(This story has been updated after confirmation from the MSD of who is sent annual letters)

Every year, certain groups of superannuitants are sent a form or a letter from the Government asking for confirmation of their relationship status and living situation.

One year it is a ‘Change of Circumstances’ form, to be filled out. The next it is a letter saying what the pensioner’s marital status and living arrangements are listed as and asking for immediate notification if they have changed. 

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has been (mis)receiving superannuation since 2010 – having acknowledged this week he was overpaid as being single, rather than single and sharing his St Mary’s Bay home with de facto Jan Trotman.

Peters says he does not know how a mistake, impliedly on his original application form, came to be and that he and the Ministry of Social Development have agreed it is a mystery. He was billed about $18,000 and repaid the money, which might or might not be a mix of over-payment, interest and penalties. Interest and penalties are normally only applied if the receiver is at fault. Peters says his total included those elements but there is some official doubt about that interpretation.

He says he received a notice with his first payment and from then on never knew or checked how much money he was being paid. He told interviewers he never needed to re-affirm his status or arrangements as you were only required to do so if those circumstances changed. 

Now 72, Peters was being paid on the single rate – one of a number of sub-categories scheduled to receive letters from Work and Income, depending on whether the recipient has an income.

It is, of course, possible that he did not receive one or all of them due to his circumstances, or clerical or postal error. 

If he did not receive them, there could be questions asked within MSD on their mail fail. 

The Change of Circumstances forms are to be completed if a change of relationship status or residential arrangements has occurred.

But the other documents – letters sent in alternate years – are unambiguous, almost unmissably specific, in their questioning.

A copy of the standard letter, published today by the Kiwiblog site run by National Party pollster David Farrar, says it offers “an opportunity to make sure your details are correct”.

“It’s important that we have the right details so that you are not underpaid or overpaid … If the information we have about you is correct, you don’t have to do anything. But if any of the information below has changed or is not correct, please let us know as soon as possible.”

Then in bold, presumably for the elderly with challenged eyesight:

Please check the following details to make sure they are correct.

And the critical two lines on the example of the standard form produced on Kiwiblog are:

Relationship Status:   You are single

Your living situation:  You are living alone.

Peters was receiving the single payment. For much of the time he was single and sharing (which would have been a lower weekly sum) until Trotman applied for her own superannuation at 65 this year and another category again would have applied for the MP.

If the information each year was not correct, a superannuitant is provided with the “NZ Super line 0800 552 002” or they are directed to their local Work and Income office. For Peters that would have been in Queen St, in the central city, about 3km from his home.

The politician has been quick to turn the revelation of his overpayment into a witch-hunt to find the whistleblower. Two government ministers were briefed on his case under a ‘no surprises policy’ with government agencies, after Peters’ case and repayment had been concluded. The Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, was also told, by one minister. Prime Minister Bill English, Eagleson, the ministers and the National Party campaign chief Steven Joyce all deny leaking the material. English and Joyce deny being aware of the matter at all.

Ministerial Services, which oversees the offices of the Beehive, is reviewing the ministers’ handling of the confidential material. The State Services Commission and Solicitor-General were consulted before MSD decided to brief its minister, Anne Tolley.

MSD and the Inland Revenue Department are investigating if anyone in their operations was responsible for the leak.

Peters is now blaming the National Party, saying he had been warned that National would try to use the information against him. He did not, however, make his repayment public at the time and front-foot the affair.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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