Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A hole in our defences

Last month we learned that the Minister of Building and housing, Maurice Williamson, is also involved in the construction industry. The Cabinet Manual contains rules on how to deal with such situations, and Williamson claims to have complied with them. We have no reason to doubt his word on that, but an OIA by Labour's Grant Robertson has turned up a problem: while he has instructed the Cabinet Office not to give him papers in the area of his conflict, there appears to be no corresponding instruction to his department:

The government department that regulates the building industry has no record of instructions that the minister responsible for the sector says he made to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

Maurice Williamson said in February that he had "instructed officials" he would withdraw from discussions that could create a conflict between his roles as building and construction minister and director of Holyoake Industries, a large air- conditioning and ventilation company.


However, in response to an Official Information Act request for a copy of the minister's instruction, the Ministry of Building, Innovation and Employment, which includes the former department of building and housing, said it "does not hold any information covered by this request" and that it was transferring the request to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Think about that for a minute: DBH has primary responsibility for the building industry and is the most likely source of such papers. But if there is no instruction to them, then Williamson's "management" of his conflict is meaningless. It leaves him free to interfere in matters at the level of the department, including deciding what does and does not go to Cabinet (where he would then not be able to view or discuss the papers that he had already had input into as a Minister).

There's no suggestion Williamson has done this, or indeed that he has received any papers on heating and ventilation issues at all during his tenure as Minister (but I expect people are franticly OIAing that as I post). But it does expose a hole in or defences against conflicted Ministers - and its a hole that needs to be plugged.