four pages contain break-downs of how ACC branches around the country are performing. You might wonder why no one at ACC cares about that being released: the answer is that ACC essentially has a monopoly, so the information isn't even commercially sensitive. Big deal.

The meat in the spreadsheet is the list of claim details. Imagine a column of boxes. Each one has a number. Next to it, another column of names (these had been removed when we saw it, for privacy reasons, obviously). Next to that, details of the ACC branch. Then the type of claim, in the briefest form imaginable - "work accident" was the most descriptive I saw.

There was a column containing the outcome of the claim. Now given that this spreadsheet contained only details of claims under review, it's not surprising that all the claims I saw had been declined. After all, that makes sense. No one would ask for their claim to be reviewed if it had been accepted. The last column showed whether the claim had been referred for dispute resolution.

Now there is absolutely no doubt that information should never have been sent out. But we didn't see any medical records, or other personal information like addresses or phone numbers.

You can draw your own conclusions as to how offended you'd be if you were on that spreadsheet. I've taken many calls from people who are. Certainly if you were one of the clients of the Sensitive Claims Unit, which treats victims of sexual abuse, you'd have every right to be horrified.

I've interviewed ACC chief executive Stewart several times. He looks like a man who needs a good night's sleep. I believe that he is genuinely apologetic and sincere.

That's not to say he hasn't made mistakes. In my first interview with him, he told me the primary information in the spreadsheet was the name, claim number and branch number.

Not good enough

When ACC claimants started telling me otherwise, he confirmed other information was contained, and he hadn't told me because it wasn't "primary" information. Not good enough, I'm sure you'll agree.

This wasn't the time to hide behind semantics. Full and open honesty is always the best policy. To be fair to him, Stewart's been upfront with me about everything else, and I believe he wants to make sure such a breach never happens again.

He and ACC minister Judith Collins say the employee who sent out the email is distraught. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt on that one.

What a smart operator Collins has been during this. You can only imagine the phone conversation between Collins and Stewart that morning the scandal broke. Could have stripped paint, I imagine.

Then she let Stewart twist in the wind for a whole day, doing interview after humiliating interview.

Then, having created a safe distance between her and the debacle, she fronted up to counter-attack Pullar for not giving the information straight back.

That strategy seemed bizarre until it emerged ACC was indeed asking police to investigate. Which made Collins seem prescient and progressive.

And what of Pullar, the woman who received the spreadsheet?

In my interview with her for ONE News, she was adamant she's done nothing wrong and will be cleared of trying to blackmail ACC over the return of the file. Her passion and conviction were unmistakeable.

Nick Smith's demise over writing letters for Pullar is a separate issue. It's getting lumped in with the privacy breach, but it shouldn't. It's nothing to do with it. And combining the two issues to strengthen calls for an inquiry into ACC is off the mark. Smith wrote those letters, not ACC. And he's paid the price.

Let's hope the Privacy Commission's inquiry looks at the sharing of files about sensitive claims between different ACC branches. Because that definitely warrants further scrutiny. It appears to be at an unacceptable level.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff, who will be involved in investigating ACC, made a good point to me. She said that this sort of inadvertent breach is a result of the electronic age. And it should be a reminder to us all to use care and safeguards with emails.

The privacy breach was bad. Unacceptable. But it was an accident. And after all, Accident is ACC's first name.

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