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Simon Bradwell: Ministry fails on Novopay debacle


By Simon Bradwell

Published: 12:24PM Wednesday March 13, 2013 Source: ONE News

  • The Novopay logo. (Source: Breakfast)
    The Novopay logo. - Source: Breakfast

Feel like you're not getting straight answers on the Novopay debacle?

You're not the only one.

The whole Novopay affair affects thousands of New Zealanders and is of massive public interest.

Because it's not just teachers affected by the bungled payroll system. Taxpayer dollars are being spent to fix the whole mess. Lots of taxpayer dollars.

There is no doubt that the Ministry of Education should be on the front foot over this, giving upfront and honest answers.

But they're not.

In fact, dealing with the Ministry is to encounter evasion, stalling tactics and obstruction.

Yesterday afternoon, news reports emerged that debt collectors were pursuing teachers who had been overpaid by Novopay.

Now on the face of it, that seems heavy-handed and unreasonable. But there could be a fair explanation. If people have refused repeated requests to re-pay money, then debt collectors could be a legitimate option.

Either way it needed to be clarified by the Ministry and should have been clarified in a quick and complete manner.

So at around 4.45pm, we rang the Ministry. I asked senior media advisor Matt Radley if the news report was factually correct. I also asked if we could speak to someone at the Ministry about it.

He wouldn't confirm the report was correct - even though an anonymous Ministry spokesman was quoted in the report. Then he added that the Ministry would send out a statement shortly.

But that statement didn't come shortly.

In fact, it took several more calls before a statement arrived from Mike Bodnar and Catherine Delore at the Ministry at 5.44pm.

A statement that completely failed to address the simple issue of whether collectors were deployed.

"Talent2 is responsible for identifying and recovering debt resulting from Novopay.

"The Ministry will be reviewing with Talent2 this policy and the way it is being applied to ensure it continues to be appropriate in the current circumstances.

"The process used by Talent2 is the same as was used by the previous payroll provider."

Weasel words, in my opinion.

I rang senior media advisor Lucy Johnston. She didn't even know the statement had been sent out. She didn't believe that I had it in front of me until I read out the first few lines.

The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing.

Lucy Johnston said a statement would be sent out shortly. I told her it needed to address the specific question of whether debt collectors were being used.

Four minutes later, the exact same statement arrived again. No clarification about debt collectors.

I rang Lucy Johnston again.

"Lucy, this statement doesn't say if debt collectors are being used."

"That's all we're prepared to say."

'Lucy, yes or no, are debt collectors being used?"

"I'll have to get back to you about that."

"No Lucy, you won't. I want an answer right now. Yes or no, are debt collectors being used?"

"You'll need to put that in writing."

That should give you a flavour of what we're up against.

As if a question can't be asked and answered over the phone. Lucy Johnston clearly knew the answer, she just wasn't prepared to divulge it. Especially as the clock was ticking towards 6pm, which just by coincidence was the start of our bulletin.

I wasn't giving up so at 5.54pm I sent an email asking the question and requesting an immediate response.

At 6.14, with the first segment of the news safely out of the way, Lucy Johnston sent me an email: "We have provided you with the statement we have this evening and have nothing further to add."

Utterly unacceptable as I'm sure you will agree.

A couple more points:

You pay the salaries of these people. They are servants of the Ministry and by extension the taxpayer.

The Novopay issue is clearly, CLEARLY, of public interest. The Ministry's media staff have a moral and professional obligation to be forthcoming with information.

I am sure Steven Joyce, the Minister in charge of sorting the mess out, will take a dim view of such shenanigans.

The Novopay debacle isn't over. Not by a long shot. The Ministry spin team had better lift their game considerably if they want to do the right thing by their employers.

All four million of them.