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Q+A: Judith Collins interview transcript

Published: 1:45PM Sunday April 03, 2011 Source: Q+A

Thank you, minister, for joining us. We really appreciate your time. The crime numbers were out on Friday and showed that total crime had dropped 6.7% compared to the previous year.
Are you reading these numbers as evidence that your policies are working?

JUDITH COLLINS - Minister of Police and Corrections
Well, I am seeing them as evidence that the police are doing an excellent job right throughout the country, and you'll see that the crime stats-

GUYON It's a different matter. It's a different matter.

JUDITH Well, I think the policies do have some bearing - actually very much no-nonsense policies on crime and law and order. But mostly I put it down to the work of the police and also Corrections, because they have really ramped up the rehabilitation in our prisons.

GUYON So, which policies, if any, and to what extent, have had any impact?

JUDITH Well, I think that it would be hard to say any particular policy, but I think that there has been a backing of police to get on with the job, and I believe that the credit should really go to the police and also Corrections.

GUYON When you look at these numbers, though, there were 976 crimes per 10,000 of population. That's almost identical to where we were in 2004 and 2005, so, really, there's not a lot for you to celebrate there, is there?

JUDITH Well, I think that everyone should be pleased that there's a drop in crime statistics-

GUYON But we're back to where we were in 2004.

JUDITH Well, they certainly went up after 2005, and it's good to see them coming down. What we look at are the long-term trends, and what we're seeing is that on a long-term trend basis, crime is dropping. It's not something that we should get too excited about this year because they do go up and down, but it's still good news.
GUYON That's right, and the trend is quite significantly dropping. I mean, if you look from 1996 - a 15-year period - total crime has dropped by about 25%. That's probably quite something that people don't really expect, because politicians, like yourself, have made a big, big play on our fear of crime and made it a big priority. Why is it, minister, that we do that when actually the real story is that crime has dropped?

JUDITH Well, I think that crime is dropping, but it's down to lots of reasons, and the fact is that more police has actually helped. There has been an increase in police numbers, uh, frontline staff on the beat over the last 15 years, and we're increasing them by 600 by the end of this year. So it does make a difference, and the fact is that crime affects everybody. It's not just a police issue. So, it is important to people. People should feel safe. But, um, I think it's a good trend, and we should just keep on trying to push it more and more. I'm only going to be satisfied, Guyon, when there are no more victims, and I know that's not possible, but that's what we're trying to get to.

GUYON If you look at the figures, there's a quite striking comparison. I mean, crime, as we've agreed, has dropped about 25% over 15 years. Yet, we lock up double the amount of people. We had about 5000 in the mid '90s, and it's about 9000 now. How can it be that with less crime being committed we're locking up more people?

JUDITH Well, it may be that there's less crime now because we are in fact locking up the worst recidivist violent offenders for longer, and that may well have something to do with it. It's very difficult for these people who are recidivist violent offenders, for instance, to continue down that path of crime if they're locked away. So that may well have something to do with it as well. But what we're seeing is that - and we'd like to see - is that those offenders are locked away, but that a lot more is done for people who need rehabilitation, particularly around drug and alcohol, and we might see that that has something to do with it as well.

GUYON Because, I mean, how long are we prepared to go down this path? You've got predictions of 10,000 in our prisons by 2020. It costs roughly $91,000 a year to lock someone away. I mean, is there a point in these pretty tough financial times that we're going to have to look at alternatives for people who are not a danger to society?

JUDITH We already do. We've got about 45,000 offenders who are on community-based sentences, and that's a big part of the Corrections' work. But we need to have more drug and alcohol rehabilitation for offenders. This is, I believe, one of our main priorities.
GUYON In prisons?

JUDITH Well, we are doing it. We've doubled the amount in prisons, but we should have more in the communities and more available. But it's very easy to say that. It's actually a lot harder to get offenders, particularly repeat offenders, to go into drug and alcohol treatment, and many families know the hardship of trying to get anyone to admit that they've got a problem and be prepared to do something about it.

GUYON We've talked about tight financial times. A tough Budget coming up, as we are led to expect. Last year you promised 160-- $2.5m of operating funding across four years for police. Will we see all that?

JUDITH Yes, you will.

GUYON  No cuts at all?

JUDITH No, we're not expecting any cuts in police. It's very important that we deliver on our election promises. We've promised 600 more frontline police on the beat by the end of this year, and we will be delivering on that.

GUYON In terms of a new prison being built in Wiri, with falling crime, are we still expecting to need that?

JUDITH Well, at the moment, it still looks as though we do, and partly that's about getting rid of some of the obsolete cells we've got in prisons. What we do know is that it's far better to have rehabilitation, for instance, in some of these newer prisons that are built fit for purpose, and some of the older prisons, like the old Mt Eden, basically we should be ashamed of those, and I don't believe we should have inhumane conditions for prisoners.

GUYON So this prison may well be a result of having to close down beds or wings in other prisons.

JUDITH Well, I'll give you an example. We've got in Wellington, uh, the Mt Crawford or Wellington Prison. That's something that was mothballed but we had to reopen when we came into government because we didn't have enough beds. That's not a prison that I think we should have open if we can live without it. At the moment, we do have to have it, and I'd like to see us be able to close that completely.

GUYON By when?

JUDITH Oh, as soon as we've got the beds available. What we're also seeing-
GUYON So, roughly, is this months or years?

JUDITH Oh, no, this will be once the beds become available, and the thing is that we do not believe that we can just let people out of prison short of their sentences. We do believe that we have to honour the sentences of the court and maintain the rule of law, and we have to find the beds.

GUYON Let's switch to your police portfolio. You've got a new broom coming in, as such, with a new deputy commissioner and a new commissioner. What changes are you expecting from this new team?

JUDITH Well, it's a different style of policing. I am very keen that police deal with the issues raised in their report into police culture, particularly around the disjunction between the head office and our frontline staff. I think that's absolutely crucial. I know that the incoming commissioner agrees with me on that.

GUYON What does that mean?

JUDITH Well, I think that there's an awful lot of, um& Well, I like to go out and see the frontline troops a lot. They don't feel necessarily that head office understands their work conditions, and I'm sure head office does, but there's not a feeling that they have quite the camaraderie that there should be. And the new commissioner, I know one of the first things he's going to do is to get round and see the frontline staff as fast as he can.

GUYON There are some pretty serious issues raised in that report about police culture which resulted out of the fact that there was something like 300 sexual assault cases against police since the late 1970s, and they were to reform their culture. They don't seem to have been doing that, according to the monitoring reports that the Auditor General and the State Services Commission have done. Are you disappointed in the police response to that?

JUDITH Well, I want to see the progress made already maintained, but also I've made this a priority for the incoming commissioner. And I know he agrees with me on this. The police, though, I have to say, they do a fantastic job. We've got 75% of the public having confidence in the police. Police are the second-highest rated organisation after the fire service, and they solve more crimes than they used to. All those sorts of things, but there are issues, and I think they can be improved.

GUYON Sure. They do a great job, but there are problems. There are problems, and when you read those reports, effectively it says that there are people who poorly perform who are promoted, and also staff who engage in sexually inappropriate behaviour are tolerated and even promoted in the police. Is that your understanding?

JUDITH That is exactly what the report says, and those are issues that I take very seriously.

GUYON So, that's happening in the police?

JUDITH Well, there have been instances of it, and I don't think we should shirk from that. The fact is that they need to be dealt with. There is no room for underperformers or slackers in the NZ police. They should be, and most of the police are, a high-performance agency. We cannot keep people who don't want to perform and who are letting everyone else down.

GUYON I presume the commissioner knows who these people are. Why doesn't he fire them? Have you said that?

JUDITH Well, the new commissioner is going to be looking at this area, but it's also important that employment law is respect and that people are treated fairly.

GUYON Because that seems to be the tenor of these reports. They don't seem to fire people who are poorly performing. Do they need to get tougher on their own for the sake of the reputation and the culture of the police?

JUDITH I think every organisation has to do that, but what we do see in the NZ police, and you'll see it in the media as well - the way that if a police officer breaks the law, and other police officers turn them in. It's very clear about that, and I'd like to see that everybody should be able to be top performers in NZ police. They're an elite organisation, and they have to take that very seriously.

GUYON An elite organisation which the report says needs to employ more women. They haven't done that well on that. You've got 20% female constables, but when you go to the senior ranks like sergeants and senior sergeants, it really whittles away to about to sort of 7%. Are they doing enough in that area, do you think?

JUDITH I think, over time, that they need to improve that. I think it's extremely important any organisation should have a good balance between men and women. The fact is that police have been always heavily weighted with male recruits, and there are lots of reasons for that, but it's still not good enough, and we should have more women coming through.

GUYON One of the reports from the State Services Commission says that police have undertaken no formal analysis of the reasons female staff do not progress to senior positions. That's staggering, isn't it, that they haven't even looked at that?

JUDITH Well, they're going to have to fix it.

GUYON Is that your message to the commissioner?

JUDITH Oh, my message to the commissioner, and he understands it very fully, is that everybody in the police needs to be promoted on merit. Everybody needs to be able to have a fair chance to get ahead and that we must not tolerate people who are not actually pulling their weight and letting everyone else down, because that's what happens when you have a poorly performing person in an organisation like police. All the other police end up having to carry them, and that's not good enough. Everyone's got to be up for the job.

GUYON Let's switch again to prisons, the other end of the justice system. You've handed over to the private company Serco. Looking through the contract that you signed with them, I mean, they have targets for rehabilitation, for drug testing. It seems very comprehensive. Are these higher standards than you were expecting from the public sector?

JUDITH Well, what we'd like to see is for Serco to be able to meet those standards and for Corrections to be able to try and do exactly the same themselves.

GUYON Are they higher standards?

JUDITH Some of them will be higher standards because it's very hard to maintain the same standards, certainly the financial incentives or disincentives for failure, in the public sector as we can in the private sector.


JUDITH Well, it's not a lot of point taking $100,000 off a prison in the public sector if it's just going from one public service to the other.

GUYON But you could have bonus systems for chief executives and staff. Why not let the guards who do all the hard work take some bonuses?

JUDITH Well, those are something for the chief executive to look at, but, really, I think what we are seeing in the private sector - and we want to see it - are improvements, innovations and good ideas for Corrections, and, look, Corrections has taken to this really positively. They're the ones who are saying, 'We want to learn from others. We want to be able to see what's happening overseas, and we want to improve.'

GUYON Will this be a smoking prison?

JUDITH No, it won't be a smoking prison.

GUYON You've got the smoking ban coming in in July. You've got something like 6000 prisoners who smoke. This is a riot waiting to happen, isn't it?

JUDITH Uh, well, you could actually also look at it this way - we've got over 2000 prisoners already signed up for the smoke free, so that's pretty great.

GUYON So, hang on, so that's 7000 who haven't.

JUDITH Well, a whole lot of prisoners don't smoke either.

GUYON Ok, so 4000 who haven't at the least.

JUDITH And also don't forget that most people in prison are there for quite short times, so a lot of these prisoners currently in prison will be out by the time the ban comes in.

GUYON Would you change your mind if there was a riot?

JUDITH No. Actually, I think it's very important that we set very high standards, but also look at it this way - there were 50 instances last year of prisoners setting fire to beds and cells and paper things, throwing lighted rolls of toilet paper at guards, all that sort of thing happening. 50 of those. How is that acceptable? And it's not. At the moment we have matches and lighters as well as cigarettes allowed in cells, and that's very, very dangerous for our staff.

GUYON Last question because we're running out of time. Just after the earthquake, you were reported as using some pretty tough language against people who were caught looting, and you said, 'I hope they go to jail for a long time with a cellmate.' It turns out that one of those looters you were referring to had Asperger's Syndrome and a compulsion to take light fittings. Do you regret making that remark?

JUDITH Look, my statement is very clear. If people break the law, they have to understand the consequences-

GUYON But that's a pretty punitive comment - 'With a cellmate.' It suggest some sort of-

JUDITH Well, it doesn't actually.

GUYON What does it suggest?

JUDITH It suggests the reality, and you would have seen it when you saw the new Mt Eden prison. We have double-bunked cells now, and people need to understand-

GUYON But, come on, you're saying in that statement, 'With a cellmate', which means, you know, that they're going to have a pretty tough time and words I don't think I need to lay out to the audience. It's pretty obvious, isn't it, minister?

JUDITH No, it's not, actually. What is very clear is that when people go to prison, they're going to have to be in a cell with someone else that they may not know. They do not have the luxury of having their own en suite cell all to themselves. They have to have some deprivations, and that's a natural thing to happen. As for the other matter, that matter is still before the court, and I'm certainly not going to comment on that.

GUYON No apologies, then?

JUDITH Certainly not.

GUYON All right. Thank you very much for your time, minister. We appreciate it.

JUDITH Thank you.

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