Summary of Findings and Conclusions

Members of Parliament: Accommodation Allowances for Living in Wellington.

This is the Audit Office’s first report (of two) on the system of accommodation entitlements for Members of Parliament (MPs). This report:

  • examines the respective roles and responsibilities of the Higher Salaries Commission (HSC), the Parliamentary Service, and the Department of Internal Affairs (Ministerial Services Unit) in relation to accommodation entitlements;
  • examines the systems, policies and procedures of the three agencies relating to the Wellington accommodation allowance, the night allowance and Ministers’ travelling allowances;
  • considers the specific cases of Marian Hobbs MP and Phillida Bunkle MP in relation to the Wellington accommodation allowance; and
  • examines the circumstances in which a Ministerial residence was allocated to Ms Bunkle after her appointment as a Minister in 1999.

The Entitlements Regime

Our key findings in respect of the entitlements regime are:

  • No single agency is responsible for the entitlements system as a whole. Responsibility is disjointed, with each agency being concerned with their own role within the system.
  • The entitlements system is complex and potentially confusing. This is further complicated by eligibility for allowances being unclear and difficult to apply based on MP’s residential status.
  • The systems for providing advice to MPs and Ministers are not strong, and there is a lack of documentation of actual advice given.
  • The nature of the internal control systems over MPs’ and Ministers’ discretionary expenditure and allowances is inherently weak, with significant reliance placed on individual trust.
  • The extent of communication between the agencies involved in the entitlements system is variable.
  • The process for allocating Ministerial residences appears to be based on political convention rather than a standard, transparent allocation system.

The Specific Cases of Ms Bunkle and Ms Hobbs

At the heart of the issue concerning Ms Bunkle and Ms Hobbs is whether an MP’s place of residence, for the purpose of registering as an elector under the Electoral Act 1993, determines the MP’s "primary place of residence" for the purpose of claiming a Parliamentary accommodation allowance. Both MPs claimed the allowance while being registered as electors in the Wellington Central electorate.

We sought independent advice from the Crown Law Office on the meaning of the residence test in the HSC Determinations, and its relationship to the Electoral Act test.

In summary, the Crown Law Office told us that:

  • the test under section 72 of the Electoral Act is not entirely objective, as one’s registered place of residence may be other than the place where a person regularly lives, at least for the time being;
  • the test under the HSC’s Determinations is, however, objective – in that it requires consideration of where an MP would be living when not on Parliamentary business; and
  • an MP could therefore be properly registered in a Wellington electorate but still claim a Wellington accommodation allowance.

Our key conclusions in respect of each MP are –

Ms Bunkle

We are satisfied that Ms Bunkle:

  • frequently sought advice from Parliamentary Service staff about a range of matters – including her eligibility for the Wellington accommodation allowance;
  • made sufficient disclosure of her personal circumstances to enable Parliamentary Service staff to advise her properly;
  • received advice that she could regard her normal or primary place of residence as Reikorangi, and accordingly that she was eligible to claim the Wellington accommodation allowance from June 1997; and
  • acted reasonably on that advice when claiming the allowance.

We are satisfied that the advice which Ms Bunkle received from the Parliamentary Service was reasonably consistent with the HSC’s Determinations.

Ms Hobbs

We are satisfied that Ms Hobbs:

  • sought advice from Parliamentary Service staff about her eligibility for the Wellington accommodation allowance on the two occasions when her circumstances changed significantly – namely, when she separated from her husband, and when she was selected as a candidate in Wellington Central; and
  • received advice that, for as long as she was financially supporting her Christchurch property and staying there whenever she returned to Christchurch, she was eligible to claim the Wellington accommodation allowance.

The Crown Law Office advised us that, in its opinion, the advice given to Ms Hobbs was probably wrong, and that an objective examination of Ms Hobbs’ circumstances would have revealed that her home had shifted to Wellington.

Despite this, we are satisfied that Ms Hobbs:

  • made sufficient disclosure of her personal circumstances to enable staff to advise her properly; and
  • acted reasonably on that advice when claiming the allowance.

The Non-disclosure of the Electoral Enrolments

Neither Ms Bunkle nor Ms Hobbs informed the Parliamentary Service of their decisions to enrol in Wellington Central.

We considered whether it would have been prudent for each MP to have considered the significance of her enrolment decision, and the possibility of it affecting her eligibility for the allowance.

Had either MP made the connection between the two sets of rules, it would have been a matter of personal judgement on her part whether to disclose the fact of her enrolment to the Parliamentary Service. However, there is no evidence that Ms Bunkle made the connection. Ms Hobbs did not.

The matter of the need for an MP to disclose his or her electoral enrolment had never arisen before, the allowance system made no reference to it, and there was no evidence of any deliberate intention to withhold the fact. In these circumstances we cannot say that either Ms Bunkle’s or Ms Hobbs’ non-disclosure, or her claiming of the allowance, was unreasonable.

page top