I started this blog post wanting to layout the issues left unresolved after a week of reportage on meth houses. I finished it furious at the inept government response, not just since 2016, but since the report was released. Phil Twyford has work to do

It's time for another big meth house clean-up. Not of the houses themselves, which Sir Peter Gluckman has finally and definitively said are about as dangerous as a $10 note, but of the decision-making process around disputed science in public policy and Housing New Zealand's leadership.

Gluckman's report this week has been like a pin a in a balloon, loudly bursting the idea that "P-contaminated" meth houses were a scourge on the New Zealand landscape. Instead, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor found that houses where people had smoked meth were not in fact a danger to residents and did not need a $30,000+ clean-up to be inhabitable. He found that in recent years hundreds of people had been evicted and around $100m of taxpayers' money spent for no good reason. Gluckman said:

"There is absolutely no evidence in the medical literature of anyone being harmed from passive use, at any level. We can't find one case."

As Henry Cooke's article explains so well, the test being used by Housing New Zealand was designed not for houses where meth was smoked, but for houses used as labs. And the 0.5 micrograms guideline was meant to be a target for cleanliness, not a threshold for safety. 

On one level I have some sympathy for Housing New Zealand. Meth and its addictive use has become a scourge and it's understandable the agency would be seriously concerned about the use of meth in its properties. Any board would have been irresponsible not to take a cautious approach in the face of disputed science about potential harm to its tenants, especially when they include many of New Zealand's most vulnerable. The message given out by Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett at the time about her concern for "wee babies" in contaminated houses would have underlined that.

Yet it's clear the messages that 'meth is dangerous' and 'any house where meth has been smoked is dangerous' have been woefully conflated. Having said that, the critical language suggesting that anyone who wasn't declaring the safety of meth houses two years ago was swept up by "moral panic" itself reeks of a little lemming-like hyperbole. Unlike climate science, where extensive research had been done and more than 90 percent of the relevant experts are lined up on one side of the argument, there was genuine uncertainty and a range of competing voices. 

And yet. The problem with the defence I've just run is that the evidence that the approach was inadequate, unjust and potentially doing great harm to people's lives was strong and loudly expressed. This is where the story is simply extraordinary and frankly appalling. 

What Gluckman's report should leave us all wondering is why it took so long for this simple and obvious step to be taken and this clear conclustion to be reached. 

First and foremost, the lack of clarity for years before Gluckman came to such a definitive conclusion this week is of serious concern and needs to be understood fully. I can understand that caution from Housing New Zealand at first given the uncertainty. But how was that uncertainty allowed to continue for so long? A clear explanation remains elusive. 

Alot of bollocks is talked about a 'whole of government approach' to issues. But consider this. RNZ's Benedict Collins did stories in 2016 quoting Ministry of Health sources saying Housing New Zealand was using its guidelines incorrectly and in August that year Housing New Zealand minister Bill English told Morning Report he knew the guidelines were being misused. His defence was that they were the only guidelines the government had, so HNZ had to use them. Yet in February 2017 Housing New Zealand Chief Executive Andrew McKenzie was still saying at a select committe the Ministry of Health had said different things to its staff. It was as if, rather than sort out the discrepancies, he'd just ignored the public statements.

To resolve the whole confusion over what was safe, Standards NZ was brought in and a bunch of officials nutted out a standard that raised the threshold from 0.5 micrograms to 1.5 micrograms. Yet now Gluckman says 15 micrograms is a more reasonable threshold. 

If you look at those events, it seems simply farcical. Two of the government's largest ministries seem to not know what each other thin and are unable to talk to each other. The relevant minister knows the problem, but allows people to continue to be removed from their homes. Officials work together for months and come up with flawed science. The level of ineptitude look phenomenal... and systematic. You have to ask how people can be so stupid. Perhaps the answer is that individually they're not. I wonder whether our public sector has become so risk averse and bureaucratic that various agencies can't simply have a conversation, find a solution and act. 

Second, Housing New Zealand's leadership of this has been and remains a scandal. How did the board and senior management not insist on a Gluckman-like definitive ruling two years ago? How did they permit a policy that was clearly harming people while they lacked the information to make an informed decision? Why did not they insist on staff popping down the road to the Ministry of Health and coming back with a resolution?

Think of the public anger over the money wasted on the flag referendum and then quadruple it. That's what Housing New Zealand's leadership oversaw, all for the lack of some clear science. From what we know so far, heads must roll.

But hang on, surely these people have been closely investigating these issues. We know they worked through a process with Standards NZ; presumably they were worried about tenants' health. Surely there are explanations.

The problem is, we haven't heard them. In a level of ineptness that is the cap of idiocy on this mess, Housing New Zealand leaders are refusing to talk publically. Not a peep. Not a single interview.

That in itself should be reason enough for heads to roll. Whoever has decided that hundreds of evictions and $100m of our money wasted does not warrant a public explanation should not be working in the public sector. This is nothing less than a scandal and a shame.

I have been inclined to be sympathetic to the decisions the HNZ leaders have been forced to make, but their silence suggests something else. It suggests a cover up of incompetence or worse. What other conclusion can we come to? If the explanation is anything else, why not come forth and make it?

Andrew McKenzie is accountable to the public for his ministry's decisions and does not have the right to remain silent when questions of this nature arise. It's that simple. If you don't like it, get another job.

Phil Twyford can rightly claim credit for picking up the phone and getting Gluckman on the job. By doing so he's made his predecessors look silly and he's shown a commitment to evidence-based policy. But since the release he seems to have been caught up in the ineptness of this whole story. 

For one, as the responsible minister he should have demanded McKenzie and the Board chair appear with him in front of the cameras. Indeed, he could and should still do so. It's the least a government that has promised greater transparency should be doing. So Minister, pick up the phone again and make another call!

Finally, the government needs to seriously consider the question of compensation for state house tenants. Landlords have been bloody unlucky and poorly served, but it is only tenants who have been forcibly removed from their homes by the state.

There is a debate to have about safety and how the P residue got there in the first place and if tenants can be proved to have been in breach of tenancy agreements. But HNZ would need to prove a link between the smoke and a certain tenant and then that eviction was the appropriate and proportionate response. 

But there is a first principle question about how the government can spend $886m over ten years to compensate farmers for Mycoplasma bovis and deny compensation to state house tenants. Both are suffering harm where at least some of the fault has been found to lie with state agencies. The fuller question of where fault lies needs to be considered, but it's hard to see from a justice principle why one should be helped and the other not.

Yes, the meth house clean-up has turned into a mess on many fronts, and the government is far from being able to put its broom away just yet. Gluckman's report is the beginning, not the end.

Comments (22)

by Graeme Edgeler on June 02, 2018
Graeme Edgeler

Any board would have been irresponsible not to take a cautious approach in the face of disputed science about potential harm to its tenants, especially when they include many of New Zealand's most vulnerable.

In what sense is taking a decision to make families with young children homeless (a massive risk factor for all sorts of harms) being cautious?

by Rich on June 03, 2018
Rich

It didn't take Sir Peter Gluckman to understand that the standards for methamphetamine calculation were bogus. Anyone with sixth form chemistry, or even a reasonable level of numeracy, could see it.

As I and others pointed out at the time, a person would need to consume over a hundred square metres of plasterboard and carpet each day in order to ingest the dose of methamphetamine (20mg) <a href="https://www.drugs.com/pro/desoxyn.html">typically prescribed</a> for children with ADHD in the US.

These standards were not science based - in effect, trace amounts of methamphetamine residue were treated as a marker for tenants being members of the "undeserving poor".

It's also not prudent for a minister to immediately offer compensation without the full facts being known: who agreed the standard, was proper process followed, was there political pressure, how much money is involved, is any body (Housing NZ, Standards NZ, outside consultants) legally liable?

by Henry Barnard on June 03, 2018
Henry Barnard

A good commentary on the issue.  

However, I do have one major caveat.  You say: “Unlike climate science, where extensive research had been done and more than 90 percent of the relevant experts are lined up on one side of the argument, there was genuine uncertainty and a range of competing voices”. 

Name one ”relevant expert” who has lined up on the side of the argument that third hand exposure to meth via “contamination” of dwellings is a problem? I think you‘d find 100% of relevant experts are lined up on one side of this argument to say that it is not.  And, no, people from the meth testing industry are not ”relevant experts”.  

by Tim Watkin on June 03, 2018
Tim Watkin

Thanks Henry.

Maybe I should have lent more on my statement about 'competing voices', but in terms of relevant experts, I'm referring to:

  • Dr Jackie Wright from Flinders' University in Australia, who a journo in my team at RNZ interviewed in our 2016 podcast (http://www.radionz.co.nz/programmes/the-science-of/story/201822972/the-s...)
  • Scientists at the Ministry of Health specifically who contributed to the interim house-testing guideline that they came up with in 2016
  • And those who contributed to that Standards NZ process, including - Analytica Laboratories, ESR, Forensic and Industrial Science Ltd, Hill Laboratories, Ministry for the Environment and others. 

Perhaps it's more skewed than I realise and perhaps I'm assuming too much that HNZ would have got its own scientific advice (that's woth OIAing), but these decisions weren't made entirely without science involved. 

 

 

 

 

 

by Tim Watkin on June 03, 2018
Tim Watkin

Graeme, lots of strategic decisions are about lesser evils. Unless you're saying that the HNZ board were willfully pushing these people out with the intent of causing them harm, isn't reasonable to think they probably thought they were better off somewhere else? Follow your logic through...

Because your suggestion they were purposefully causing harm suggests not just poor decisions and perhaps incompetence (as I'm suggesting) but cruelty and perhaps even criminality.

by Tim Watkin on June 03, 2018
Tim Watkin

Rich, that's exactly what I'm saying re compensation.

But much the same question to you as to Graeme. Are you really suggesting the HNZ board and management thought 'we want to punish you with homelessness and debt because we deem you the undeserving poor'?

by Pat on June 03, 2018
Pat

"I finished it furious at the inept government response, not just since 2016, but since the report was released. Phil Twyford has work to do"

This appears to be a strange position to take given that the current admin/Minister were responsible for instigating the analysis some 6 months ago that led to the declaration by Sir Peter....and are now considering the remedy.

Surely your fury should be aimed where it exclusively belongs...the previous administration that enabled, perhaps even encouraged the practice and susequently denied any and all knowledge?

by Tim Watkin on June 04, 2018
Tim Watkin

Pat, I'll try to clarify. I intended to be quite scathing towards HNZ for overseeing what now can only be called a fiasco. I was also critical of the previous government for leaving such uncertainty around the science unresolved. There's clear evidence I think for that anger.

But you're going to have to provide me with evidence that the previous government enabled and encouraged the evictions. I've been scathing of National's housing and state housing policies on this blog in the past, but I always try to base it on specifics and facts. I try not to be partisan.

My point at the end of the blog is to say that, having done a great thing by calling Gluckman in, Twyford has since dropped the ball with his messy comments on compensation and his failure to make the HNZ explain to taxpayers what's been going on. I feel his failures this past week are also worth of anger, inasmuch that he is now in a position of power and responsibility.

My point was to say that he should not think that his work here is done. 

by Ian MacKay on June 04, 2018
Ian MacKay

On Morning Report last week,  Tariana Turia said that the Housing Corporation used the meth contamination to get less welcome tenants out of State Houses. Wonder if she has proof?

by Penny Bright on June 04, 2018
Penny Bright

HOUSING NZ OFFICIAL INFORMATION ACT (OIA) REPLY on the ‘P’ contamination SCAM (22 June 2016).

Read it for yourself - 72 pages.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1VWZx3Y9ce-ukuCKoWrGp7mZwlIGslYOs/view

When are mainstream media going to GRILL former Housing Minister Nick Smith on the P contamination SCAM?

Why, IMO, is the main culprit and perpetrator Nick Smith - being effectively ignored by mainstream media and the ‘flak catching’ being effectively left to Paula Bennett?

Here is my OIA request (originally to Nick Smith as Minister of Housing - which he transferred to Housing NZ):

Did Paula Bennett (or Judith Collins) ask these questions of Nick Smith (Minister of Housing) regarding testing of HNZ properties for suspected “P” contamination?

As I did on 31 May 2016?
____________________

31 May 2016

Minister of Housing
Nick Smith

'Open Letter' /OIA request to Minister of Housing Nick Smith, about the testing of HNZ properties for suspected "P" contamination.

Dear Minister,

Can you please provide copies of the following:

A) The information which provides the legislative/ policy / procedures which cover the TESTING of Housing NZ properties for suspected "P" contamination:

1) Legislation
2) Standards
3) Regulation
4) Policy
5) Procedures
6) Protocol

by Penny Bright on June 04, 2018
Penny Bright

I have a Quality Assurance background, and was also involved with the Tamaki Housing Group, who led the fight against the privatisation of State housing in Tamaki.

As soon as I heard the former National Minister of Housing, Nick Smith, talk about contamination caused by P use (as opposed to P manufacture) I immediately smelled a rat the size of a huge stinky mammoth elephant.

What I suspected (and was proven, IMO, to be correct) that the perception that was created was that numbers of empty State houses, were as a result of State tenants contaminating them with P (use).

(In Tamaki - there were dozens of empty State houses, some left empty for years, in the time of a housing crisis.  

I did months of research on the (linked) Tamaki housing scam - where $1.6 billion of former Housing NZ properties were transferred to Tamaki Regeneration Ltd, the scam being to ‘regenerate’ the working class State housing suburbs of Glen Innes, Panmure and Point England - when the real intention was to open up this prime real estate for private property developers and private stately mansions for the wealthy.

Who were the Crown Shareholding Ministers who ‘owned’ Tamaki Regeneration Ltd?

Originally the Minister of Housing (Nick Smith) and Minister of Finance (Bill English).

I rang the General Manager of a P decontamination company and asked what underpinning legislation, rules, regulations, processes and protocols existed regarding P testing and decontamination and discovered there was only a Ministey of Health ‘guideline’ (which was based upon P manufacture).

So, I then sent the above-mentioned OIA to the then Minister of Housing Nick Smith, who transferred to Housing NZ.

To my understanding, I was the first person to make such an OIA request on this P contamination (SCAM) matter.

When I received this OIA reply - I forwarded it to selected media to use as they saw fit.

I now look forward to mainstream media doing their job and holding the feet of the responsible Minister, Nick Smith, to the fire.

Why is Paula Bennett ‘flak catching’ for Nick Smith on this issue?

Why is Nick Smith effectively being politically protected?

NOT good enough.

Penny Bright

’Anti-Corruption citizen whistle-blower’.

by Pat on June 04, 2018
Pat

Tim

The evidence is circumstantial although I'd suggest the origins are contained within the linked document (even with liberal use of section 9(2)(f)(iv))...specifically the Social Housing Reform Programme.

https://www.hnzc.co.nz/assets/Publications/Corporate/Briefing-for-the-In...

Twyfords brief mistep would more fairly be described as dissapointing, hardly comprable to the actions that invoked the fury.....and yes he has work to do, hopefully of higher quality and purpose than his predecessors.

 

by Penny Bright on June 05, 2018
Penny Bright

So where is the EVIDENCE that Nick Smith or Paula Bennett formally requested National’s Chief Science Advisor (to the PM) - Peter Gluckman, investigate whether P contamination caused by P use, as opposed to P manufacture was harmful to public health? Do I need to do another OIA?

by Penny Bright on June 05, 2018
Penny Bright

Why is the former Minister of Housing Nick Smith not being politically barbecued over this P contamination SCAM?

Why are media effectively allowing Nick Smith to hide behind the ample skirts of National’s Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett on this P contamination SCAM?

Why is Nick Smith not being held accountable for the now proven bogus and bullsh*t P contamination SCAM standards which he publicly announced in June 2016 and July 2017?

Come on media - do your job!

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11657262

(16 June 2016)

“Building Minister Nick Smith says tighter rules for businesses which test for meth contamination will be in place by the end of the year as real estate industry insiders report increasing numbers of cowboy operators milking owners.”

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/bay-of-plenty-times/news/article.cfm?c_id=150...

(1 July 2017)

“Housing Minister Nick Smith this week announced the new standard for methamphetamine contamination, sampling and testing.

Mr Smith said the new standard was a "huge step forward" in helping homeowners and tenants deal with the risks of meth contamination.

The most significant change was the 1.5μg/100cm2 limit, compared with 0.5μg/100cm2 under the old guidelines.

He said the new standard resulted from a better understanding of the health risks.”

Well - the ‘better understanding of the health risks’ has been proven to be a load of total unscientific BOLLOCKS - has it not?

#HoldNickSmithsFeetToTheFireForThePScam

by Penny Bright on June 05, 2018
Penny Bright

Where is the EVIDENCE which proves WHO from the National Govt asked WHAT exact ‘hard questions’ of Housing NZ, Ministry of Health, and Standards NZ, about the scientific proof confirming alleged contamination from P use was harmful to public health; WHO replied and WHAT did they say?

Where‘s the documented ‘paper trail’ on this one?

 

 

 

by Megan Pledger on June 05, 2018
Megan Pledger

Tim Watkins said:

Graeme, lots of strategic decisions are about lesser evils. Unless you're saying that the HNZ board were willfully pushing these people out with the intent of causing them harm, isn't reasonable to think they probably thought they were better off somewhere else? Follow your logic through...

Because your suggestion they were purposefully causing harm suggests not just poor decisions and perhaps incompetence (as I'm suggesting) but cruelty and perhaps even criminality.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At the time there was loads of talk about people living in cars and people being charged horrific amounts to live in motels.   It was abundantly clear there was very little housing available.   

It's hard to believe they couldn't know about that stuff when chucking people out of their homes.  It sounds like "They must be druggies, we can kick them out if they are druggies, so we'll kick them out.   Druggies deserve all they get."

When people cross over the line and start making harsh decisions at the expense of people's humanity then it very hard to get back behind the line.

 

by Penny Bright on June 05, 2018
Penny Bright

“Seek truth from FACTS”

Interesting that at essentially the same time that Nick Smith was the Minister for Housing, the Minister for Housing NZ Corporation was Bill English:

English, Bill - New Zealand Parliament

https://www.parliament.nz/en/mps-and-electorates/former-members-of-parli...

Bill English was the Minister for Housing NZ Corporation from
8/10/2014 to 12/12/2016

Bennett, Paula - New Zealand Parliamentarians

https://www.parliament.nz/en/mps-and-electorates/members-of-parliament/b...

Paula Bennett was the Minister of Social Housing from 8/10/2014 till 20/12/2016

Smith, Nick - New Zealand Parliament

https://www.parliament.nz/en/mps-and-electorates/members-of-parliament/s...

Nick Smith was the Minister for Housing from 8/10/2014 to 20/12/2016

 

by Kat on June 07, 2018
Kat

It is not partisan to comment that the last National govt was culpable, they were in charge, were they not. Oh thats right they got "dud advice". Yeah right.

And as for Phil Twyford having work to do, yes he sure has cleaning up the mess that the last National govt left. I am glad he is getting on and doing it.

by Ross on June 07, 2018
Ross

Sorry to be the spelling police but it's "a lot". Alot does not exist.

by Penny Bright on June 07, 2018
Penny Bright

‪THE P SCAM!

SEEK TRUTH FROM FACTS - by going to source documents: ‬
(The short version

by Megan Pledger on June 08, 2018
Megan Pledger

tussock over on StatsChat said in part:

Housing NZ was required to return a certain amount to the government. The requirements they worked under meant the only way to raise the money the were required to sent to government was selling their assets.

But they were only allowed to sell assets that were unused for a six month period, and funnily enough cleaning up a meth lab was found to take about six months.

https://www.statschat.org.nz/2018/06/06/methamphetamine-testing/#comment...

 

 

by Graeme Edgeler on June 13, 2018
Graeme Edgeler

Graeme, lots of strategic decisions are about lesser evils. Unless you're saying that the HNZ board were willfully pushing these people out with the intent of causing them harm, isn't reasonable to think they probably thought they were better off somewhere else? Follow your logic through...

My logic is essentially:

1. HNZ is aware the homelessness and other forms of serious housing deprivation are harmful, perhaps especially so for children.

2. HNZ is aware that in at least some instances (perhaps with specificity) if they evict a person or family from a HNZ property that that household will be in severe housing deprivation for many months, perhaps until they gain a new HNZ property a year or more later.

3. That HNZ was prepared to risk/cause the certain harms in 1 based on possible harm from contamination. By evicting people HNZ did something it knew would would cause harm.

4. I am fine with calling this intending harm

This would be especially so, if for example, HNZ read or was otherwise aware of specific criticisms, for example, the amount of carpet a child would have to eat to even get to the daily therapeutic dose of methamphetamine when prescribed for children with ADHD(?).

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.