The funding and structure of the Human Rights Commission have been called into question, after what’s been a nightmare year for the organisation.

Acting chief human rights commissioner Paula Tesoriero said it had been “a very challenging year, and a year of considerable change”.

The commission’s internal sexual harassment and cultural issues have been well-documented, with a damning report from Judge Coral Shaw delivered earlier this year.

But during a hearing at the Justice select committee on Thursday, the commissioner and outgoing chief executive Cynthia Brophy raised issues relating to the way the organisation is structured and significant funding constraints.

‘Chronic lack of funding’

Tesoriero said the “chronic lack of funding” could not be blamed for all of the organisation’s internal woes, but under-resourcing meant the commission struggled to carry out its statutory obligations.

The lack of money had led to tensions between commissioners vying for their work to take priority. It was then up to the commissioner and chief executive to decide how resources were allocated, when there weren’t enough to go around.

Tesoriero said there had not been an adjustment to baseline funding since 2011.

“That chronic lack of funding did lead to real tensions in the ability of commissioners to executive their statutory functions.”

Most of the funding went to staff salaries, meaning there was very little discretionary budget to undertake inquiries, which the commission was legislatively mandated to do.

The Human Rights Commission received $9.4 million in the 2018 Budget. Each year, about $7m was spent on personnel costs.

“When there’s very, very limited discretionary funding it creates tensions… those tensions become quite live,” Tesoriero said.

Brophy said it was hard for commissioners who expected to be able to carry out work to improve the rights of New Zealanders, but there weren’t enough resources to go around.

“The funding constraints were a very real reason for the challenges, I will have to be forthright about that.”

The commission was “ambitious” with the amount of work, and types of cases, it took on, she said, adding that expectations had not been lowered in line with the static budget.

A lack of funding meant staff were unable to carry out data-focused projects in order to give a more considered response to issues, which were based on in-depth research.

Instead, the commission used the more affordable approach of advocacy-driven responses.

Funding issues had been further exacerbated by payouts and costs relating to sexual harassment cases within the organisation.

To date, the commission had paid $127,000 and had budgeted a further $200,000 for the coming financial year for payouts and implementing Shaw’s recommendations.

The chief financial officer at the centre of the upheld sexual harassment complaint (one of three formal complaints in five years), remains at the commission.

Kyle Stutter’s position was dis-established earlier this year, but he remains at the commission until the end of the year in order to transition the commission over to the new finances system.

Tesoriero would not comment further on this case, citing employment law.

Meanwhile, the number of complaints relating to human rights issues from Kiwis had increased by 20 percent over the past year, meaning resources were further stretched.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said it was “pretty evident” the commission had a lot of issues, some of which would relate to resourcing.

When the new chief commissioner Paul Hunt started next year it would be a chance for the commission to rebuild itself and its culture, he said.

“I will be working very hard with my cabinet colleagues to make sure they are resourced to do the job expected of them.”

Structural issues

The Justice Select Committee also raised the issue of the commission’s structure, where the commissioners also have a governance role and sit on the board.

Shaw’s report identified a lack of understanding by the commissioners when it came to their governance roles.

Tesoriero said she was working with incoming commissioners to provide support and information regarding their roles.

But when asked whether the structure itself was fit for purpose both Tesoriero and Brophy pointed to potential issues.

The commissioner said she would suggest looking at whether the board included external members in order to create some balance.

That was an issue to be considered by the minister next year. There was also the potential for Parliament to alter the structure of the commission if it believed there were weaknesses or flaws.

Brophy said the commission had made the structure work, but the Government would have the opportunity to look at adjusting it.

“We can make the structure work, but it would be enormously more productive as an organisation if we can effectively address other resource constraints.”

Restoring public faith

Following the commission’s sexual harassment and internal cultural issues, the Shaw report, and high staff turnover, the organisation is working hard to regain any lost public trust.

As well as implementing the recommendations in the report, Tesoriero said the commission continued to advocate for New Zealanders on human rights issues, and represent New Zealand on the world stage.

“We are committed to learning from our past, from what could have been done better, and ensuring we continue to deliver excellent external work,” she said.

As well as an increase in complaints and inquiries from Kiwis to the commission, the organisation had also made recommendations to the UN, had been a part of the group pushing for the Royal Commission of inquiry into Abuse in State Care, and was an intervener in a landmark legal case, which saw the Supreme Court rule a court could make a declaration that a law was in breach of New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act – as was the case with not allowing prisoners to vote.

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